Ancient Chess Piece With Islamic Designs Discovered in Norway, Baffling Archaeologists

People have been playing chess for centuries—but a new chess piece found in Norway further reveals the spread of the ancient game to the Nordic region, and provides some intriguing insights about the game's history. An 800-year-old chess piece was excavated at a site in Norway, covered with a unique pattern of circles. The piece depicts a horse-like figure, but in today’s game it would be known as the knight.

Just before Christmas, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage (NIKU) excavated the one-inch tall piece in a 13th-century house in Tønsberg, which is Norway's oldest city. What makes this piece particularly interesting is its unique Arabian pattern and abstract shape, according to NIKU.

Sjakkbrikke_Toensberg1_1 The piece made of an antler is covered with circular designs. Lars Haugesten/Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research

“The design of the piece has an abstract shape, and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” Lars Haugesten, project manager for the excavation, said in a statement. Rather, it is decorated with tiny circles and a protruding 'snout' on the top with two dotted circles. The piece is made from an antler, and a chunk of lead was likely placed in the middle of the piece to help it stand up firmly on a chessboard, according to NIKU.

Sjakkbrikke_Toensberg1 The medieval knight piece has a protruding snout on the top with two dotted circles. Lars Haugesten/Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research

"No previous archaeological finds from Tønsberg have such details, which emphasizes that this chess piece is a unique object," Haugesten said.

Sjakkbrikke_Toensberg_ingress_Siste-1240x710 The medieval chess piece is one of a handful of 'knight' pieces discovered in Norway. Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research

The ancient form of chess, called shatranj, helped archaeologists determine that the piece appears to be a horse, which would be a knight in today's game. Chess likely spread to the Nordic region by the last half of the 12th century, according to Haugesten. The game was played in the Arab world after the conquest of Persia in the 7th century and spread to Spain in the 10th century by the Moors. From Spain, it spread northwards to Scandinavia. The oldest find from the Nordic region was Lund, Sweden—a chess piece similar to the latest artifact from Tønsberg. The chess piece wasn't the only discovery during the excavation.

Beginning in the fall of 2017, NIKU archaeologists excavated an area that's known as Anders Madsens gate three in the center of modern Tønsberg. From the 12th to 15th centuries, the area was considered the outskirts of medieval Tønsberg. They discovered evidence several streets and houses in the swath that was excavated beneath the ground, in addition to ceramics, metal, combs, antlers and other artifacts linked to the Middle Ages. 

Feltet-i-Tønsberg The medieval chess piece was found at the excavation area in Anders Madsen gate in Tønsberg, Norway around Christmastime, 2017. Thomas Wrigglesworth/Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research

Knight pieces are few and far between when it comes to medieval finds. Over 1,000 game pieces in general have been found in Bergen, another city in Norway, alone, but only six abstract knights such as this one have been excavated, according to Haugesten. "In Norway, some chess pieces from the Middle Ages have been found, but few similar knights," Haugesten said.

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