The Lewis Chessmen discovered on the Isle of Lewis were shown in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1831 for the first time. Handcrafted from walrus tusks and whale teeth in the 12th century, these pieces have now become iconic representations of our lifelong passion for war games today. However, their origins are a matter of debate and speculation. The world’s most renowned chess set is shown in this illustrated article.
Meet The Lewis Chessmen
Carved by a master craftsman, the Lewis chessmen are often regarded as masterpieces of craftsmanship and are one of the most significant pieces in the history of Chess. In the eyes of outside scholars, the royal courts and the episcopal sees of Europe were the most fertile grounds for artistic expression, resulting in such sophisticated works.
Is there a backstory to the Lewis Chessmen that I’ve missed? What happened to them, and how did they come to be?
These walrus ivory chess pieces date back to the late 12th or early 13th century CE and are known as the Lewis Chessmen. The Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides is where they got their name because that’s where they were discovered in the nineteenth century. They are, nonetheless, of Scandinavian ancestry, most likely Norwegian or Icelandic.
It’s estimated that the treasure has at least ninety-three different chess pieces already, including various types of pawns and non-chess playing pieces like bishops and warders (rooks). The trove is just a few pieces short of completing four full chess sets. Eighty-two components are housed at the British Museum in London, while eleven are kept at the National Museum of Scotland. It’s scarce for an individual or organization to get their hands on one of these chessmen.
The Lewis Chessmen’s expressive and almost comical qualities make them more than just a very ancient chess set. The expressions on each piece are severe and anxious, and the rate on each piece is superb. Many people have their hands clasped to their faces, while others are clutching swords or staff. They are seated on beautifully painted chairs for the monarchs, queens, and bishops. Sotheby’s news statement quotes a family member saying that one of the piece’s unique qualities is its “quirkiness,” which is an apt description. The berserkers, warders (rooks) depicting warriors with wide eyes and a habit of biting their shields, fit the bill. While Norse mythology described berserkers as hysterical and vicious warriors, they appear more endearing than frightening.
Another warder with sword and shield, the recently unearthed chessman, is much more sober-looking than a furious berserker. Some Lewis Chessmen warders consider him a fantastic match for them. He has a darker surface color than the other pale figures in the trove, even though they were all previously colored.
Despite their expressive looks, there is still a lot of mystery about the Lewis Chessmen. While it is unknown how they ended up on the Isle of Lewis, a native discovered them in 1831. People generally believe that they belonged to some shipwrecked merchant who dumped them somewhere to avoid paying taxes and never returned to recover them. There are numerous other, more complex hypotheses.
Based on their clothes and weapons, studies of the Lewis Chessmen have placed them between 1150 CE and 1200 CE. Trondheim, where the Lewis Chessmen were constructed, was owned by Norway and had a long tradition of ivory carving, making it likely that the chessmen were made in Norway. Scholars, however, believe that they may have come from Iceland. According to one idea, the famous Icelandic ivory carver Margaret the Adroit is credited with creating them. Even yet, Nancy Marie Brown has written an outstanding book addressing this issue. A fascinating new book, Ivory Vikings: The Mysterious Story of the Woman Who Crafted the World’s Most Famous Chessmen (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), has just been released.
A rare find was made in 1831 off the coast of Scotland on the Isle of Lewis: a collection of 93 gaming pieces, including 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men, and a buckle to secure a bag, which was soon to be displayed in Edinburgh that year.
The chessmen were reputedly discovered on the Isle of Lewis, near the town of Uig.
Walrus ivory and whales’ teeth are used to make king and queen, bishop, knight, and pawn pieces in the form of obelisk-shaped obelisks, respectively. Eleven are housed in the National Museums Scotland among the chessmen in the trove, while they can find the remaining 82 in London’s British Museum.
As a side note, these are the first pieces known to represent unmistakably human forms, and they are also the first pieces to feature bishops.
The Hoard’s Discovery
The finding of the trove raises several unsolved questions. A Mr. Roderick Rirrie of Stornoway, Lewis, permitted for the pieces to be shown at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831.
Camas Uig (Uig Bay), on the island’s west coast, appears to be where they discovered the trove.
In one narrative, a destroyed monastery is mentioned, whereas, in the other, an Iron Age souterrain is described as having been found. None of the authors have visited Lewis, so there’s a lot of mystery around how and where the hoard was discovered. According to some reports, the discoverer was Malcolm MacLeod, a resident of the adjacent town of Peighinn Dhomhnuill. However, little is known about him.
Mr. Ririe sold the hoard just a few months after its discovery. We obtained many of our items from private collections before bringing them to the Museum in 1888. The majority of the trove had been purchased by the British Museum in 1831-1832. Museum nan Eilean on the Isle of Lewis has six artworks on loan from the British Museum.
9 Interesting Facts
If you’ve recently become enamored with chess, we’ve got seven more fascinating tidbits to share with you.
