It is not large – the shape and size of a chocolate sweet – and might easily have been discarded as a pebble by a less careful hand.
But a tiny piece of worked glass unearthed during an excavation on Lindisfarne has been revealed to be a rare archaeological treasure linking the Northumbrian island with the Vikings, from the very beginning of one of the most turbulent periods in English history.
Archaeologists believe the object, made from swirling blue and white glass with a small “crown” of white glass droplets, is a gaming piece from the Viking board game Hnefatafl, or a local version of the game.
Whether dropped on the island by a Norse raider or owned by a high-status local imitating their customs, the gaming piece offers a rare tangible link between Lindisfarne’s Anglo-Saxon monastery and the culture that eventually overwhelmed it.
Lindisfarne is arguably best known for its spectacular illuminated gospels, which were created in the early eighth century in the island’s first monastery. But to historians, “Holy Island” also has immense significance as the site, in AD793, of the first major Viking raid in Britain or Ireland, launching almost three centuries of destruction and occupation that dramatically reshaped English history.
The exact location of the early wooden monastery is not known – ruins visible on the island today are from a later priory – but recent excavations on the island by archaeologists and volunteers from DigVentures have located a cemetery and at least one building.
The gaming piece, discovered last summer, came from a trench that has been dated to the eighth to ninth centuries, according to the project’s lead archaeologist, David Petts, putting it squarely in the most notorious period of the island’s history, around the time of the raid. Even if the game was being played by wealthy monks or pilgrims before the Vikings attacked, he says, it shows the influence that Norse culture already had across the north Atlantic.
“We often tend to think of early medieval Christianity, especially on islands, as terribly austere: that they were all living a brutal, hard life,” says Petts, a senior lecturer in the archaeology of northern England at Durham University.
In fact, he says, Lindisfarne at the time would have been a bustling place peopled with monks, pilgrims, tradespeople, and even visiting kings. “The sheer quality of this piece suggests this isn’t any old gaming set. Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle.”
It is particularly valuable as an artefact, he says, because “we are starting to get an insight into the actual lives of the people who were in the monastery, rather than just their cemeteries and their afterlives”.
The gaming piece is unusual not only as an artefact but because of the manner of its discovery. DigVentures excavations are crowdfunded and staffed substantially by volunteers, and the find was made by the mother of one of the team members, who was visiting the site for a day to celebrate her birthday.
“Several of the most significant finds from Lindisfarne have been made by members of the public,” says DigVentures’ managing director, Lisa Westcott Wilkins. “The big argument is that you can’t do real archaeology with members of the public: you can, as long as it is properly supervised.”
When the piece was discovered, she says, “my heart was pounding, the little hairs on my arms were standing up. As a scientist, you have to train yourself out of having an emotional response to things like this. It’s a piece of evidence, bottom line.
“But honestly, it’s just so beautiful and so evocative of that time period, I couldn’t help myself.”