Medieval game pieces found in lost German castle

An excavation at the Burgstein castle site in southern Germany unearthed an exceptional assemblage of medieval game pieces: a chess knight, four flower-shaped tokens and a die, all carved from antler. They date to the 11th or 12th century, which makes them rare surviving pieces from the early decades of when chess took root in Europe.

The progenitor of chess was born in India and from there was introduced to Persia in the 7th century. It was in Persia that it took on characteristic features like “checkmate” (originally “shah mat!” which is Persian for “the king is helpless”) and developed the rule set we recognize today. Chess became a key element of a young noble’s education in Persia, and its educational role in developing the skills of the nobility followed when chess spread to Europe. By the early 12th century, it was so thoroughly established that Petrus Alfonsus, author and physician to Alfonso I, King of Aragon, listed playing chess as one of the seven virtuous disciplines all good knights should learn (the other six are riding, swimming, archery, fencing, hunting and poetry).

The finds were discovered during excavations by the DFG Collaborative Research Centre 1070 Resource Cultures and the [State Office for the Preservation of Monuments Baden-Württemberg] in a previously unknown castle in southern Germany (Baden-Württemberg, Reutlingen district). “They were lying under the debris of a wall where they were lost or hidden in the Middle Ages,” said Dr Michael Kienzle (University of Tübingen). This covering contributed to the exceptionally good surface preservation of the artefacts. “Under the microscope, a typical sheen from holding and moving the pieces can be seen,” explained Dr Flavia Venditti (University of Tübingen).

The wear pattern detectable on the surface of the knight indicates that the piece was lifted and moved the same way it is in chess matches today, evidence that the rules of the game have been consistent for a thousand years. Most well-preserved surviving chess pieces from the Middle Ages date to the 13th century or later, so this grouping gives archaeologists a unique opportunity to study early European chess play.

The eyes and mane of the 4 cm high horse figure are vividly shaped. This elaborate design is typical of particularly high-quality chess pieces from this period. The red paint residues found on the flower-shaped pieces are currently being chemically analyzed.

The finds will be going on public display for the first time at a special exhibition in Pfullinger the weekend of June 15th. They will then be part of the large state exhibition The Hidden Land in Stuttgart starting September 13th.

The knight, die and one of the tokens have been 3D scanned and can now be viewed online.

5 thoughts on “Medieval game pieces found in lost German castle

  1. “Persian” influences prior to the 12th century are hard to quantify, but an aspect had certainly been the campaigns into the Holy Land.

    “The Tannhäuser” was a German Minnesinger. Yes, the one from the Wagner opera, arguably Siboto III. of Tannhausen, buried in Würzburg (in Deutschhauskirche, Teutonic Order).

    Tannhausen is likewise not far away from Stuttgart, 80km NE. His song “Steter Dienest der ist guot” [Codex Manesse, 267v] parodies classic Minnesinger poetry.

    In essence, he describes an absurd shopping list for his crusades to the Holy Land: Even as the tasks in each verse get more and more impossible(!), the singer won’t give up the fight for his mistress 😀

  2. I am not a local, but “Pfullinger” are people from “Pfullingen”. The “Burgstall” site, however, seems to be “Burg Stahleck”, i.e. the one in Lichtenstein-Unterhausen, 40km SE of Stuttgart.

    An early impulse to build Medieval fortifications in Southern Germany had been the “Burgenordnung” of 926AD against invading Magyars. One out of nine from the peasant fighters had to be entertained by his eight companions with a third of their harvest and shall live in the fortification. Councils, convents and banquets had to take place:

    …Et primum quidem ex agrariis militibus nonum quemque eligens in urbibus habitare fecit, ut ceteris confamiliaribus suis octo habitacula extrueret, frugum omnium tertiam partem exciperet servaretque. Caeteri vero octo seminarent et meterent frugesque colligerent nono et suis eas locis reconderent. Concilia et omnes conventus atque convivia in urbibus voluit celebrari. …

  3. ——–
    PS: For the song performed (+ English and Middle High German lyrics) on YT, consider the suffix “hJhCY__HwK0” – The CMS on here wont let me post it completely.

  4. …Hopefully, you are still entertained.

    Back then, to get to the “Holy Land”, rich folk just took a boat, i.e. they set sail from Southern France – Presumably, also because of ones poetry and “Provencal Mistresses”!

    Also, I tried to come up with a translation of the mentioned song from “Codex Manesse”, 267v – from between c. 1304AD when the main part was completed, and c. 1340 with the addenda.

