Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt, Iceland

8/1/2011 – In the nineteenth century a collection of chessmen, handcrafted in the twelfth century, was found on the Isle of Lewis, and have become the most famous chess set in the world. This year archaeologists discovered a new chess piece in Iceland, and the controversy surrounding the exact origins of the Lewis Chessmen takes a new twist. In August you can attend a symposium on the subject.

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Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt

Skálholt is one of Iceland's most important historic sites, bishopric since 1056 and is still today a centre for education, culture and dialogue of church and society. This summer the 800 Years Anniversary of Bishop Páll Jónsson (1155-1211) will be celebrated, which is believed by some to have perhaps orchestrated the making of the Lewis Chessmen. On August 19th 2011 there will be an international symposium at Skálholt on the possible origins of the mystical and most precious artefacts, the Lewis Chessmen, from the late 12th century. They are the world's oldest chess pieces that bear the features of modern chessmen.

Until recently, the best guess among scholars and historians was that the Lewis Chessmen probably originated in Trondheim, Norway. But in 2010, Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson put forward a compelling new theory about the enigma of the origin of these unique chess pieces. His tantalizing hypothesis – based on circumstantial evidence – is that the chessmen might have been handcrafted in Iceland, at the old workshop at Skálholt, under the guidance of Bishop Páll Jónsson and his team of Margrét the Adroit, Thorstein the Schrinesmith and other craftsmen. (The ruins of the old workshop and its scrap heap is still lying there untouched, awaiting excavation)

The proposed Agenda for the Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt includes 6-7 short lectures (15-20 min. each) delivered by two-three esteemed scholars from overseas, e.g. David H. Caldwell from the National Museum of Scotland and James Robinson of the British Museum. Both of them have recently authored books on the enigma of the Lewis Chessmen. Next on the agenda will be Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson who will summerize and expound upon his new theory. Following Mr. Thórarinsson, several Icelandic scholars and professors will speak about Bishop Páll and the theme of the conference. The agenda will be further augmented by an open session.

The Symposium will be held in English and is open to all. It begins at 10 a.m, on Friday, 19th August 2011 and lasts the full day. Registration can be made by phone +354-486 8870 or by email.

Historic discovery of an old chess piece in Iceland

A small handcarved chess piece was among many other items found in an archaeological excavation at Siglunes in north Iceland. A team from Iceland's Institute of Archaeology recently finished preliminary investigation at the site. At Siglunes there was a fishing station for centuries. Interesting remains of human habitation have be discovered there, but due to huge abrasion in the area there is big danger that the relics will be lost to the sea.

Birna Lárusdóttir, one of the archaeologists in Siglunes, describes the dig: "There are definitley a lot af relics from the settlement in the 9th century and until 1300 – very interesting to research, lot of fish and animal bones and many small things, which are very practical for analyses and can tell us a story about the people who lived here and what they were doing."

"Among the items we found this summer was a hair comb and a small delecately carved chess piece, which probably got lost and landed in the the trash. 'Thormodur', as the we called the chessman, after the settler there, Thormodur the Herculean, was discovered in a very huge scrap heap, wrapped in a thick layer of dirt, when the soil was being strained. It is indeed very neatly handcarved out of fishbone, the very hard and thick headbone of a haddock, which is well suited for carving. This is very likely a rook in a form of a berserker. We believe, based on the ash layers, that it is from the 12 or 13 century. We want to continue with more excavation at this spot, which is a must before the sea washes it all away."


Similarity between the newly discovered piece and a Lewis Chessman

Einar S. Einarsson, who provided us with most of this information, wrote: "What this new exciting archaeological find tells us and proves is that the Thormodur Chessman / Siglunes Berserker is truly Icelandic; that is from the same time, 12-13 century as the Lewis Chessmen; that the Icelanders vere playing chess at that time and with pieces simular to the Lewis Chessmen; and that handcarving was highly developed form of art in Iceland in the Middle Ages.


Click on the image and listen to Birna tell it – and enjoy the sound of the Icelandic language


Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson is a civil engineer, a lecturer and theorist. A former MP of Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament, and of the Reykjavik City Council. He has served on several governmental committees and has been a member of The European Council. He is also the former President of the Icelandic Chess Federation and was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the "Match of the century", the historical World Chess Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972.

Thórarinsson has written several articles about the works of Shakespeare and lectured on various subjects including the origin of the Icelandic people, the Icelandic sagas, and even Jesus Christ in The New Testament. His most recent article concerns the unique and enigmatic chessmen found on the isle of Lewis in 1831. In a new paper he hypothesizes in greater detail that the Lewis Chessmen were, in fact, made in Iceland around the year 1200. See:

Previous ChessBase reports

On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen – A reply
31.03.2011 – Gudmundur. G. Thórarinsson, the author behind the main material in The Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen, a discussion on the origins of the world's most famous chess set, was dismayed at the belligerent tone in an article seeking to refute his hypotheses regarding its Icelandic roots. He replies here and adds 'the potency of these arguments necessitates formidable counter arguments'.
Norwegian-Icelandic war over the Lewis Chessmen?
05.03.2011 – Last year we published an article on the famous Lewis Chessmen. The two Icelandic authors claimed that the pieces were carved in their country. "With few reservations parts of the chess world have adopted this theory," writes Morten Lilleøren of Norway, who finds the article "filled with faults and oversights." Lilleøren sets out to correct the facts and prove: the Lewis Chessmen are from Norway.
The enigma of the Lewis chessmen
11.09.2010 – In 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a collection of chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis was displayed for the first time. These 12th century handcrafted pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth have since become iconic examples of our lasting love for wargames. Their origins, however, is one of theory and controversy. Here is an illustrated article on the world's most famous chess set.

Copyright Einarsson/ChessBase


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