It’s the middle of 2019, and a group of voluntary archaeologists are hard at work on a British isle. This is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a place known for its close associations with early Christianity. Here, the team is on the verge of a discovery. But it’s not what they might have expected.
You see, the thing that the archaeologists find is quite the marvel. Comparable in size to a piece of candy, the artifact is made from glass which swirls in a white and blue pattern. At its top, white glass juts out at several points, giving the effect of a crown.
Now, the artifact is extremely old, seemingly having derived from the eighth or ninth century. If such a dating is accurate, this would mean that the piece can trace its roots back to a time when the Vikings first landed on the English island of Lindisfarne. This would have been a significant historical event.
To start with, Lindisfarne was once home to a Christian monastery made of wood. And it was this site that was invaded by the Vikings back in the year 793 A.D. The assault on Britain that year represented the first in a number of Viking attacks which ultimately changed the region forever. As such, any discoveries from this period are cause for excitement.
Anyway, it’s been said that Lindisfarne is at the heart of British Christianity. You see, Britain was once split into a variety of different kingdoms – one of which was Northumbria. And between 634 A.D. and 642 A.D. this territory was ruled by a king called Oswald, who sought a bishop for his dominion.
So in 635 A.D. Oswald ordered a monk from Ireland called Aidan to become Northumbria’s bishop. And Aidan had come from an island called Iona, a place located to the southwest of modern Scotland. However, Oswald sent the monk to another island so that he could establish a monastery. This, of course, was Lindisfarne.
And Aidan and his fellow monks successfully set up a monastery on Lindisfarne, which ultimately proved to be significant. You see, the place served its purpose well, and it even generated prosperity with trade. This was possible, it’s been claimed, because of the island’s close location to the important Northumbrian area of Bernicia.
At some point during the latter half of the seventh century, a monk called Cuthbert entered into the Lindisfarne monastery. Over time, Cuthbert developed and came to be considered the most significant monk-bishop that the island ever saw. In fact, he even went on to become an esteemed saint.
During his initial time at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert sought to transform the other monks’ ways. In doing so, there were those who turned against him. With that, he opted to give up his post and live a hermetic lifestyle on a nearby island. However, in 685 A.D. the king of the period insisted that he become bishop. After that, Cuthbert became a widely known figure.
Then in 687 A.D. Cuthbert passed away and was laid to rest in the primary church of Lindisfarne. Just over a decade later, though, his remains were exhumed. And the monks soon realized that Cuthbert’s body had not decomposed, which they took as a sign of his holiness. So a shrine was created in dedication to the man and a cult in his honor emerged.
What’s more, reports of miracles near the shrine of St. Cuthbert began to circulate, turning Lindisfarne into an important religious site. In fact, the monastery became rather affluent, serving as an important site of religious education. Furthermore, the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced there, which are considered today to be masterpieces of medieval art.
However, everything changed towards the end of the eighth century. In the summer of 793, the Vikings arrived on Lindisfarne. This was their first major assault on a western European territory, and it shocked people all over the region. In the wake of the invasion, a scholar named Alcuin who served King Charlemagne of Francia, penned a letter to the king of Northumbria and the Lindisfarne bishop of the time.
Alcuin wrote, “Pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of saints like dung in the streets… What assurance can the churches of Britain have, if St. Cuthbert and so great a company of saints do not defend their own?”
Before their arrival on Lindisfarne, the Vikings had made moves into Britain. For example, in the year 789 three vessels arrived on the shores of Wessex. These Vikings even took the life of one of the king’s officials who’d gone down to escort them to the royal court.
But the invasion of Lindisfarne was a much more significant event than any Viking operation that came before it. You see, it was an unequivocal attack on the central site of Christianity in all of Britain. St. Cuthbert, after all, was still buried there and worshipped. In any case, the historical course of Lindisfarne was about to take a turn.
According to certain sources, the Viking assaults forced the monks of Lindisfarne to begin moving to the British mainland. And in 875 A.D. it was decided to abandon the island entirely. Taking the remains of St. Cuthbert with them, the monks looked for a new location upon which to settle, eventually deciding on a place called Chester-le-Street.
Over time, Viking onslaughts became more common across Britain, what is now modern France (Francia), and Ireland. In fact, by the middle of the ninth century Viking forces were present on the lands of Britain. By the year 870 A.D., then, the Danish occupation of parts of Britain and its various kingdoms was underway.
Now, Lindisfarne had been a good place for the Vikings to target during the early stages of their invasion. After all, it was a place which had been known across Europe. In fact, the scholar Alcuin once referred to it as “the most venerable place in Britain.” However, today many questions remain about the island and its monastery because the latter’s ruins were lost to time.
Over the last number of years, though, a project has come together in search of the monastery. This is DigVentures, an initiative which is funded entirely through donations. And this group has come across numerous discoveries on Lindisfarne. In fact, they include things like sculptures, graves, ovens, coins, pins, jewelry and buildings.
