Figure 52: Jet chess bishop of abstract form from a 14th century context in Perth (Meal Vennel), probably the possession of a burgess. Being made of jet would also have given the piece an amuletic quality, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth ans Kinross Council, Scotland.

5.5 Playtime

This section is concluded with an aspect of human behaviour that could fit almost anywhere in this framework given its relevance, which makes it the more striking that it is a relatively neglected area of study: play. This tends to get dismissed by many as a childish activity of no great import – a misapprehension on two counts: that childhood is unimportant; and that play is only restricted to childhood. In reality it is a pivotal area of human culture that is relevant to every stage of life. In part this is because it enables an escape from life into ‘play-time’ but it also has the ability to reflect social hierarchies and human ingenuity. It is an important area of study, relevant to a greater understanding of lifeways, mentalities and empowerment. The release that comes from play is hugely important to humans, whether child or adult, not least in its metaphorical and psychological role in ‘Worldmaking’ (for the concept of which see Goodman 1978).

A photograph of a small upright and curved piece of polished jet

Jet chess bishop of abstract form from a 14th century context in Perth (Meal Vennel), probably the possession of a burgess. Being made of jet would also have given the piece an amuletic quality, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

Work has begun on the material culture analysis of board and dice games in Scotland. The presence of such begins to be clearly testified to from the time of the Roman incursion. In the second half of the first millennium AD there is plentiful evidence for the cross-cultural (Pictish, Gaelic, Scottish, Irish, Viking, British, Anglo-Saxon) pursuit of games, particularly the tafl variants hnefatafl and fidcheall (which may both be innovations deriving from a Roman game) (Hall 2007d; Hall and Forsyth 2011). The medieval social relevance of gaming is aptly demonstrated by the assemblage of slate-incised boards excavated at St Marnock’s monastery, Inchmarnock, off Bute (Lowe 2008). There they formed part of a large slate assemblage that evidenced the school function of the monastery and the proprietorial church that succeeded it.

During both phases board games were clearly amongst the teaching aids and the subjects being taught. The evidence for later medieval gaming has also been reviewed recently (Hall 2010 forthcoming) and in a Scottish context the early-late transition in gaming terms is marked by the advent and expansion of chess.

The earliest evidence for chess in Scotland may be an abstract piece (with ring-and-dot decoration), an antiquarian find from Coldingham churchyard. An 11th-12th century date for this is not unlikely. This and slightly later abstract pieces from Rothesay Castle, Bute and Kirkwall, Orkney may speak of an Anglo-Norman influence in the spread of the game. In contrast, the figurative Lewis chessmen (part of a wider hoard of gaming pieces) speak of a Scandinavian influence and from a time – late 12th-early 13th century – when the popularity of hnefatafl was waning in favour of chess. The robust Lewis pieces are replete with visual and tactile reference to social hierarchy, patronage, exchange and trade patterns and then high esteem in which play was held. More widely they signal that the island of Lewis was not a cultural backwater but a place that mattered in the North Sea world (Caldwell et al. 2009). Abstract chess pieces (deriving from Islamic pieces) were never replaced by figurative pieces, rather they shared the same chronological trajectory (with, no doubt, fashionable ups-and-downs) as abstract jet chess bishop from a 14th century context in Meal Vennel, Perth, shows (Hall 2010 forthcoming). The material from Scotland is diverse socially, spatially and materially and contributes to the wider European study of medieval mentalities (Hall 2009b).

In recovering the spatial architecture of play in the medieval urban environment archaeologists have much ground to make up and can only do so in an inter-disciplinary context. There are two main aspects to play spaces, the formal and the informal. The informal encompasses those spaces – urban and rural domestic, castles, monasteries and churches – where gaming equipment and toys are found and requires a flexible mind-set on what can be interpreted as a plaything and the setting it is used in (which for children for example, can be almost anything and almost anywhere; Crawford 2009; Lewis 2009; Hall 2010).

The formal encompasses both teaching spaces (see the ScARF Case Study Education) the routes and locales of medieval civic and religious rituals (including Corpus Christi), for, as Lilley (2009) has observed social space ‘carries and constricts social and cultural meanings so it [is] appropriate to consider where processions went in the city: which streets or lanes they followed, which marketplaces and churches they stopped at … these routes are the clearest maps to the significant power structures within a community since they are always deliberately designed with reference to places that are important.’ (p. 164).

Archaeology needs to more closely collaborate on elucidating the performed geographies of processions (always acts of play) and their meanings.

The evidence for Perth’s processional and performing spaces is admittedly slight (Hall 2005, 223-4) but it is unequivocal in its certainty and sufficient to draw parallels with other European cities, including Chester (which also had a performing space just outside the town wall), York, Bruges (like Bruges, Perth had a relic of the Holy Blood), Rome, Wurzburg and Frankfurt (Lilley 2009, 158-87; Rubin 1991, 267-9; Dyer 2007; Noreen 2007; Brown 1997; Boogaart 2001). Such performances were not restricted to cities, smaller urban entities and parish centres had their play places and in Cornwall many still survive (e.g. St Just); in Scotland they became perhaps an unseen casualty of Reformation zeal.

A drawing of a man dancing wearing a bright and colourful costume consisting of patterned leggings, a flared skirt, patterned top, neck ruffle and a hat

“Ancient Morrice Dancers Dress in Possession of the Incorporation of Glovers of Perth” Howie, J.C. Attrib (act, 1840 circa) © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

The known incident of social performance in Perth incorporating the river Tay was when the Glover Incorporation, in all their livery, performed a sword dance on a floating platform in the river, to celebrate Charles II’s coronation in Scone in 1633 (Bennett 1985). It should serve to remind that it was unlikely to have been a one off but part of a long-standing, medieval tradition of civic performance and once more link Perth to wider European practice: pageantry and performance on and around the river Rhine at Basle, Switzerland and on the river Adige at Trento, northern Italy are but two examples.

Certainly before the Reformation in Scotland (and in some parts of it well after) such rituals, performances, plays and pageants had a dual function of seeking to establish and reinforce a hierarchical, social cohesion (under God) and through the recitation of Psalms, prayers and hymns that accompanied and were integral to processions (especially of relics, themselves powerful agents) sought God’s apotropaic protection for the town or city, against all evil and misfortune

Comments 1

  1. Meal Vennel: Excavation report by GUARD Archaeology
    A significant assemblage of medieval pottery, metal, bone, antler, leather and wooden artefacts recovered from rich midden deposits, floor surfaces, occupation deposits, structural timbers, pits and hearths sheds new light upon life in the heart of medieval Perth.The work was undertaken between August 1985 and April 1986 and the report is now available at

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