Top: a board-game piece made from whalebone at the end of the 6th century CE, found in Gnistahögen near Uppsala, Sweden (photograph by Bengt Backlund, Uppland County Museum). Bottom: the bone structure of the gaming piece compared with reference bone from minke whale (photograph by Rudolf Gustavsson, Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, SAU) [Credit: Bengt Backlund/Rudolf Gustavsson]
Museum collections in Sweden contain thousands of Iron Age board-game pieces. New studies of the raw material composing them show that most were made of whalebone from the mid-6th century CE. They were produced in large volumes and standardised forms. The researchers therefore believe that a regular supply of whalebone was needed. Since the producers would hardly have found the carcasses of beached whales a reliable source, the gaming pieces are interpreted as evidence for whaling.
Apart from an osteological survey, species origin has been determined for a small number of game pieces, using ZooMS (short for Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometer). The method shows that all the pieces analysed were derived from the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), a massive whale weighing 50-80 tonnes. It got the name because it was the right whale to hunt: it swam slowly, close to shore, and contained so much blubber as to float after being killed.
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