Thursday 14 December 2017

Medieval chess pieces made from antler

Last summer we have been in France, where we combined leisure time with satisfying our medieval curiosity. I did not only see medieval furniture (of which you already have seen some on this blog), but also some medieval (board) gaming stuff. The city of Noyon has a nice Musee du Noyonnais with all kinds of medieval artefacts, including some chests mentioned in a previous blogpost. But it also houses a rare find of medieval chess pieces dating from the 11th century and made of antler. The chess set is not complete but from each piece at least one has been preserved. 
The front and back sides of the Noyon chess set.

About the Noyon chess pieces

The chess set consists of ten pieces: two kings, one queen, one bishop, two knights, two rooks and two pawns. The chess pieces are dated to the first half of the 11th century based on ceramic deposits in the same archaeological layer. They were made by the same artist from local material (i.e. locally hunted deer). The chess pieces have an abstract style that was commonly found during this period. The two opposing sides can be distinguished from each other by their different looks, as the chess pieces do not have traces of colour on them. This was not uncommon, as also the famous Lewis chess set(s) were uncoloured, and could only be identified by their appearance. Here, the arrangement of the lines on the back and front seem to mark the different sides.

 The Noyon chess set. Image scanned from the 'Revue archeologique de Picardie'.

The pawns were constructed from the tines or points antler, while the other pieces were cut from the antler beam. The head of the king consist of an inverted point set into a drilled hole in the 'body'. The exact location of each set piece from the antler has been determined (see image below). The inside of an antler is made of more porous material, which can easily be seen in the kings and queen. The height of the larger chess pieces is between 7 and 8 cm for the kings, around 6 cm for the larger figures and around 3 cm for the pawns. The larger pieces have a diameter (though they more oval than round) between 3-5 cm. The rooks have a thinner oval form. The diameter of the pawns is 16-17 mm at base.

 The parts of the antler from which the Noyon chess pieces originate. 
Translated scan from the 'Revue archeologique de Picardie'.

Later during our holiday we paid a visit to Sylvestre Jonquay and his family in Normandy. He is member of the French re-enactment group Aisling 1178 which specializes in medieval board games. Moreover, he is the author (together with Fabian Müllers) of the book 'Les jeux au Moyen Age' (ISBN 978-2-9553607-5-0), and of numerous other articles on medieval board games. It is not surprising that their house (and the Aisling storage room) contains a massive amount of medieval games. Some of these games are beautiful reproductions, such as the 11th century Glouchester backgammon board made of bone. They are constantly improving their games, making them more and more authentic in look and feel. For instance they have made castings from original medieval backgammon pieces, and now use them in their games.

 The replica Glouchester backgammon board. 
Next to it boxes with game pieces made from mouldings of archaeological finds from Chateau Mayenne.

Marijn vs Sylvestre with the Lewis chess set (Marijn loses). Originally, the Lewis chess set has only one colour (ivory); Opposing sides could be differentiated from each other by their looks.

Anne playing oblong chess (4 x 16 board) with Sylvestre. Next to it, a Byzantine chess game in progress.

This made me thinking ... could I make a replica and complete the set of the Noyon chess pieces? After all, they were made of what was called 'bois de cerf' in French, so working with this material was likely similar to to 'bois' [wood]. It was worth a try.

Making a Noyon-type medieval chess set

I do call this a Noyon-type medieval chess set and not a Noyon replica, because it is impossible to make an exact replica. The two main reasons are (1) that I had to invent/design the missing pieces; and (2) each deer antler is different in form, therefore you cannot obtain exactly the same shapes as the original. Well, perhaps if you have an indefinite supply of antler - which unfortunately is not the case for me. 

The steps to make a pawn from antler.

So I bought some antler, cut the top tine with a hacksaw, and tried to make a pawn. A chisel was used to make the basic pawn more conical in form. This went relatively well. Then I had to add the grooves. I tried to do this using a knife and a gouge. This was no success. Yes, I was successful in cutting my fingers ... but the antler proved to be a very hard material and the pawn a small chess-piece. I then resorted to files - especially the small needle files, and this resulted my the first satisfying game piece. On the other side, the files became very clogged with the antler, and this was very difficult to remove - even with a steel file brush. So how did the medieval men work this material?  I still have no idea, though perhaps a burin was used, as I also used.the file point that way.

Enter the power tools

Using an angle grinder equipped with a diamond cutting wheel creates a lot of dust and noise.

A large thick antler was used for the 'special' chess types, while a thin antler provided for the pawns.

The raw antler material and waste.

To speed things up, I started using modern powertools. This helped a lot, but the downside was that it produced a lot of dust and it smelled like burned hair. A angle grinder equipped with a diamond cutting wheel was used to cut the antler in pieces. An hacksaw with a saw-blade for metal was used to make the basic form, which was then rounded on a belt sander with a 80 and 120 grid sanding belt.
Then a Dremel with a cutting wheel was used to cut the lines on the chess pieces, switching to a sanding drum to round of the edges of the lines. Removal of small pieces, e.g. for the heads, was done with a diamond coated cutter on the Dremel.

To give an idea of the diametre of the antler. If you compare this with the original moulds of some trictrac (a gift by Sylveste of Aisling 1178; the originals also made from antler), some would have been made from an even larger deer.

The Noyon-type chess set in its raw form: only 11 pawns and one rook have been finished.

