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.