Norwegian Archaeologists Find 800-Year-Old Arabic-Inspired Chess Piece

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Archaeologists have found a richly decorated ‘knight’ chess piece at a medieval site in Tønsberg, the oldest city in Norway.

The 800-year-old Arabic-inspired chess piece is richly decorated with circles. Image credit: Lars Haugesten, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

The 800-year-old Arabic-inspired chess piece is richly decorated with circles. Image credit: Lars Haugesten, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

The ancient chess piece was found in a 13th-century building at Anders Madsens gate in Tønsberg.

The artifact is cylindrical, about 3 cm tall, 2.6 cm in diameter, and has a protruding snout on top with two dotted circles.

It is made of antler; lead was probably inserted in the middle of the piece, making it stand firmly on the chessboard.

The piece is richly decorated with circles on the bottom, several dotted circles on the sides and at the top.

“The design of the piece has an abstract shape, and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” said Dr. Lars Haugesten, an archaeologist at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

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

“The game of chess was taken up in the Arab world after the conquest of Persia in the 7th century CE, and was introduced to Spain in the 10th century CE by the Moors.”

“From Spain, the game spread rapidly northwards, and may have been known in Scandinavia shortly afterwards.”

“The oldest find in the Nordic region is from Lund, Sweden, dating back to the last half of the 12th century. That piece is similar to the find from Tønsberg.”

The protruding snout of the 800-year-old chess piece has two dotted circles. Image credit: Lars Haugesten, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

The protruding snout of the 800-year-old chess piece has two dotted circles. Image credit: Lars Haugesten, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research.

According to the team, the chess piece from Tønsberg is a horse (today known as a knight).

“In Norway, some chess pieces from the Middle Ages have been found, but few similar knights,” Dr. Haugesten said.

“For example, in Bergen, more than 1,000 gaming pieces have been found.”

“Of these, there are some chess pieces but only 6 abstract knights.”

“Their shape is similar to the piece from Tønsberg, but the size of the pieces varies.”

“The decor on the pieces is not the same as that from Tønsberg, yet the pieces from Bergen both have dotted circles and ordinary circles.”