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Ballinderry game board in the National Museum of Ireland'As always in our Another thing posts, we start with what you see. Our object is on display in the National Museum of Ireland's Archaeology exhibit in Dublin and it is about a thousand years old.

It is made of wood (yew, to be precise), and it is essentially a carved square board, measuring about 17 by 17 cm (7 by 7"). It has a border or frame with quite intricate patterns carved into it, and a large flat square interior with seven fairly regular rows of seven holes each, all of equal size (this will turn out to be important). The only further features on the inside are an incised double circle around the central hole and four single arcs around the corner ones. Finally, there are two protrusions, apparently made from the same wood as the board itself, inserted into the outer sides of the board, the one at the 'bottom' terminating in a simple sphere, the one at the 'top' in a larger one, carved to represent a very stylised human face.

Can you work out its function? Ignore the frame and protrusions and concentrate on the central flat board with the rows of seven by seven holes. Does it remind you of anything?

Those holes were meant to receive something, namely pegs - which don't survive, but we can surmise that they were either made of two different materials, or painted in two different colours, say black and white, or white and red or something of that sort.

It's a gaming board. A wooden gaming board from ten centuries ago!

How does such an item survive so long? The short answer is: normally not at all. Organic materials like wood tend to decay over time, but certain unusual conditions can delay or prevent that process, namely in extremely dry or extremely wet environments. In the case of our game board, the latter is the case: it was excavated (in 1932) in bogland (and thus in anaerobic conditions) in County Westmeath, close to the geographic centre of Ireland. The site was a crannog, a type of lake dwelling typical of Iron Age (Celtic) Ireland and Scotland, to be exact a defensible artificial island.

Most dwellings of the Iron Age in Ireland (let's say 500 BC to AD 500) appear to have been set in raths or ringforts. These are circular enclosures, surrounded either by an earthen bank or a stone wall and varying in size. Their purpose is to provide an extra level of safety to those dwelling within, protecting them and their property, livestock etc, from the covetous grasp of others, be they neighbours, enemy tribes, or raiders from further afield. Tens of thousands of such forts are still visible in the Irish countryside (we see some on our Exploring Ireland tour, including the one shown above, Cahermore (Cathair Mór) in County Clare, used well into the Middle Ages).

A reconstructed crannog in Loch Tay, Scotland. Image from Wikimedia Commons, by Dave Morris, License Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

A crannog (Irish crannóg, literally 'little tree'), although constructed in a very different way, is really a variation of that same theme, using water or wetland as an additional hindrance to any attacker. Hundreds of crannogs are known - and often still visible - in many parts of Ireland. Usually, they were constructed by placing stones and layers of wood or even wattle in shallow waters, covering them in soil and surrounding them with wooden defences (palisades). Probably, most of them were linked to the shore or dry land by a similarly constructed or wooden causeway. The habit of constructing both ringforts and crannogs died out slowly and overlapped for many centuries with the advent of Christianity, what we call the Early Medieval era and the eventual appearance of the first urban settlements in the country in the ninth or tenth century AD.

Ballinderry was such a place long ago, but even by the 1930s, the surrounding wetlands were in the process of being drained, leading to its discovery and excavation, triggered by the chance find of a 'Viking'-type sword. In fact, the place was long considered a key source of 'Viking' material in Ireland, and both the sword and the gaming board are key pieces in the National Museum's Viking exhibits. That is a little problematic because Ballinderry 1 (to give the archaeological site its proper scholarly appellation) really appears to have been an interface of local 'Celtic' elements (to start with, a crannog being a quintessentially Irish type of settlement) and of 'Viking' ones.

A model of (part of) Viking Dublin, on display in the National Museum.

I've used the word 'Viking' above, and maybe I shouldn't have - it's a bit dated. It is a well-known fact that by the late eighth century AD, people from the shores of Scandinavia had developed a habit of raiding coastal areas bordering the North Sea and beyond, initially seeking treasure and probably slaves. Ireland, and especially its monasteries, was ravaged by such raids beginning in AD 795. The word 'Viking' describes that activity and that's why it does not really represent the Ballinderry material well. By 841, the descendants of the same Scandinavian seafarers that had engaged in such raids for a few generations, began to engage in a less casual relationship with the areas they visited. They started moving to those regions, settling them and replacing the eventually unsustainable raiding scheme with a more stable system of maritime commerce. It is this change in behaviour that gave us the thriving merchant town of York (Yorvik) in northeastern England, that created Scandinavian Kingdoms in Orkney and the Hebrides, and that led to the foundation of the first urban settlements in Ireland (in other regions of northwest Europe, the first cities were Roman), such as Dublin itself. This development led to a deeper and (mostly) less antagonistic relationship between the Scandinavian settlers and the pre-existing populations of surrounding regions, with the 'Viking' cities serving as hubs of commerce, relying on produce from the adjacent areas and gradually growing into multi-cultural communities.

Ballinderry I belongs into this context. The site's nature and location suggest that whoever resided there was part of the native Irish 'Celtic' society, but the finds also indicate very strong contact with the Scandinavian centres of the East Coast, and the technology and cultural impact they brought. The game board may well have been made locally, but it is an excellent example of the cultural complexity prevailing in Ireland at the time. It's an almost certainly Irish-made object, serving an Irish-style 'big man' or his household in playing what is most probably a game originating in Scandinavia.

A possible starting position for the game.

How can we know this? Because the seven-by-seven fields game-board is known in Scandinavian contexts, where it was used for playing a game called hnefatafl, which appears to have been highly popular in the societies that produced the Viking raiders and later settlers. It was widely played in that context, but also became established in regions like Wales (as tawlbwrdd) and Ireland (as brandub). It is a medium simple game, less complex than chess, but more so than chequers, and it is an asymmetric one, a game where the two players start in different positions and have slightly different strategies to pursue. Although we are not entirely sure of its rules (which may have varied across time and space, for example the Scandinavian versions tend to have more 'squares'), you can find a convincing and workable version, based on the Ballinderry board, here. Certainly, you don't require a finely-made board to play this game. A few lines drawn in sand or soil (or of course on paper) and a number of pebbles in two colours, plus one larger one, would suffice. The Ballinderry board is a fancy object, enhancing the experience of playing and thus the status of its owner and those he played against.

Achilles and Ajax playing a game during a break from the Trojan War. Red-figure Attic vase by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490 BC. New York: Metropolitan Museum.

Playing games is, of course, a common activity in all human cultures. In warrior societies, as were both the Irish and the Scandinavian communities of that time, it was often a high-status pastime: heroes are depicted or described playing games in both Irish and Nordic mythology, as they are likewise in Homer's epics and in Athenian vase paintings. Board games were seen as a fitting pursuit for warriors when not fighting, exercising their minds at ease, and often couched in metaphors of battle (as chess is to this day).

So, the Ballinderry gameboard is many things at once. It is a beautiful expression of a complex material culture combining Irish and Scandinavian influences; it is a delightful example of our distant forebears at play, passing their time in a peaceful and joyful context of wits; and it is an expression of the surprisingly sophisticated culture of a warrior court in late Celtic Europe.

I am sure that the owner of the Ballinderry gameboard had great stories to tell of his exploits against worthy opponents on this miniature battlefield, and also of more serious ones on bigger fields, using his fine sword. We do not know the details of those tales, but we can imagine them and make them part of a wider story about a fascinatingly diverse and embattled period in a beautiful country where a long history is lurking at every corner. We look forward to telling you that story on Exploring Ireland!

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