Wednesday, 3 August 2011
The Lewis Chessmen (or Uig Chessmen, named after the bay where they were found) are a group of 78 chess pieces from the 12th century most of which are carved in walrus ivory, discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. They may constitute some of the few complete medieval chess sets that have survived, although it is not clear if a set as originally used can be made from the pieces present. They are owned and exhibited by the British Museum in London, which has 67 and the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. There has been fairly heated debate about the best place for the display of the pieces.
The chessmen were probably made in Norway, perhaps by craftsmen in Trondheim, in the 12th century, although some scholars have suggested other sources in the Nordic countries. During that period the Outer Hebrides, along with other major groups of Scottish islands, were ruled by Norway.Some historians believe that the Lewis chessmen were hidden (or lost) after some mishap occurred during their carriage from Norway to wealthy Norse towns on the east coast of Ireland, like Dublin. A large number of pieces and their lack of wear may suggest they were the stock of a trader or dealer in such pieces.Along with the chess pieces, there were 14 plain round tablemen for the game of tables and one belt buckle, all made of ivory, making a total of 93 artifacts.
Around the Isle of Lewis one occasionally comes across a large wooden carving of one of the chesspieces.
My favourite is the Berserker - seen here Uig. I'll post again about the chessmen shortly - having seen some of the originals in Stornoway Museum where they are temporarily on loan from the British Museum.