Twelfth-century chess pieces

"They are something of a fluke, because you wouldn't dig in Lewis for a set of ivory chessmen."
— Ian Riddler

The British Museum contains many wonderful artifacts from many times and places. Some are from far-away places *cough*Elgin Marbles and some from not so far away. The Lewis (or Uig) Chessmen were supposedly discovered buried in a stone chest in 1831 in a sandbank at Uig Bay on the Isle of Lewis to the north-east of Scotland. The man who made this important find was a peasant farmer, Malcolm MacLeod, who sold the pieces (sad to say he and his family were evicted following the Highland Clearances).

It's the largest collection of mediaeval chess pieces ever to be found. Carved from walrus ivory, the figures have been dated to after 1150, when the orientation of the bishop's mitre to the front of the head was well established. The design and ornamentation of the pieces is also in keeping with the artistic and architectural standards of the time. As mentioned above, it's unlikely that they were made on Lewis; the most likely origin being Scandanavian, owing largely to the ornamental designs of the thrones on which some pieces sit, it being a close match to similar pieces from Norway. It is quite possible that they were made in Trondheim, which at the time was an important focus of the walrus ivory trade, but some have suggested they originate in Iceland where there was also a thriving walrus population.

Among the 93 objects in the hoard, a belt buckle, 14 counters (not unlike draughts or checkers pieces), and 78 chess pieces were found, of which eight were kings. According to early accounts, some of them were stained red, though this has now faded. Assuming there were originally four sets, some fifty pieces are now missing. Nonetheless, those that were found tell an important tale. Chess in Europe was undergoing a Westernisation of its Indian and Islamic roots. This is one of the earliest sets to feature the bishop, for example, which replaced the elephant from earlier chess sets. Additionally, most earlier sets did not replace the vizier with a female figure, yet here the queens are included, a nod to the role increasingly played by women in the political arena. The level of detail in the major pieces is striking. Weapons, clothing and thrones are lovingly carved, probably as a commission for a wealthy patron. The pawns were less well defined despite their importance in the game, reflecting their lowly place in the social order of the time. Chess was after all a game for nobles, knights and clergy, and the common man was of lesser importance.

So, why Lewis?

How did these elaborate and expensive sets end up on a beach on a Scottish island? How were the missing pieces lost? A trader's ship wrecked near the coast? It's a mystery. What we do know is that chess was increasingly being played by influential people of the time, and as they were found on a shipping route to Ireland, it's possibly that they'd been commissioned by an Irish cleric or noble.

From Lewis they were sold to an Edinburgh dealer, and it was from him that the British Museum bought them for the princely sum of eighty guineas. Unbeknown to the museum, the dealer had already sold off eleven pieces, which are now located in the National Museum of Scotland. There has been some controversy about where the whole collection should be located. The Scots say they should be the property of a Scottish museum, and as with so many antiquities, it's hard to say where they should be kept and displayed. For my part, given that they were likely en route from Norway to Ireland, one of those countries really has a better claim. One day the dispute may be resolved, at which point it will be "Checkmate, British Museum".

For mauler, for organising Iron Noder

Iron node 31

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