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Lewis Chessmen

The Missing Pieces: Unraveling the History of the Lewis Chessmen

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In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-two game pieces carved of ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen—the Lewis chessmen—the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moonfaced and mild. The knights are doughty if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies.

The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps—simple octagons—and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, like checkers. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Who carved them? Where? How did they arrive in that sandbank— or, as another account says, that underground cist—on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland? No one knows for sure: History, too, has many pieces missing. To play the game, we fill the empty squares with pieces of our own imagination.

A knight from the Lewis chessmen set

A knight from the Lewis chessmen set. (Nachosan/CC BY SA 3.0)

Clues About the Lewis Chessmen

Instead of facts about these chessmen, we have clues. Some come from medieval sagas; others from modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. The story of the Lewis chessmen encompasses the whole history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, from 793 to 1066, when the sea road connected places we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the Orkney Islands and Greenland, the Hebrides and Newfoundland.

Their story questions the economics behind the Viking voyages to the West, explores the Viking impact on Scotland, and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for almost five hundred years, until the Scottish king finally claimed his islands in 1266. It reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

The Lewis chessmen are the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. To David Caldwell, former curator at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where eleven of the chessmen now reside, they may also be the most valuable: “It is difficult to translate that worth into money,” he and Mark Hall wrote in a museum guidebook in 2010, “and practically impossible to measure their cultural significance and the enjoyment they have given countless museum visitors over the years.” Or, as Caldwell phrased it to me over tea one afternoon in the museum’s cafeteria: “If you knew what they were valued at, you wouldn’t want to pick one up.”

Comparisons and Contradictions

Too late for that. I’d already spent an hour handling four of them. Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The king, queen, and rook I chose are all about the same size: two and three-quarters to three and a quarter inches tall. The bishop is much bigger—over three and a half inches to the peak of his pointed miter—obviously from a different set, I thought, though it’s hard to sort the fifty-nine face pieces by size. You can make two sets—then the system falls apart. The Lewis hoard may represent more than four chess sets. There may be more pieces missing than we think.

The bishop piece from the Lewis chessmen set

The bishop piece from the Lewis chessmen set. Photo courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

Perhaps some—broken or decayed—were left behind in that sandbank or cist by whoever discovered them. Written accounts of the find are contradictory. But the collection does seem to have been sorted. The chessmen we have are remarkably well preserved for having lain in the ground for six hundred–some years.

Except for the spider web of surface cracks no one can explain (worm channels? etching by acids secreted by plant roots? damage by marine gastropods?) and a dark mottling to his creamy color, the bishop in my hand looks brand new. Dressed in chasuble and miter, he clasps his crozier close to his cheek and raises his right hand in an awkward blessing. He has an enormously long thumb. His nose is straight, his eyes close set, his mouth crooked with a bit of an overbite. He’s a jowly fellow, too—no ascetic here. He’s carved from a prime section of walrus tusk, I see, turning him upside down: I can barely tell where the smooth ivory surface of the tusk gives way to its darker, grainier core.

The rook, too, was made of quality ivory. He’s uniformly shiny, though he sports the same speckling of fine cracks as the bishop. He brandishes his sword and bites his kite-shaped shield, berserk fashion. His buck teeth aren’t straight. His nose isn’t either: It looks broken. Like the bishop’s, his garment is simple. It seems to be just a long coat, perhaps of leather. A few strong grooves mark the fabric’s folds; a line of dots on his cuff suggests ornament. His helmet is a plain conical cap.

A rook gaming piece from the Lewis chessmen se

A rook gaming piece from the Lewis chessmen set. (Nachosan/CC BY SA 3.0)

Crude or Careful Carvings?

Neither rook nor bishop displays the carver’s skill. Their strength comes from the design, not the details. The opposite is true of the king and queen I examined next. Seated on richly decorated thrones, they have terrible posture. Their spines hunch, their heads jut forward; they look old and almost all done in.

She is brooding, her jaw clenched. He is morose, gloomy, defeated—I would not want to play with this fey monarch. The carving is incredibly fine. His beard is neatly trimmed; his hair twists into four long locks. Hers is plaited into braids, looped up under a veil that is clipped in the back, very fancy, under an open fleurs-de-lis-topped crown. His heavy robes fall in cascades of folds. She wears a pleated skirt, a short gown, a robe with embroidered or fur-trimmed edges, a jewel at her throat, her wrists ringed with bangles. He grips a sheathed sword athwart his knees. She claps her right hand to her cheek, cradles her elbow with the left: Her left thumb curves back like mine does.

To me, they are clearly a pair—even the scrolls of foliage on their throne backs are similar. Yet Caldwell’s colleague Caroline Wilkinson, a professor of forensic art, believes they were carved by two different artists. Analyzing all fifty-nine face pieces from the Lewis hoard using a computerized grid system, she concluded in 2009 that Artist C carved this queen and fourteen other chessmen; Artist D carved the king. Caldwell, intuitively, lumped together groups B and D and split group C into several artists, since the pieces, to him, ranged from competent to “crudely carved.”

I would not call this queen crude. I chose this particular royal pair to examine because I knew their materials were substandard. The sections of tusk they were made from, as you can see by turning them upside down, were defective. Their bases are C-shaped: The smooth ivory rim rings only three-quarters of the pocked and pitted core of the tusk. The king’s carver simply made do: One side of the king’s face, body, and throne are darker and rougher, as if poorly polished. The queen’s carver carefully attached an ivory plate to improve the looks of the throne. The fit is so delicate it’s difficult to see, even under a magnifying lens. Not until I blew up my photographs did I notice the four tiny ivory pegs that fasten the plate.

The queen from the Lewis chessmen set. Photo courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

Still, the queen’s right hand, the hand pressed to her cheek in worry or grief, shows the irregular pattern of the walrus tusk’s core. Over the centuries, a bit has flaked off. There’s a hole in her hand. A little longer in that cist or sand dune and she would have lost her wrist where it was cut away, so carefully, from her body. It’s an exquisite piece of work using shoddy materials. It speaks to me of thrift, pride, determination, and skill. I can imagine the artist calling out “Don’t toss that lump away,” then putting all her art into the carving of this, the smallest of all fifty-nine face pieces.

Hold this thoughtful little queen in your hand and it’s easy to become enthralled.

This article is an extract from the book ‘ Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who Made Them’ by Nancy Marie Brown.

Top Image: The Lewis chessmen. Source: Ninox/CC BY NC 2.0

By Nancy Marie Brown



Justbod's picture

Such very, very beautiful artefacts, and with such mystery surrounding them.

Thank you for the article and sharing the beautiful photos – very inspirational.


Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature:



Nancy Marie Brown's picture

Nancy Marie Brown

NANCY MARIE BROWN is the author of highly praised books of nonfiction, including Song of the Vikings. She is fluent in Icelandic, and spends her summers in Iceland. She has deep ties to the Scandinavian cultural institutions in the U.S.... Read More

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