Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research (NIKU), called in as an old sewerage pipe was being repaired in the ancient Norwegian capital of Trondheim, have discovered a rare gaming piece inscribed with runic writing.

Exploring medieval Trondheim

The excavations took place along Erling Skakkes gate, in the center of the city, past the Trøndelag Theater towards the Nidelva river. One section of the sewerage pipe, about four meters long and one meter wide, was flagged up by workmen when layers were found of medieval remains.

This area of medieval Trondheim has long been dug up and crisscrossed with pipes and cables – but nobody expected what they would find in this particular spot. Nearly four meters below the surface was a pit, alongside a line of coal, each dating back to around 1000-1180 CE. 

In between these two layers was a gaming piece, which archaeologists spotted immediately. Decorations carved upon it made the experts even more excited. High-resolution images were taken and sent to runologist Karen Langsholt Holmqvist, a runologist based at NLA University College in Bergen. 

Karen dropped everything straight away and headed the 600 kilometers north to Trondheim. She wanted to observe the item with her own eyes.

Enter the runologist

What she saw confirmed that these were not pretty patterns on the gaming piece but runic lettering. Karen duly gave NIKU a detailed description:

"When you first look at the playing piece, it may look as if it only has a slightly uneven geometric pattern, perhaps a snowflake. But when I examined the piece more closely, I saw that the lines were not random patterns, but a carefully planned runic inscription. As the inscription follows the curvature of the playing piece, the inscription is a bit odd and strange, but there is no doubt that these are runes."

The runes (siggsifr) are marked in red on the artifact. Photo: NIKU

"And under the microscope, I also discovered that there are guidelines drawn, so there is no doubt that the runic inscriber deliberately planned to make their inscription follow around the shape of the piece. There are fields on the playing piece that do not have runic inscriptions, and here the person has filled the void with a pattern." 

What do the runes mean?

"The runes are clear," continues Holmqvist. "It says siggsifr. On small objects like this, it is quite common to write names, and Sig- is a well-known prefix. We have it in both male and female names, such as Sigurd and Sigbjørn or Sigfrid and Sigrid. When the name ends in -r, we can assume that it is a male name, and the interesting thing here is that the word sifr is a heiti, which is a metaphorical and poetic word in Norse, meaning 'brother.' The prefix Sig- means 'struggle,' so perhaps we have a hitherto unknown name with the meaning' brother in battle.' Possibly it is the name of the person who made it or the person who owned the chip."

Archaeologist on the dig, Dag-Øyvind Engtrø Solem, who also studied runology, is quick to point it the rarity of the item in question: "Elsewhere in the country, I only know of one other playing piece with runes on it – it was found at Bryggen in Bergen. The interesting thing is that it is also uncertain whether the inscription ('Viking,' which was a common name in the Middle Ages) refers to the person who owned the object, the person who made the inscription, or whether it was the nickname given to the playing piece".

As Solem himself wonders, perhaps it acted as the king does in chess – if weapons often had names, why not gaming pieces as well: "Since I studied runology, I have always wanted to find a runic inscription, so this was a dream find!"

Research and investigation continue in what was the capital of Norway from the Viking Age until 1217 CE.

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