Fine-tuning the pieces was done with needlefiles (triangular, square and half-round were most used), after which the chess piece was sanded with 240 and 400 grid sandpaper. Also I needed to buy some new file sets, as the ones used for the chess set were ruined.

A belt sander with 80 and 120 grit sandpaper was used to smoothen and form the raw chess pieces. 
Again a lot of antler-dust is produced.

The raw form was cut with an hacksaw. Also here the saw blade clogged up.

Back to medieval tools: making the pips / eyes


Both the knight and the king have a head containing eyes. The way these eyes are made is similar to the pips on medieval dice (or game pieces for backgammon). A special drill bit is needed to make the pips. As these cannot be bought I had to make these drill bits myself. I used an old forged iron nail for this; the nail head was sawn of and filed to the correct thickness and width. Then the (not yet) drill part was sanded and polished using 180 to 15000 grid sanding cloth. (When the drillpoints are made, polishing is much more difficult). With a small hacksaw two lines were sawn, which were first filed to a point and then horizontally a bit more triangular, to create a cutting bevel. To file the teeth, a diamond shaped saw file with a very fine single cut, for sharpening Japanese saws, was used (Dictum tools, ID 712813 and ID 712814). These files have a very thin and sharp point (less than a half mm), ideal to enter the small saw-line. This way I was able to create drills for 3 and 4 mm pips. The centre point of the drill has to be slightly higher that the two outer points, in order to keep the drill-bit centred at the start and for easier turning.
 SMILE! Two pip drills were made, 
one of 3 mm and one of 4 mm diameter. 
Test on a piece of horn.

Left: The pip drills were made of old forged nails, which were then files to the appropriate thickness (the wedge form) and width. Right: Two lines were sawn on the point of the nail.

Left: The Japanes file saw has a very sharp diamond shape, with a point less than 0.5 mm. Right: The teeth of the two pip drill bits. A bevel is made on the teeth.

The pip drill sequence: first moving the drill holder by hand until the first circle appears in the material. Then drilling faster and with more pressure using the wheel of the hand drill.

A hand drill with wheel was used to  drill the pips. The first drill turns were made manually moving the bit holder. After the position of the bit was stable in the antler, the wheel was used to rotate the drill bit. Once the pip drills were made, the heads of the chess pieces could be made. As the heads were rounded, first a flat area was made using the Dremel equipped with a diamond cutter. Creating a flat area also caused the appearance of the nose. After that the eyes could be made with the pip drill.
The kings head first had a square pin. This provided a secure grip of the head in a vise or in a wooden jig with a square hole (needed when the head was made upside conical with a chisel). When the head was finished, the square pin was rounded.

Left: One of the kings, showing the loose head - useful during check-mate. Right: The head first had a square pin, so it could easily be clamped into a vise and worked. After the head was finished, the pin was rounded.

 The front and back of a finished king.

The completed set

The complete set is rather large for the board. The individual pieces will be shown in another blogpost.

The finished Noyon-style chess set.


Sources used:

  • M. Grandet and J-F. Goret, 2012. Echecs et trictrac. Fabrication et usages des jeux de tables au moyen age. Exhibition catalogue Chateau de Mayenne, 23 June - 18 November 2012. Edition Errance, Paris, France. 160 pp. ISBN 978-2-87772-503-3.
  • J-F. Goret, M. Talon and J-H. Ivinec, 2009. Le jeu d'echecs de Noyon dans sons contexte archeologique et historique. Revue Archeologique de Picardie 2009: 79-119.
  • F. Müllers and S. Jonquay, 2016. Les jeux au Moyen Age, second edition. Edition La Muse. 319 pp. ISBN 978-2-9553607-5-0.


  1. >So how did the medieval men work this material?
    I was told by some experimental archaeologists that they wet the antler to soften the collagen and make it more pliable. It definitely worked well when using flint blades, I expect it would be the same for metal tools.

  2. These look fantastic Marijn, Congratulations. It is very useful, in my opinion, for people to do things like this, because one gains an appreciation for the work of the medieval craftsmen that he could never really have, simply by viewing objects in a museum.

    Doing things like this, you are suddenly confronted with the evidence of all sorts of long vanished items that must have been part of the process. The saw to cut, the devices for holding whilst the work was done, the type of tool(s) used to actually do the carving, etc. etc. in reproducing something that might look "primitive" or "crude" to our modern eyes, suddenly we realise the complexity of the task, and what went into making it.

    I will add that the tools used to carve antlers must have been the same as those used to carve bone and ivory, which are 'burin' type tools with short "blades", to prevent breaking when applying the pressure necessary for carving. Of course this was already a technological advancement over neolithic people's tools, which were carefully chipped long thin stones, which they were able to use to make all sorts of tools and ornaments from bone, and antler. (they had way fewer distractions to prevent them from taking the time to do such things, than we do!)

  3. Amazing, this antler reenacted chess set based on the set of Noyon. Happy to have let you think it was possible. It was a pleasure to share with Master Marinus and his family from St Thomas Guild. Feel free to have a stopover if you travel through Normandy again. Cheers, Aisling-1198

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  5. You mention the board from the Gloucester Tables Set. It is 'Gloucester' (pronounced 'Gloster' or if truly local 'Glawsterrr'), not 'Glouchester.'

  6. Hi,
    look at my blog !
    best regards from france.
    Christophe PICOD

    1. Thanks, apparently I was not the only one inspired by this chess set. :) Your replicas looks very well made. Did you also make the missing chess pieces in order to have a complete chess set?