The recent discovery of a gaming piece with runic writing in the center of Trondheim, the medieval capital of Norway, has caused no little excitement in Norse history circles.

As reported at the time by The Viking Herald, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Research (NIKU), summoned after workmen had hit upon ancient remains while repairing a sewerage pipe, found a counter carved with runic symbols. 

This rare discovery is not only one that makes an archaeologist's work worthwhile, but it also might be a game-changer for our knowledge of Norse pastimes.

A once-in-a-lifetime find

The archaeologist in question, Dag-Øyvind Engtrø Solem, now talks to The Viking Herald about the day of the find, while his fellow NIKU researcher in Trondheim, Chris McLees, who specializes in gaming pieces of the Viking era, provides the wider context. 

"We were only given a certain amount of time, so we had to work really quickly," begins Dag-Øyvind, setting the scene before describing the fateful day. 

The repair work had been taking place along Erling Skakkes gate, right in the center of town, so the road could only be blocked off for so long. The section in question, past the Trøndelag Theater towards the Nidelva river, was about four meters long and one meter wide.

"I was sitting right next to my colleague. The ditch was quite small, so it was quite a competitive find, if you like. She dug it up, but I grabbed it straight away! It was so exciting. I could immediately sense the importance of it."

Dag-Øyvind could tell that the inscriptions on the counter weren't mere decoration. He has already outlined his thought processes in the immediate aftermath of the discovery: "Since I studied runology, I have always wanted to find a runic inscription, so this was a dream find! Elsewhere in the country, I only know of one other playing piece with runes on it – it was found at Bryggen in Bergen". 

The lines on the artifact are not random patterns but carefully planned runic inscriptions. Photo: Dag-Øyvind Solem / NIKU

Contemporary technology and expert runologists

Given his informed suspicion, Dag-Øyvind turned to Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a computer technique that captures the surface shape and color of a certain artifact and enables the interactive re-lighting of it from any light direction. 

RTI, therefore, encodes the data in a compact way – it's inexpensive, easy to use, and a common tool among those working in cultural heritage.

High-resolution images were taken and sent to 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 piece with her own eyes.

Given that Trondheim was the capital of Norway from the Viking Age until 1217, according to Dag-Øyvind, it was not "completely out of the blue" that items such as gaming counters would be found. 

What is rare, however, are the runic inscriptions. Here Dag-Øyvind brings in his colleague, Chris McLees, who has been working on urban archaeological projects at NIKU since 1995. His specialist subject? Gaming pieces.

According to experts, there is no doubt that the runic inscriber deliberately planned to make their inscription follow around the shape of the piece. Photo: Dag-Øyvind Solem / NIKU

A game of chance

"This is the first time I've encountered such a piece; it's not a common phenomenon," says Chris. "It's certainly the first example I've seen that is made from stone – most were created from whalebone."

Chris is no stranger to the decorative aspect of Viking gaming counters, describing the beautifully carved figure of a bird he once analyzed – but runes carry messages.

As Bergen runologist Karen related at the time: "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."

"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." 

"The runes are clear," she continued. "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."

As Chris points out, however, "no piece has yet been found with the board as well." This means that working out how this particular gaming counter fit into the overall game is a question of learned conjecture. "Tafl games of strategy were widespread around Scandinavia in the Norse era until the arrival of chess. I would imagine this was some kind of backgammon-like game."

Once chess came into the equation, the types of figures used changed. In in the Arabic world, human likenesses could not be used in the non-figurative sense – Europeans were not bound by such restrictions, as we can see from the famous Lewis Chessmen, probably dating back to the early 1200s.

"We also know that there were games involving dice," says Chris. "These were discouraged, even prohibited, due to the drinking and gambling surrounding the activity."

Human beings haven't changed much in a thousand years, it seems…

So, what next for the gaming piece of Trondheim? According to Dag-Øyvind: "We're holding a series of meetings with museums to decide on where the item should end up."

"Maybe someone might react to this article and offer some alternative interpretations which can promote an interesting debate."

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