But in the middle of 2019 something else entirely was uncovered. A piece of decorative glass was found in the earth – and the circumstances of its discovery were quite unusual. That is, it was stumbled upon by the mom of one of the volunteer archaeologists working on the site.
This woman had only been on the Lindisfarne site as a treat for her birthday. Yet her unlikely presence on the island was undoubtedly a spot of good luck for the DigVentures team. But what exactly is the blue and white glass artifact that this woman had managed to come across?
Well, the answer might not be as you’d expected. Taking a look at the piece, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that it’s some sort of jewel. In actual fact, though, the object is a component of a board game played by the Vikings. This is thought to have been hnefatafl, which translates to “king’s table.”
Nowadays, hnefatafl has emerged once again as a popular pastime throughout the Nordic region. Moreover, contemporary versions of the game have been thought up. In terms of its nature, it could be said that the game isn’t entirely dissimilar to chess. Yes, it’s actually something of a simulation of a real-life Viking invasion.
So the board game involves a king and his protectors warding off some 24 foes. Not a huge amount more is known about the game, though it was clearly a treasured pursuit within Scandinavian culture. You see, it seems that wherever individuals from the region traveled, the game and its components went, too.
However, it isn’t known for sure where exactly the game originated. It appears to be Nordic, but it may simply have been incorporated into the culture after one of the Viking invasions. The pieces involved in the game were somewhat grandiose, so they naturally served more purposes than just entertainment.
For instance, some game pieces are said to have been involved in the boat burials of dead people. It’s possible that the Vikings were under the impression that hnefatafl played a role after a person had died. In some way, perhaps, they thought it would help the deceased in the afterlife.
And that’s not the only significance of the hnefatafl board game to Viking culture. Not only did it simulate actual invasions, it could also serve to illustrate a person’s social standing. After all, the pieces were often quite elaborate in nature, which would possibly show the person playing in a flattering light.
So the game piece discovered on Lindisfarne is a substantial find, but it might not necessarily have belonged to a Viking. Instead, it’s possible that an affluent monk from the monastery had owned it before the Viking incursion. This would still be significant, as it would be evidence of the overall presence of Nordic culture in Britain before the Vikings even landed.
And if the piece had belonged to a monk, it would offer a glimpse into what life on pre-Viking Lindisfarne was like. In any case, the glass artifact is of great interest. After all, very few objects of this nature have been found in Britain, though examples have cropped up in Sweden, Germany and Ireland.
Regardless of the truth, the hnefatafl glass piece is a rare and important find. And according to the leader of the archaeological project that led to its discovery, it can be dated back to the eighth or ninth century. As David Petts implied, this would have approximately been from the time of the Viking invasion.
You see, if the game piece actually belonged to a monk as opposed to a Viking, it would show how far Nordic culture had already traveled before the invasion. But it would also undo some misconceptions about Christianity during the medieval period of British history. That, at least, is according to lead archaeologist Petts.
Now, Petts works at Durham University, serving as a senior lecturer in the archaeology of northern England. And in February 2020 he spoke to The Guardian about the Lindisfarne find. He said, “We often tend to think of early medieval Christianity, especially on islands, as terribly austere; that they were all living a brutal, hard life.”
However, Petts said, this discovery would suggest that the Christians on Lindisfarne actually led something of an affluent lifestyle. As he himself put it, “The sheer quality of this piece suggests this isn’t any old gaming set. Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle.”
So the game piece has provided historians with a rare glimpse into how people on Lindisfarne once lived. This is a welcome contrast to other discoveries which relate only to religious practices or death rituals. As Petts told The Guardian, “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.”
As we’ve already mentioned, DigVentures is funded by donations. And its team is made up of people offering their services on a voluntary basis. This is somewhat unusual, but given the discoveries that have been made on Lindisfarne, it’s perhaps an appropriate arrangement. At least, that’s what the managing director of the group thinks.
Speaking to The Guardian, Lisa Westcott Wilkins elaborated on this sentiment. “Several of the most significant finds from Lindisfarne have been made by members of the public,” she said. “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.”
Recalling the moment that the glass hnefatafl artifact was uncovered, Westcott Wilkins said, “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.”
Of course, Westcott Wilkins is only human, and she ultimately allowed herself a little thrill. As she explained, “Honestly, it’s just so beautiful and so evocative of that time period, I couldn’t help myself.” With that said, what’s next for the holy island given the monastery is still missing?
Well, this particular find at Lindisfarne was a great one, but hopefully many more remain to be unearthed. Going forward, there are plans in place to continue investigating the island in search of more evidence of the old monastery. And if the DigVentures team could manage to draw a map of its one-time layout, it would be some feat.
In any case, there will be a number of things that the voluntary archaeologists will be on the lookout for. They’ll search for evidence of life in the monastery before the Vikings arrived. And they’ll also search for clues as to how the invasion impacted the place. So who knows what they might find.