Archaeologists working at a 15th century site in the Vagsbunnen district in Bergen, Norway found a 600-year old wooden die used for cheating. The site has yielded 30 different gambling dice over the years, but this is the first which was loaded to cheat.
The 2-centimeter wooden die, marked with well-drawn pips on all six sides, did not have a 1-side or 2-side. Instead, the dice had two sides with 4 pips and two sides with 5 pips. If other players at the game did not notice the discrepancy, the dice shooter would have had a big advantage in many games.
The game itself was unknown, but such dice have been used through the centuries to gain an advantage in gambling. Most cheating dice in the modern age are melted on one side to weight the die too much on one side, meaning certain numbers are likely to appear more often. In other cases, the pips are drilled and filled with epoxy in a process called “loading” the dice.
The Times announced the archaeological find in an article it called “Viking’s dodgy dice discovered in gambling den“, though the 1400s was several centuries after the end of the Viking Age. The die would have been used at a time of transition in Europe, where it was the early Renaissance in Italy, but still considered the Late Middle Ages in Norway.
Found near Bergen’s Inns and Taverns
Per Christian Underhaug, who is the project manager at the Bergen excavations, said the wooden die was found close to a wooden street which dates back to the 1400s. When looking at the “context and dice design”, Underhaug said it was as likely that the dice shooter got rid of the dice as lost them. Underhaug said that the street was full of inns and taverns when the die was discarded in the 15th century, so it would have been likely many such dice were being used in the area at the time.
Gambling was popular in the Middle Ages. Not only have researchers discovered gambling equipment in their archaeological digs, but historians have founded references to gambling in literature and legal documents. One way to know what our ancestors were doing is to study the laws of various cities and nations, because laws are seldom written except to address activities taking place in a society.
1276 Anti-Gambling Laws
Norwegian archaeologist Ingrid Rekkavik previously wrote about Bergen’s city laws in the Middle Ages, stating that gambling was enough of a problem that it was banned by the city leaders. In a 1276 city law issued by the King’s Ombudsmen, during the reign of King Magnus VI (Magnus Haakonsson), who reformed the legal codes of Norway and Iceland in 1276.
Under Magnus VI’s code, offenses like gambling were considered crimes against the state instead individuals. Historians believe the purpose was to narrow the possibilities of personal vengeance, which often was substituted for legal recourse in the Middle Ages. At the time, only Sicily and Castile had similar laws, so Magnus VI was forward-thinking for his time.
Presumably, the 1276 gambling law would still have been in effect in the 1400s. By then, Norway was a much different land. The early 14th Century was considered a Golden Age for Norway, as the High Middle Ages were a time of peace and trade, especially with the British Islands and Germany.
Gambling in Bergen, Norway
As often was the case in Europe, increased trade eventually brought with its plague. The Golden Age was ended in 1349, as the Black Death hit Norway (as it had the year before in Southern Europe). By the end of the year, one-third of the people in Norway were dead.
By the time of the unnamed cheating gambler was using the wooden dice in Bergen’s taverns in the 1400s, Norway had joined Denmark and Sweden in the Kalmar Union as a counterpoise to the Hanseatic League. The Kalmar Union included Norway’s overseas dependencies, including Iceland, Greenland, the Northern Isles, and the Faroe Islands. The union with Sweden ended by the mid-15th century, though Norway and Denmark remained united for 3 centuries more.
The Baltic Sea was a center of European trade in the 1400s, so the western coastal city of Bergen would have seen brisk trade and many sailors coming in and out of the city. That trade would dry up significantly for the Hanseatic League after the discovery of the New World, when European trade routes diverted south and west. Still, the discovery of cheater’s dice in Bergen is a sign of the vibrance of Norway’s cities in the 15th century.
Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research
The discovery was made by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research in Oslo, Norway. The institute has approximately 80 employees in 7 research departments and has regional offices in Bergen, Trondheim, Tromso, and Tonsberg.
NIKU was founded in 1994 as a split from the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. The institute orginallly shared a board with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research under the moniker NINA-NIKU, but became its own research facility with its own board in 2003.