Auction Catalogue

15 September 2020

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Jewellery, Watches, Antiquities and Objects of Vertu

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№ 178


15 September 2020

Hammer Price:

Thirty seven Viking lead Hnefatfl gaming pieces, all from Torksey in Lincolnshire, the Viking Great Army winter camp of AD 872-3, the game of “Hnefatafl” which translates into English as “The Kings Chequered Table” and is pronounced as ‘nafle tafle’, is an old Norwegian word. The playing pieces comprise 24 attacking lead pieces of spherical form and 12 defending lead pieces of turreted form, together with a lead King which has inset copper decoration; these gaming pieces compare in style to those in the Oslo Museum which are of stone or clay - lead appears to be unique to the Vikings in Britain. This group comprises the only known complete set of the lead gaming pieces from the 9th century. £800-£1,200

All these gaming pieces have been found at Torksey in Lincolnshire by a metal detectorist between the years 1990-2000. The total assemblage of finds from Torksey is over 1,500 recorded items, which consists mainly of lead weights and gaming pieces together with gilt bronze fragments, hack copper and silver, and silver and gold ingots and coins.
The Viking Great army over wintered at Torksey in AD 872-3 and numbered several thousand individuals. The site was chosen for its strategic location and access to resources. The camp lies within a naturally oval shaped defended area of higher ground surrounded by marshes and bordered by the river Trent on its western side effectively creating an island .
The Great Army landed in East Anglia in AD 865 and moved each year to new locations. They were finally defeated by Alfred at Edington in Wiltshire in AD 878, with the remainder of the Army, under Guthram, settling in East Anglia in AD 880.

The game of Hnefatafl was played between two players and has some similarities to chess. The purpose of the game for the defence is to move the King from the centre square to one of the corner squares which are designated as castles. The attacker meanwhile has to try and surround the King on all four sides preventing him from moving. Each piece moves in a straight line, the same as a rook or castle in chess. The attacker starts first followed by the defence and then alternately. The pieces may be moved in any direction except diagonally, and for as many squares that are not occupied by another piece. A piece is captured and removed from the board when enemy pieces are placed on opposite sides of the opponent’s piece. The game appears to be biased in favour of the defence with the attacker hard pressed to think of a winning strategy to capture the King. It would make sense that only a win for the attacker is a true victory, with a defence victory merely a draw; the wager could then be for the King which has been inset and of value.

See: Mills, N.
, Saxon & Viking Artefacts, Greenlight 2001; and The Winter Camp of the Viking Great Army, AD 872-3, Torksey, Lincolnshire, Antiquaries Journal, 2016.