The enigma of the Lewis chessmen

by ChessBase
9/11/2010 – 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.

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The origins

In 1831, on the shores of the Isle of Lewis, off Scotland, a remarkable find was unearthed, soon to be exhibited in Edinburgh that very year: a collection of 93 gaming pieces including 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men and a buckle to secure a bag.

Shores near Uig, Isle of Lewis, where the chessmen were reportedly found.

The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. The hoard is likely to be made up of four chess sets, eleven of the chessmen are at the National Museums Scotland and the remaining 82 reside at the British Museum.

A couple of the outstanding details about them, aside from their beautiful workmanship, is that they are the first pieces known to depict distinctly human forms, and they are also the very first pieces to actually have the bishops shown as such. This last detail is the basis of a dispute as to their origins, as will be seen below.

The Lewis Chessmen

Most agree that the Lewis chessmen are works of art and that the carvers who made them were master artisans.  Foreign scholars have been of the opinion that the courts of royalty and the bishopric were the principal cultural centres where crafts and the arts could flourish enough to generate such refined pieces. 


The bishops of the sets - smoking guns?

The knights

Two types of 'rooks' were found, though neither looked like today's rooks. Some were
standard looking warriors...

while others looked like Scandinavian berzerkers, frenzied fighters who wore bearskins
and are shown biting their shields here.

The queens are all seemingly bored, leaning their chins on their hands.

The kings also seem to have two face designs, a clean-shaven one with a slightly
pulled back chin, and another with a thin face and full beard.

After 180 years, the Lewis Chessmen continue to fascinate and capture the imagination of people around the world. Their iconic cultural status is undisputed, and they are found everywhere, from the covers of books, records, to movies such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone or Kingdom of Heaven.

The enigmatic bishop is used to decorate this 1972
paperback edition of Agatha Christie's novel.

A game of Wizard's Chess from the first Harry Potter film uses the Lewis chessmen.

The dispute of their origins

The oft-repeated story, republished by books, and used as the official front story by both the British Museum and the National Museums Scotland, is that they belonged to a merchant traveling from Norway to Ireland. They were probably made in Norway late 12th and early 13th centuries and where the chessmen were buried, was part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland.  It seems likely they were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

The one thing that is not disputed, is that of their age, between 1150 and 1200 AD, made possible by the very detailed design of the bishop´s mitres. According to documentation from the British Museum, the age of the Lewis chessmen is estimated primarily from the bishops’ mitres.

Evolution of the mitre from the 11th century to the present as depicted in the
Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).

A bishop with his mitre from the Lewis set.

Mitres of this kind were first introduced around 1150, so the chessmen cannot predate that time. These mitres are highest at the front and back, with a depression between the two peaks. Before 1150, the highest points were to the sides and the cleft between them ran from front to back. Mitres changed again around the year 1200, so the chessmen are unlikely to be much younger than that.

Recently, Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson, published a paper disputing the theory that the pieces are Norwegian, and hypothesizes that the Lewis Chessmen were, in fact, made in Iceland around the year 1200. Thórarinsson, a civil engineer, is also the former President of the Icelandic Chess Federation and was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the historical World Chess Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972. The full paper and more can be found at its website.

Close view of the bishop

His main contentions stem on the bishops, and the fact that they are depicted as such. In English today, this might seem a non-argument, but one must understand that the use of the word bishop in chess is only found in two languages in the world, Icelandic and English. In Scandinavia and Germany this piece is called a runner. According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1971, the word “bishop” entered the English language around 1450-70. The use of this word seems to have come into English from Icelandic at a period where commerce was lively between Iceland and England. This era, spanning from 1400 to 1500, is known in Iceland as the “English Century”.

This was recently the subject of an article in the New York Times as well as at the Gambit Blog, the official New York Times chess blog.

September 7, 2010, 12:30 pm

A New Theory on the Origin of the Lewis Chessmen



Dr. Woolf said that Trondheim, as Norway’s political and cultural center at the time, made sense as the likely source of the chessmen for several reasons.

The walrus tusk used to make the chessmen was expensive and the pieces would have had to have been made where there were wealthy patrons to employ craftsmen and pay for the material. “A hell of a lot of walrus ivory went into making those chessmen, and Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers,” Dr. Woolf said. The pieces are also exquisite works of art, he said, adding, “You don’t get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa.”

He said that scholars believed that the archbishop of Trondheim, who, along with the king of Norway, had jurisdiction over the Hebrides, was probably the wealthy patron. He may have had them made as gifts, based on the cost of the ivory and the quality of the carving.


(For full article click here)

Further challenges on the origin

This is not the first dispute of the origins, and in 2009, a major study led by Dr David Caldwell, National Museums Scotland, working with Mark Hall of Perth Museum and Art Gallery and Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee was done to re-examine existing theories.

Were the Lewis chessmen even for chess?

Their study, published in the journal Medieval Archaeology, challenges the widely held view that they were part of a merchant’s hoard when they were buried on Lewis, and suggests that they may have been used for games other than chess, primarily hnefatfl, popular in the medieval Scandinavian world. At least three games could be represented by the pieces in the hoard.

A pair of knights.

The currently accepted version of the hoard’s discovery is that it was recovered by a local man, Malcolm MacLeod, from the sand dunes at Ardroil on the south side of Uig Strand. However this is based on later accounts by a local story-teller, and Dr Caldwell and his co-authors believe it is more likely that they were found at Mèalasta, a few miles south of Uig Strand. If this is the case, then there is evidence of a medieval settlement at Mèalasta, and the the hoard could have belonged to a significant local figure such as a bishop or clan chief, rather than being left by a merchant on his way elsewhere.


Whatever the origins, one thing remains clear, the Lewis chessmen remain a legacy to our longlasting love of wargames, and their beautiful painstaking workmanship will never cease to enchant.

Pictures by British Museum and G. G. Thórarinsson


Here are a series of links where you may see and learn more about them:

The British Museum - Official page of their collection

National Museums Scotland - Series of pages dedicated to the exhibition, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked.

A History of the World in 100 Objects - A radio program made by BBC Radio, in conjunction with the British Chess Museum. The program is 15 minutes long and can be listened to at the site.

Wikipedia - The name says it all.

Origin of the Lewis Chessmen - The pages where the full article by Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson can be found. There are further links and info there as well.

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