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Credit: Durham University

Medieval gamer's prized 'king' piece found in ancient English monastery

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Feb 16, 2020, 4:38 PM EST (Updated)

Who ever said cloistered monks in a medieval monastery didn't know how to throw down and party? Well, maybe not not some bacchanalian fiesta as judged by today's wild standards, but perhaps an enjoyable Wednesday board game night after a long day of chanting, pruning roses, and transcribing ancient manuscripts.

Proving the point, a group of bright-eyed researchers with DigVentures, an organization that hosts crowd-funded, community-based historical excavations around England officially led by scientists from Northern England's Durham University, has recently unearthed a 1,200-year-old glass bauble that appears to be a "king piece" belonging to a medieval leisure-time amusement.

This ultra-rare gaming token was stumbled upon this past fall during an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne, a small Northumbrian island where a wealthy medieval monastery was raided by Vikings in AD 793, heralding the beginning of the great Viking Age in Britain.

DigVentures' intriguing glass artifact is only the second object of this nature ever found in the British Isles. Its alluring pale blue glass is accented with decorative white swirls, then crowned with five white beads, indicating it was an important king piece.

“It is extraordinary to find a glass tafl gaming piece like this in such perfect condition. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” claims Mark Hall, a specialist in Roman and early medieval games.

Scholars and archaeologists believe this tiny treasure dates back to AD 700-900, where it probably was part of a special set used for playing the Northern British version of tafl, which was a category of early board games spawned from the Roman war game of Ludus Latrunculorum. This relaxing distraction was often played in Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden prior to the arrival and introduction of chess in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Credit: Getty Images

Excavation co-director Dr. David Petts, senior lecturer in the archaeology of Northern Britain at Durham University, is extremely proud of his group's fantastic find.

"From our point of view, although the object may be small, it's important because it's not just a run-of-the-mill gaming piece, but a really carefully made one," he tells SYFY WIRE. "It would have belonged to a gaming set used or owned by someone of some considerable importance. It's a welcome reminder that although there is a tendency to think of early medieval monasteries as austere and remote places, it is clear that at Lindisfarne some people at least were living lifestyles more akin to those of the aristocracy of the North Sea world."

What do you think of this captivating new discovery, and might you toss out the old Monopoly game and instead try your hand at a nice game of tafl for the next family get-together?

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