Recent reports of the finding of a gaming board during excavation as part of a project to investigate the location of the Monastery of Deer in north-east Scotland, home to the religious community who inscribed the Book of Deer in the tenth century, are exciting. The Book of Deer is a significant artefact, a relic from the days of the early Church in Scotland. The gaming board reminds us that life at the time was not just about the daily round of survival and worship. There was more to it than that. It is a brilliant evocation of the way in which archaeology can illuminate unexpected aspects of life.
In fact, the archaeological evidence indicates that the object, a small stone disc on which part of an incised gaming board survives, dates to the seventh and eighth centuries AD, the period before the creation of the Medieval gospel in the tenth century. While the overall aim of the project is to locate the actual site of the monastery where the gospel was produced, the archaeological specialists rightly advise a note of caution in using the find to verify the spot.
Nevertheless, the board, is, in itself, highly meaningful in many different ways. We make use of the artefacts unearthed by archaeological excavation in order to create our interpretations of life in the past. You can read all about it in any excavation report. All too often, the focus is, necessarily, on the basic foundations of life: shelter; sustenance; warmth, the people of the past had similar needs to our own. How did they go about fulfilling them? Then there is ritual, the beloved bugbear of archaeological comedy on television. How did our ancestors mediate their relationship with the world? Did they believe in a singly deity or a pantheon of gods? Did they worship elements of the natural world? Did they build lasting monuments in which to undertake vital ceremonies?
This is all well and good, but it lacks a vital element of life. Fun. How did people pass their leisure? Did they have leisure? Do gaming boards such as this suggest that leisure time existed? Of course, it might not have been defined as such, many games also serve important teaching roles. There are other sides to this; what jokes did they tell? Sadly, attempts to elucidate prehistoric humour are few and far between (though see Marc Kissel’s summary), hindered, no doubt by the lack of a written record. Personally, I’m certain that humour must have existed. Humour plays an important role in any society (there are plenty of considerations of this online, such as that of Sofo Archon. The board has a role here. You cannot take part in games without a sense of humour.
Excavations at the Neolithic site of Skara Brae in Orkney uncovered two bone cubes interpreted as a form of dice. Research has considered the role of children in the past, and there are plenty of sites where objects, interpreted as toys, have been found, from the Palaeolithic onwards. Similarly, objects, interpreted as gaming pieces and boards, have been found on many sites of various periods, around the world.
The gaming board from Aberdeenshire is part of a respectable tradition. It helps to round out our view of life in the past. It reminds us that our ancestors were emotional creatures just as we are. Yes, gaming in the past is likely to have been slightly different to that of today, but they, too, felt boredom, disappointment and success. They had their ups and downs just like we do. The board evokes an intimate picture of the relationship between two people, perhaps enjoying a moment of calm, perhaps egged on by onlookers, perhaps hurried forward by others keen to take their turn. It brings colour to the everyday simplicity presented by the standard archaeological report. I know I am pushing my luck when I start to conjure up the roaring fire, generous supplies of a local brew, the noise of the surroundings (or the silence of concentration). But that is what it should all be about.
The finds that we make serve to bring the past alive. We grow accustomed to fragments of pottery, bone waste, and stone tools and sometimes it is hard to enthuse enough to draw out the colour of everyday life. Finds such as this gaming board remind us of all that we have lost.