Isle of Lewis Chess Pieces at Cloisters Museum

image of Isle of Lewis chess piecesThese 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces are currently on exhibit through April 22, 2012 at the Metropolitan’s Cloisters museum in The Game Of Kings. There’s a fairly lengthy but interesting video from the Metropolitan Museum about the Game of Kings exhibit.

The chessmen were found by a farmer on the Isle of Lewis, the largest of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, in 1831. The Lewis chess pieces seem to have been buried in a sand dune, possibly in a stone cist, near Uig. We don’t even know exactly when they were found, just that it was before 11 April 1831, the date of the first published record. The find includes 93 chessmen from at least four different set, none of them complete, some pieces resembling checkers (possibly for use in Hnefatafl or one of the other similar medieval board games) and a carved ivory belt buckle.

Sir Frederic Madden, the first editor of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, initially published a description of the finds in 1832 (“Historical remarks on the introduction of the game of chess into Europe and on the ancient chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis.” Archaeologia XXIV (1832): Queen no. 2, p. 217). The British Museum very quickly purchased most of the pieces. In 1888 the National Museum of Scotland obtained the remaining 11 that had remained in private collections. Today we have 93 Isle of Lewis chess pieces, 11 of which belong to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The other 82 pieces are in the British Museum.

Cover of British Museum book about the Lewis Chess menThe pieces are strikingly detailed, carved from walrus ivory ranging from 1 5/8 inches to just over 4 inches tall. When they were found, at least some of the pieces were stained carmine red (the convention of black and white pieces is fairly modern, in terms of a game with a history that dates to ). Assuming the Game and Playe of the Chesse was fairly similar to today’s chess, a board big enough for the pieces to be arranged in initial formation would be about 82 cm/32 inches across. They were, based on the era and stylistic features shared with sculptures in Trondheim, most likely made in Norway, c. AD 1150–1200. That would be during the time when the Western Isles including the Hebrides were controlled by Norway. They would have been expensive, and regarded as luxury items.

Cover of David Caldwell's book about the Lewis chess piecesThe faces and expressions are very individualized, and realistic. There are interesting touches that provide characterization; one of the warders, or rooks, is biting his the top edge of his shield in an echo of the Old Norse description of a berserk in Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga, part of Sturluson’s Heimskringla c. 1230. The Queen very much has a woe-is-me expression; the King while sitting, has his sword drawn and ready. The pawns are all either grave markers, or rune stones, depending on one’s cultural take.

Art historians and chess experts have hypothesized that the hoard might represent the remainders of four complete sets; the sets as hypothesized mean the current pieces lack a knight, 4 warders or rooks, and 45 pawns, in order to complete four sets.

Isle of Lewis replica chess setI suspect the recent resurgence of interest in the Isle of Lewis pieces has something to do with the use of replica pieces in the “Wizard’s Chess” that Ron and Harry play in the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I tried rather hard to learn to play chess, thinking I’d purchase this resin replica set of pieces and board based on the Lewis pieces, but alas, I play so poorly that only my computer will attempt to teach me.

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