Friday, 17 February 2012

The Lewis Chessmen (and Chessladies)

We visited the National Museum of Scotland last week, where we go often, and it comes with my highest recommendation for anyone visiting Edinburgh. Though not the main reason for our visit that day, we spent a little time with one of the museum's most famous exhibits, the Lewis Chessmen.

The exact history of the Lewis Chessmen is a little dubious at either end. The common story is that they were found in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in 1831or a little before, and although there are a few conspiracy theories against this, it seems likely to me.

Their origins are much murkier. They were once thought to have been made in Iceland but it is now generally accepted they were made in Norway sometime round about 1150 to 1200 (the shape of the bishops' mitres are of a style developed around this time). It may be of some satisfaction to many of my collegues on the Foinaven that some experts think that they may have been crafted in Trondheim from walrus tusk and whales teeth.

What is definate is that there are 96 pieces, from at least four sets, most of which belong to the British Museum in London but 11 belong to the National Museum of Scotland - they must have one in a box somewhere as there were only 10 in the case when I took these pictures.

They are not in the style of chess pieces as we have come to know them today - they may have been used to play other games. The kings in the sets are seated on thrones with a sword on their laps.

The queens in the sets are portrayed with their heads on their right hand. Some look somewhat concerned, after all, there's hubby with his sword out and only able to move one square in any direction at a time, and some look...well...just a bit bored. Some are seen clutching a drinking horn - passes the time I suppose.

Pictures of the pieces usually shows them from the front but it's worth a look round the back as the backs of the thrones are elaborately decorated.

When they were found the absence of rooks was noted and there were a number of warriors which are now thought to be the rooks.

Some of the warriors are berserkers, biting the top of their shields in their excitment to get into battle.

The knights all seem to have rather undersized horses.

This seems to be a good time to go back a few years and show you some pictures I took of the pieces that are in the British Museum in London. You can see here a number of gaming counters and a belt buckle that was found with the chessmen.

Although these two fine institutions in Edinburgh and London are the permenent homes of the pieces, it is worth pointing out that they are often loaned out to other museums around the world, including the Nan Eilean Museum in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Last year I saw some of them in Aberdeen while on my way to work, so keep your eyes open in case they're heading your way.

The Lewis pieces have been used as the models for many sets now on sale like these fine fellows made by the Regency Chess Company in Bath.

They used laser technology to take a 3D scan of this berserker that appeared in an earlier picture to produce a full sized replica of the original. Have a compare and see how close you think they've come.


Jim Deans said...

Hi Sandy, it's possible that the horses were pretty small.The Icelandic or Norwegian Fjord horses for example can be squat and strong enough to carry full grown men.While visiting Lewis a couple of years ago I picked up a leaflet about the Chessmen and had a short walk on
Ardroil beach.
Never found anything apart from some lovely shells though.

Jim Deans said...

P.S My profile picture here was taken just outside the gates of what was RAF Aird Uig.

Zia Wolf-Sun said...

What a cool way to play chess! lol ;) They do look awfully bored though!! :)

Shundo said...

Shetland ponies maybe? Thanks for the great close-ups of the expressions, and for thinking to look around the back for the details. That's what I love about your blog Sandy.

Laoch of Chicago said...


Sandy's witterings said...

I've never heard of Norwegian Fjord horses Jim but it makes sense when I think of it and ties into Shetland ponies Shundo. The Norwegians occupied the Shetlands for years so perhaps they brought their Fjord ponies across and they became Shetland ponies.

Wolfie, the queen certainly seems bored - some of the rest just seem mad.

Thanks Laoch

Crafty Green Poet said...

they're such wonderfully detailed pieces, thanks for all these photos!