A HISTORY OF WARRINGTON IN 10 1/2 OBJECTS: JET GAMING PIECES
Hello and welcome to Episode 5 of a History of Warrington in 10.5 Objects. My name is Craig Sherwood and I’m the Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
I’m going to begin today by asking you a riddle: “Who are the women who battle in front of a defenceless king; day after day the dark-haired ones guard him, but the fair-haired ones go forth to attack?”
More on that later …
Just to the Northeast of Warrington Town Centre is a small park to the rear of the parish church known as St Elphins Park. It has all the things parks usually possess: a couple of bowling greens, a sensory garden, children’s play area and an outdoor gym. This piece of land wasn’t always a park though, 120 years ago it was the grounds of a school for orphaned daughters of clergymen and 60 years before that it was a large mound on the edge of Warrington known as Mote Hill.
By the 19th century the original purpose of this mound had largely been forgotten and, perhaps hoping to find a Bronze Age or Anglo Saxon burial, it was excavated by local antiquarians Reverend Edmund Sibson and Dr James Kendrick. Those of you who listened to our last episode will already be familiar with the enthusiastic Dr Kendrick and the Reverend Sibson was very much cut from the same cloth. The accounts of the two excavations are therefore, somewhat confused, but where they do agree is that there had previously been some form of structure on top. The dig turned up massive timber beams, some stone blocks and a historic well within which they found a grab-bag assortment of archaeological finds – some fragments of Roman amphora, a Saxon knife and two gaming pieces made of jet.
Object Number 5, a pair of carved gaming pieces made of jet, between 1100 and 800 years old, found on Mote Hill in Warrington.
I’ve got these two pieces of jet in front of me on the desk right now and they are amongst my favourite objects in the museum The larger piece is rectangular, a little over 4 cm tall and carved with crude geometric patterns consisting of a pattern of circles connected by lines which look like they could very well be instructions for opening a stargate. The smaller piece is a cylinder with a bevelled top, a little over 3 cm tall and looks like a squashed traffic bollard.
For over a century these were believed to be chess pieces but around 50 years ago they were identified as 10th century gaming pieces from a Viking board game called hnefatafl which is, somewhat unbelievably, easier to say than it is to spell. Hnefatafl was one of a group of ‘tafl’ or ‘table’ games that were played on a chequered board using two sets of pieces of unequal numbers and a kingpiece which either had to be defended or captured.
Which brings me back to the riddle. It actually comes from a 13th century Icelandic saga in which the Norse god Odin visits the king of the Goths to ask him a series of riddles and this is one of my favourites:
“Who are the women who battle in front of a defenceless king; day after day, the dark-haired ones guard him, but the fair-haired ones go forth to attack?”
The answer to Odin’s riddle is, of course, the game hnefetafl in which the dark playing pieces guarded the king piece and the lighter pieces were used to attack. The pieces at Warrington are thought to be a king piece and one of the pieces that were used to defend it.
The truth is that this is only how we think the game used to be played. Unfortunately even though the playing pieces and some more or less complete hnefatafl boards have survived no one seems to have recorded how the game was actually played. Modern versions of hnefatafl, sometimes called the Viking Game or even Viking Chess are based on a flawed translation of an 18th century account of a similar game in Lapland and may bear little or no relation to the game the Vikings actually played.
What is clear from the fact that hnefatafl merited a mention in Norse sagas is that amongst the Vikings board games held immense significance. Most hnefatafl boards and pieces that survive today were found placed in a position of importance in Viking burials – in ship burials they are found amidships with the leaders and in important graves they are often found at the deceased’s lap. This suggests that in life the person who bore the hnefatafl board was often the person in command and able to make strategic decisions. Placing a hnefatafl set in – or in some cases on top of – a burial might allow the deceased to pass their time in the afterlife, but it was also a commemoration of the deceased’s skill and status amongst the community. Today we might think of board games as a leisure activity but to the Vikings and indeed many Saxons and Normans the skills they taught in terms of tactics, strategic thinking and the ability to fight yourself out of a corner were fundamental to the success of a warrior. The ability to demonstrate skill at board games literally added to your status in society. Imagine if our own leaders were selected on their ability to play chess rather than, as one suspects, a talent at Monopoly.
There’s a problem though. Despite the fact that these gaming pieces having been described as hnefatafl pieces for over 40 years it may be that they are nothing of the sort. Recently gaming historians – yes, that’s a thing – have disagreed with the identification and have suggested that the pieces are, as the Victorian antiquarians who found them first thought, pieces from a chess set.
All of which raises the question if these are chess pieces why don’t they look anything like the chess pieces that we know today? The answer is that the game of chess was introduced to Britain from the Middle East and Islamic belief prohibits the representation of living beings. The first chess sets in Europe were, therefore, non-representational shapes decorated with geometrical designs just as we find here. It was the later Christian cultures who adopted the game that eventually changed the shape of the pieces into horses, knights and bishops.
If these pieces are indeed chess pieces then they most likely date from around the 12th century in which case they date from after the Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD. Which brings us back to the mysterious mound where these pieces were found.
You may have noted the name of the mound – Mote Hill. This mound got its name because it was the former site of a motte and bailey castle – a kind of fortification that the Norman Invaders built across Britain in the 11th and 12th century. These were castles consisting of a wooden or stone structure built on a hill, often artificial, that would be surrounded by a protective ditch and fence. The advantage of motte and bailey castles were that they easy to build and the materials needed to build them were readily available and cheap – the Normans were nothing if not thrifty.
But why build a castle here? As we’ve demonstrated in previous episodes the local ford across the River Mersey was essential to the development of the town of Warrington and any castle on Mote Hill would have sat 10 metres above sea level and approximately 230 metres from the river. It would have commanded the ford and all routes to it including the Roman road leading South. Based on the limited accounts we have of the size of Mote Hill the castle on top may even have been the largest of its kind in the region.
We even know who lived in this castle because after the Norman Conquest the newly created Barony of Warrington was sub-let to the magnificently named Pagnus de Vilars – known as Pagan to his friends. Pagnus’ grandaughter Beatrix married a man called Richard Pincerna. Interestingly Pincerna is an old name for a butler and Richard was in fact the butler to the Earl of Chester. In Norman Times a butler didn’t polish the silverware, open the door and serve drinks. He was the person with the very important job of looking after the lord’s booze. Over time the family name shifted from Pincerna to le Butiller and then to Botelor and the Botelor family ruled over the manor of Warrington from their castle on Mote Hill for around a century until the castle burnt down and the family moved to nearby Bewsey. It’s likely that it’s to a member of Botelor family, or one of their retainers, to whom these gaming pieces belonged.
So while it’s not impossible that these two jet gaming pieces are evidence of a Viking incursion into Warrington in the 10th or 11th century it’s also not impossible that they are evidence of a sophisticated Norman lord or one of his vassals playing the newly introduced game of chess as they kept an eye on who was crossing the River at the nearby ford. It’s also not impossible that elements of both theories are true – the word Norman comes from Norseman after all and the Normans shared a certain amount of history and culture with their northern cousins. They were certainly familiar with both hnefatafl and chess and maybe used the same pieces to play both games