Bone game pieces from Saaremaa. Salme village neighbourhood

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  • Authors: Jüri Peets, Liina Maldre, Tiit Liiv, Mats Õun

    Ancient pictograph stones from Salme fit on a table

    In 2008 workers were installing cable pipes in the Salme village, Saaremaa when they came across remains of human bones and ancient objects: boat rivets, fragments of weapons and game pieces made of bone. Archaeological excavations specified that the finds were boat remains from the 7 th – 8 th centuries, with human bones from seven skeletons, several objects and numerous animal bones. From the ancient boat only rows of iron rivets had preserved and narrow humus strips (Fig. 1) were formed from the decayed timber parts. Digging had destroyed ca 1/3 of the assumed stern of the boat. Fortunately the crest on the opposite side of the ditch had preserved, and this allowed us to estimate the length of the boat to be ca 11, 5 m. The largest distance between the rivets’ lines measured at the third row was ca 1, 3 m. The second biggest find group in the Salme complex after the iron brink rivets were plano-convex bone game pieces, 73 in total, which differed from one another in material and crafting, thus leading us to believe that the find consisted of at least two sets of game pieces. The majority were lathed from whale bones; the conwex side was carefully furbished and polished. A smaller part of the game pieces were made from bovine femur head with naturally convex surface and an even surface that was created by cutting the piece off the main part of the femur- this side lacked almost any finishing. The diameter of the game pieces ranged from 3, 6 to 4, 6 cm and the heights varied from 1, 7 to 3, 6 cm. Together with the game pieces several dices were found. At the time when the Viking world was developing and the Salme boat sailed, a board game called hnefatafl and its variations became very popular. The game was to be played by two people, it was supposedly simple, but required a lot of skills and time, it offered gambling thrill and entertainment and was widespread among the nobles and their companions. The Viking paradise Valhalla also offered fallen soldiers board games as one of their favourite activities along with brawling, weapons and feasting. In the middle of the 18 th century the Swedish natural scientist Carl Linnaeus or Karl von Linné (1707 –1778 ) aw local Lapp people playing a board game that to him as an analyst at once resembled hnefatafl. In the game tablut one king and eight Swedes were fighting on the “battle field” with 16 Muscovites. Also other variations of the hnefatal had a similar proportion of “defenders” and “attackers”. The number of quadrates on the board and game pieces could vary. The enemy started its attack to capture the king from the sides of the game board. The king was safe if he could manoeuvre himself with the help of his companions to a board corner. The number of moves was determined by the throw of the dice. The game pieces moved like the rook in the present chess game, i.e. only horizontally or vertically. They never went to the corners nor to the “king’s throne” in the centre. The whale bone “king” was considerably bigger than any other game piece, its surface was decorated with a complicated ornament of dragon heads and snake bodies interweaving and growing out from each other, apparently depicting Yggdrasil (Fig. 2). The interweaving terrene roots of broad-leaved trees, incl. common beech, could have given reason to the ancient Scandinavians conception of countless serpents wiggling under the holy ash tree Yggdrasil (Fig. 3). “Graffiti” scraped with flint stone were discovered also on four bovid pieces. Three of the pieces depict the contour of the upper part of an elk, decorated with boat – shaped antlers. One of the better preserved pieces depicts a snake near the elk’s snout (Fig. 6). Two other pieces depict only the elk, the snake is missing – it may have been worn like most of the contours of the elk’s body (Fig. 4, Fig. 5). The last piece has fewer figures – only the contour of a triskele and a line surrounding the lower part of the piece are visible. The graffiti on bone game pieces similarly to ornaments crackled on pictograph stones might have been multi-coloured (Figs. 7, 8). The game pieces might have also been used for telling the future. The question whether the similarity of ornaments, but different representation on different game pieces had any significance remains to be studied.

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