    Page 264r even has a depiction of “Tannhäuser” as poet and crusader:

    Constant service that’s done well,
    done to ladies that look ‘belle’,
    As I have done to mine.

    A salamander I must get her,
    Ah! One thing she strictly tells me:
    The RED ONE it just has to be!
    Brought from [French] Provence into the land,
    to Nuremberg; In that I will succeed.

    And the Danube over the Rhine,
    Once I make that true, what I want she’ll do.
    But where I say “Yes!” she will say “No!”
    Such is what “in accord” we do.

    Thanks to that I have the girl of mine,
    The one I call my sweet sunshine.

    -Heia hey!
    For too long I did not concubine.

    CHORUS: Yes – today and forever more ‘Yes’
    Loud and completely, and still ‘Yes!’.

    An aching weapon it turns out to be,
    What does this love mean to me?
    The pure one and praiseworthy?
    That she wont make me glad,
    is what in essence makes me sad.

    Sweet delusion keeps me happy, though,
    that I am getting from that ‘Frouw’:
    In case the ‘Miuseberg’ would be flat
    freed from snow, ‘Sweety’ will reward me that.
    All that keeps my own heart blurred,
    is what I see in her ensured.

    My will she fullfills with certainty,
    once I build her a house of ivory,
    The house atop a lake, she asks from me.

    I’d have gracious friendship for gallantry,
    in case I bring to her from Galilee,
    From every collateral free,
    a mountain that I would put it on,
    that Mr. Adam must have sat upon–

    Heia hey!
    All other deeds would be surpassed.


    A tree that once in India stood!
    Huge, of course, that’s understood.
    My will she would fulfill flat,
    So let’s see if I get all that:

    I must gain for her that ugly Grail,
    that once possessed Lord Parcyfail.
    And the apple that Paris did address,
    for ‘Minne’ to Venus the Lovegodess.

    A strong mantle at last sainted,
    the woman that remains untainted.
    Many other wonders she proposed:
    What grievous things on me imposed!

    For the Ark she is feeling strongly,
    that Noah himself had timbered longly.

    Heia hey!
    Brought I that, how dear I would be!


    Steter dienest der ist guot
    Den man schonen frowen tuot,
    Als ich miner han getan.

    Der muos ich den salamander bringen.
    Eines hat si mir gebotten:
    Daz ich schike ir abe den Rotten
    Hin von provenz in das das lant
    Ze Nuerenberg; so mag mir wol gelingen.

    Unde die Tuonouwe uber Rin,
    Fuege ich das so tuot si swes ich muote.
    Spriche ich ia si sprichet nein.
    Sus so hellen wir en ein.
    Dank so habe diu frowe min,
    Sie ist geheissen Guote.

    Heia hei!
    Sist ze lange gewesen us miner huote.

    Ia hiute unde iemer mere ia,
    Heilalle unde aber ia.
    Ziehent herze wafena.
    Wie tuot mir diu liebe so
    Diu reine unde diu vil guote?
    Daz si mich niht machet fro,
    Des ist mir we ze muote.

    Mich fröit noch bas ein lieber wan,
    Den ich von der schonen han:
    So der Miuseberg zerge
    Sam der sne, so lonet mir diu reine.

    Alles des min herze gert
    Des bin ich an ir gewert.
    Minen willen tuot si gar
    Buwe ich ir ein hus von helfenbeine
    Swa si will uf einen se.

    So habe ich ir friuntschaft unde ir hulde.
    Bringe ich ir von Galylee,
    Her an alle schulde,
    Einen berk gefuoge ich daz
    Da her Adan uffe sas–

    Heia hei!
    Daz were aller dienste ein uber gulde.

    Ein boun stan in Yndian,
    Gros den wil si von mir han.
    Minen willen tuot si gar
    Seht ob ich irs alles her gewinne:

    Ich muos gewinnen ir den Gral,
    Des da pflag her Parcyfal.
    Unde den apfel den Paris
    Gab dur minne Venus der güttine.

    Unde den mantel der beslos
    Gar die frowen diu ist unwandelbere.
    Dannoch wil si wunder gros
    Daz ist mir worden swere:
    Ir ist nach der arke we
    Diu beslossen hat Noe.

    Heia hei!
    Brehte ich die wie lieb ich danne were!

  5. Very interesting find and post and interesting comments by Bert! Much appreciated! I am from Stuttgart, so found this very interesting!

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