Hnefetafl Board & Pieces

TaflHiberno-Norse, circa late 9th century – early 10th century.

Lady Elinor Strangewayes, OM.

Entered at Northern Lights A&S Competition, 2010.
Categories: 17. Woodwork; 20. Glass; 30. Toys.
Won the glass and toys categories.

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Hnefatafl is a strategy board game similar to chess. Although hnefatafl is of Norse origin, many Northern European cultures played variant games of close resemblance. This particular hnefatafl board is a cultural composite that is plausible due to documented cultural cross-pollination.

Image scanned from The World of Games, by Jack Bottermans (New York: Facts on File, 1989). Found online at the Ballinderry Game Board webpage.

Image scanned from The World of Games, by Jack Bottermans (New York: Facts on File, 1989). Found online at the Ballinderry Game Board webpage.

The Game Board: I chose to base my board on the Ballinderry Game Board, discovered in 1932 during excavations at Ballinderry, West Meath, Ireland. The Ballinderry board has been dated to approximately the 10th century, based on its decorations’ similarity to documented boards of that period from the Isle of Man.1 The Ballinderry board is a 7×7 board, but I chose to expand it to the more traditional 9×9 board.

The board is a pine scrap left over from construction on our house. In period, this would have been a riven board, but this particular one was cut with power tools. Likewise, a hand-drill would have been used in period for the holes. I burned the decorative elements into the surface using irons heated in Ekkehardt’s forge. I had intended to incise Celtic knotwork patterns based on the Ballinderry board, but I ran out of time and had to settle for simple geometric designs.

The Game Pieces: Hnefatafl is played with 8 defenders, a king, and 16 attackers. There are numerous versions of the rules, so I will not go into them here. My game pieces are based on finds from Birka, Sweden. Glasswork in period tended to be done on a charcoal furnace using rods of glass or dipped gathers of glass from a molten crucible. My pieces were formed from commercially made rods of Effetre/Moretti soft glass onto stainless steel mandrels. The original game pieces appear to have been formed on a punty (so as to create marbles), but as I live in a house with cats, I chose to leave mine on their mandrels so as to more firmly keep the pieces on the board in case of accidental jostling. This also matched the apparent use of the Ballinderry board.

Ninth century tafl pieces from Grave 750, Birka.

Ninth century tafl pieces from Grave 750, Birka. (2)

To make the game pieces, a rod of glass is heated in a flame until molten and then wound around a metal core. I used a modern Hot Head torch, commercial propane gas, and stainless steel mandrels. I have occasionally used hand-forged wrought iron mandrels for glasswork, but they transfer heat very quickly and tend to be difficult to work with. Decoration is applied by using stringer – fine lines of glass pulled with tweezers from a molten blob and allowed to cool. Stringer is then applied to the surface of the hot bead or game piece. Glass will fracture if allowed to cool unevenly, so the pieces are placed into a ceramic fiber blanket for gradual cooling. In period, hot glass was placed into chambers on the side of the furnace for cooling. Experimental archaeology done by the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company has attempted this form of furnace, but their breakage rate was fairly high.3 I chose to use my modern ceramic fiber blanket to minimize glass waste for this project.

Tafl pieces from Birka in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. (4)

Tafl pieces from Birka in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. (4)

1 Rose & Pentagram Design, “Ballinderry Game Board.” [ http://historicgames.com/Fitchneal.html ] Accessed Nov. 28, 2010.

3 For the DARC’s experiments with period Norse furnaces, see their webpage: http://www.darkcompany.ca/

4 Image from Wikimedia Commons. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafl_games ] Accessed Nov 28, 2010.

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3 Responses to Hnefetafl Board & Pieces

  1. This is a lovely set. Do you have any close-up photographs of the pieces?

  2. The Middlegate Key says:

    Reblogged this on The Middlegate Key and commented:
    A Hnefetafl Board and Pieces entered in an A&S competition

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