Little soldiers: gaming at Vindolanda

Vindolanda Trust - Friday, June 08, 2018

One of the most popular or frequent artefacts found on the excavations at Vindolanda, and many other military sites across the Roman Empire are small round gaming counters. Gaming and gambling seem to have been endemic in the Roman Army, from the north of Britain to the camel fort at Abu Shar’ar in the Egyptian desert, counters and boards are found everywhere. They are often made from sherds of pottery, red Samian or black burnished wares. They can be made from beautiful black, white or green glass or highly polished discs of bone. This year the trenches at Vindolanda have produced some thirty or so counters which can be added to the many hundreds that have been found at the site. Gaming boards are rarer, with around seven surviving examples made in stone, all of those have come from third-century or later contexts.

The game that was played with the counters could have been a version of a game called latrunculi, meaning ‘little soldiers’ or brigands, which was a two-player strategy board game. The three examples that you see in this figure below were found together in the mud covering the top of the Severan fort ditch. They are all approximately the same size and made from Samian pottery. It is always a thrill to hold in your own hand a game piece that was made almost 2000 years ago, to imagine the highs and lows of the game played and to think about who might have used the pieces and what the stakes might have been.

Let’s hope as the excavation of the area extends we might get the rest of the counters, and even the board itself. 

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