THE smallest medieval Arabic chess piece to be discovered in the country has been unearthed in an archaeological dig at Wallingford Museum.

At first curators at the museum in High Street thought the artefact was a tiny carving of a cat.

But a closer examination revealed it was a chess piece made from the tip of an antler, and further pieces could be found when a second dig is carried out at the visitor attraction in July.

Curator Judy Dewey said: "We have joked that we will pick up the other 31 pieces and the board but of course that's very unlikely."

The tiny object was discovered during an excavation in the back yard of the museum.

Once it was cleaned up it was identified as a gaming piece, highly decorated with ring and dot designs.

The curator said: "Expert identification has shown that it is actually a medieval Arabic chess piece.

"It is one of only about 50 medieval chess pieces found in England and, at only 21.7mm high, it is unique in being the smallest medieval Arabic chess piece known in the country.

"The chess piece was made from the tip of an antler in the 12th or 13th century and is highly decorated with traditional roundels - most other such pieces are at least double the size.

This is a bishop so the other pieces in the set must have been really tiny - it may have been part of a travelling set."

Mrs Dewey added that the design originated in the East from an elephant, with the points representing tusks.

When chess spread to Europe the piece became known as a Bishop, as the tusks looked like the points of a bishop’s mitre.

She said the chess piece was found close to Wallingford Priory, which the museum building once belonged to, so it may have been lost by a wealthy gentleman staying there.

Ms Dewey added: "Wallingford had an important Royal Castle close by and occasionally visitors were housed in the Priory - even the monks may have played chess."

Visitors can see the chess piece, together with other medieval objects, on display at the museum.

Following the dig last year a second excavation will run for for two weeks in July, and Family Archaeology Day will take place on Saturday, July 23.

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