Board games, such as chess, checkers, and backgammon, were increasingly popular in Europe during the later Middle Ages, after it had been brought back by crusading knights from the Near East. Portable chess boxes with scenes of hunting, dancing, and courtship were mass-produced in inexpensive materials to contain the game pieces. The playing board is set into the box’s underside. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

Game nights have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, as modern board games like Catan and Cards Against Humanity have become staples of any good get-together. Trading wood, ore, and wheat are now synonymous with game night, just as the dice-rolling of Monopoly was the dominant game-playing mechanism for years. But what if we go back to the medieval era when time for games was limited? What did people do during their leisure time? A team of archaeologists recently found out. Read on to see what they discovered.

An unexpected discovery

Archaeologists were recently digging near Aberdeenshire, Scotland, looking for the location of the elusive Monastery of Deer. The monastery was referred to in the Book of Deer, which is one of the earliest examples of the Scottish Gaelic language.

A large disc-shaped stone was discovered by the archaeologists. It didn’t reveal the location of the monastery, but it did contain etchings that looked vaguely familiar to researchers.

Before chess, there was hnefatafl

The team concluded that they’d found an ancient, stone board game. They used carbon dating to verify that it was from the 7th or 8th century and was used to play an ancient Norse game called hnefatafl. Although no definitive rules exist, the object of the game is to get your king from the center of a chess-like board to one of the board’s edges.

Hnefatafl is part of a larger set of games played throughout Europe before being replaced by chess during the 12th century.

Monks played games during their downtime

Archaeologists believe that monks played the game during their downtime regularly. It offered yet another clue to the mystery of the Monastery of Deer.

While the stone game board can be used as evidence that there was monastic activity in the area, the archaeologists aren’t ready to declare the site as the long-lost Monastery of Deer. Hnefatafl still exists today and it’s probably safe to assume that the monks of long ago enjoyed game nights as much as we do.