1. They got their name from Lewis Island.
They were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, but it’s not clear where they came from or how they got there. Some believe they were created in Trondheim, Norway, about 1150–1200. It is due to a variety of factors. When it comes to carving walrus ivory, Trondheim was a significant hub in the Middle Ages; secondly, an ivory queen piece fragment was unearthed at the local church; and third, the Chessmen’s thrones have an uncanny likeness to medieval Norwegian church carvings.
In the Middle Ages, who would have been playing chess?
They brought it to the Middle East and Europe in the 7th century, where the works became more figurative and depicted regal positions, such as kings and queens. Nobility and clergy alike were fans of chess, which became associated with chivalry and courtliness even if some church members objected.
2. The identities of their owners are unknown.
They could have belonged to a trader traveling from Norway to Ireland to sell them and making a pit break in Lewis along the way. There are nearly enough pieces in the trove to create four unique sets (the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland have 78 known pieces), and they show no evidence of use.
It’s also possible that they were intended for the island’s aristocracy members. It’s impossible to say for sure when or why they were thrown into the river. This mystery has spawned numerous theories, such as that the trove was dug up and discovered by an unsuspecting cow or that it was the work of an evil murderer. They were found some time before April 11, 1831, when they were shown at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland in Edinburgh. It is the only certainty.
3. They’re crafted from sperm whale tooth and walrus ivory.
The slender tusk of the walrus was ideal for crafting gaming pieces, and they commonly utilized it in northern Europe for luxury carvings. An exquisite belt buckle and 14 blank discs, later carved with decoration and used as gaming pieces, are also found in the trove. According to folklore, Greenland may have supplied Greenland with the tusks used in the Lewis Chessmen.
4. They’ve traveled extensively.
There are few artifacts in the British Museum’s collection that have seen as much travel as the Lewis Chessmen (and women).
There have been over 20 exhibitions worldwide since 1995, and hundreds of thousands of people have had the opportunity to see the sculptures. Everything in their facial expressions is endearing, from a queen’s troubled look to a warrior biting at his shield.
5. They have been a part of the Museum’s collection for decades.
The Lewis Chessmen were among the first European medieval artifacts to enter the Museum of Modern Art, which was preoccupied with artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. During the 1800s, they were displayed among other ivory antiques, as shown in this shot of the ‘Medieval Room’ from 1875. They are lined up in the center of what appears to be an ivory mirror case display case. Visitors to the Medieval Europe 1050–1500 gallery can now get a glimpse of their faces!
6. They’ve made it big in Hollywood.
To discuss these chess games, we have to mention one particular young genius. During the climactic battle between Ron Weasley and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, they utilized a duplicate of the Lewis chess set held by British Museum curator Irving Finkel.
7. They’ve developed their personality.
In the modern-day, the Lewis Chessmen have been re-created countless times. Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure manga and the National Museum of Scotland’s gigantic Lego sculpture are two more places where they’ve appeared in addition to the Harry Potter cameo appearance. The public has been sending curator Naomi Speakman images of them in cake! To further enhance the chess experience, 3D images of several chessmen have been added.
Uplifting Tales and Stories
Since their discovery, chess pieces have been the subject of numerous stories. A Gille Ruadh (The Red Gillie), a 17th-century Gaelic tale, is one of the earliest examples. A servant saw a sailor departing his ship with an unidentified bag of loot, and that’s how they discovered the treasure trove. Although the sailor was killed in pursuit of his seizure, the servant could not return to get it and was ultimately found guilty of the sailor’s murder and put to death. As seen by this story, people in Uig had incorporated the trove into their mythology.
When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) was released in 2001, it introduced the chess pieces to a new generation of moviegoers. The chess pieces in the wizard’s chess are charmed and can move independently. A massive version of the elements they had enchanted to protect the Philosopher’s Stone appeared to Ron, Harry, and Hermione near the film’s end, which was an exciting moment for the trio.
The Remaining Kings
The eight kings, like the queens, sit on their thrones, grimacing (except for the two young ones, who are a bit eager). All except one of them have long hair curled into locks and swords on their laps. If the items are from the 12th century, Magnus V, the Norwegian king who was deposed by Sverrir and succeeded by Magnus V in 1164, could be recognized.
Even though he was barely eight years old when his father Erling Skew-Neck became king of Norway and reigned until he died in 1179, Magnus V—not to be confused with Magnus the Bare-Legged or Magnus the Blind—was an attractive man who enjoyed alcohol and women. However, Brown describes Sverrir’s appearance as “most kingly when he was seated down.”
A conflict with the archbishop led to the ex-communication of King Sverrir after Magnus died in 1184, and he soon had a military uprising on his hands. Sverrir finally gave in to the rebels’ demands after they were encircled at Viken and forced to subsist on the flesh of their walrus-hide ropes. Sverrir died a few months later, still excommunicated, during a brief period of peace. 1202 was the year. “Being a king has brought me battle and trouble and hard work,” King Sverrir said near the conclusion of his reign, according to the Saga of King Sverrir.
If you liked reading about the history of the Lewis Chessmen, there’s much more you can learn such as all the interesting facts about the history of Chess and where Chess got its name from.