Ancient Roman Board Game Found in Norwegian Burial Mound

Researchers unearthed a four-sided dice and 18 circular tokens
JUNE 12, 2020

Archaeologists excavating a burial mound in western Norway have discovered a roughly 1,700-year-old Roman board game, reports state broadcast network NRK.

The find dates to around 300 A.D., placing it squarely in the Roman Iron Age, which spanned 1 to 400 A.D. According to a statement from the University Museum of Bergen, the trove includes an elongated dice and 18 game chips. Researchers say the discovery will help establish the extent of cultural exchange between Rome and Scandinavia during the period, as well as the societal significance of gaming at the time.

A four-sided playing piece with zero to five circles engraved on each of its faces, the dice is “very rare,” archaeologist Morten Ramstad tells NRK. Fewer than 15 such dice have been found in Norway to date.

Per the statement, the board game may have been inspired by a popular Roman pastime: Ludus latrunculorum, or the “Game of Mercenaries.” Similar to chess or backgammon, the two-player showdown preceded the popular Viking Age game Hnefatafl, or the “King's Table.”

To play Hnefatafl, a king and his defenders battled taflmen, or attackers, that outnumbered them by roughly two-to-one, wrote Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year. As the king’s men tried to guide him to safety in one of the board’s four corners, taflmen worked to thwart the escape. To end the game, the king either reached sanctuary or yielded to captivity.

The Norwegian burial mound that produced the newly revealed game pieces also contained bone fragments, pottery jars, a bronze needle and shards of glass, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science. All of the items were blackened with soot from what the archaeologists suggest was a funeral pyre befitting a high-ranking member of society. By Alex Fox