The Lewis Chessmen: Lillören's misdemeanor

by ChessBase
1/6/2012 – The Icelanders are not going to give in: in the battle with the Norwegians over the origin of the famous Lewis Chessmen – a collection of chess pieces, handcrafted in the 12th century – they repudiate the recent article by Morten Lillören disputing the Icelandic origin. This was the subject of a symposium on the Chessmen held in the location of their assumed origin.

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Morten Lillören's misdemeanor

By Einar S. Einarsson

I am proud of having been able to promote the Icelandic Theory outlined by Mr. G.G. Thórarinsson and working with him on this most interesting matter. I have approched the project in my own capacity like a missionary as I believe that his hypothesis are very sound and solid, based on great knowlegde, many historical facts and likely scenarios.

The 12th century Lewis chessmen, with king, queen, and
bishop in the top row, knight, rook, and pawn in the bottom

I am also happy that his views on the origins of these unique masterpieces is now well preserved in books like the "Chess Masterpieces", newspapers and magazines around the world and on many Internet sites plus Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia. Thórarinsson's honesty and credibility is inpeccable and he is held in high esteem among our countrymen for his contribution to the Icelandic society and the good of chess.

Words and expressions used by Mr. Lilleören about Mr. Thorarinsson, like mud-slinging, aspersions, egregious, specious, idiosyncratic, flaccid, fallacy, facile, purported, intenable, saying that he does not even make historical sense and calling his work riddled with mistakes, omissions, unsupported assertions, misused sources with questionaable conclursions, seem to me to be very arrogant and distasteful, to put it mildly.

Skálholt in the Middle Ages

This is not a level of arguing for intellectual debate from my point of view nor is this perhaps the right forum. Should Mr. Lilleören and his countrymen like to organise a Symposium on the Enigma of the Lewis Chessmen in Norway, preferably Trondheim, like Thórarinsson and I did last August in Skálholt with the participation of learned scholars on the subject, among others Dr. David H. Caldwell from the Scotland National Museums and James Robinson of the British Museum, I know that Mr. Thórarinsson would be happy to participate and adress every point in this article. I wonder way nobody from Norway participated in our seminar, and neither in Edinburgh last year although they were invited.

Furthermore I would just like to add for information, that:

Experts from the British Museum and the Scotland National Museums have reiterated that the Icelandic Theory on the possible origins of the fabulous Lewis walrus ivory chessmen is as plausible as any other. Even Dr. David H. Caldwell, archeologist and historian, keeper of the Lewis Chessmen at the NMS in Edinburgh and author of the recent work "The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked" has commented in the New York Times last August: "I have an open mind about where the chessmen were made. We said Trondheim when we did our exibithion, but that was really just a guess. Now some colleagues are saying Iceland, and maybe that is the case. I have still to hear incontrovertible evidence for it“.

At the Skálholt Symposium on the subject last autumn Dr. Caldwell commented further on how there was still a lot to learn and understand about the Lewis Chessmen, including how and where they were discovered and where they were made. He hoped that the symposium would encourage participants to devise ways of testing new ideas, for example by research excavations at key sites like Skálholt.

That would of course be the ultimate proof as cuttings from walrus ivory fitting the Lewis Chess pieces might be hidden in the ruins of the old workshop there and it's scrap heap. Who know's?

The Skálholt Symposium – Iceland 2011

On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen and the Icelandic Theory

The Agenda for the Lewis Chessmen Symposium held at Skálholt last August included lectures delivered by three esteemed scholars from overseas: David H. Caldwell from the National Museum of Scotland, Mark A. Hall, Perth Museum and James Robinson of the British Museum. All have recently authored books on the enigma of the Lewis Chessmen. The Icelandic lecturers apart from Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson who expounded his new theory were Thor Magnusson, former State Antiquary, Kristinn Olason, Dean of Skálholt and Skúli Saeland, historian. Conference host: Einar S. Einarsson. Here are Gudmundur Thórarinsson's conclusive words at the Skálholt Symposium:

Ladies and gentlemen: It is generally agreed upon that the Lewis chessmen are made in the years 1150-1200. One of the pieces on the board is a bishop. Do we know of any nation that used bishop as a chess peace at that time? Yes, the Icelanders. That is confirmed in our old manuscripts. Do we know of any other nation using bishop as a chess piece at that time? No we don't.

The Lewis chess set is probably the only chess set in the world where the rooks are berserkers or soldiers. Do we know of any nation that used soldiers as rooks on the chessboard at this time? Probably the Icelanders and now I am referring to the soldier found last month in northern Iceland, probably a chess piece, with remarkable likeness to the Lewis chess pieces. Do we know of any other nation using soldiers as rooks? No we don't.

Did the Icelanders have wealth enough to develop the art of carving and decoration? Yes, read our annals from this time.

Did the Icelanders have walrus teeth available at that time? Yes, read our annals.

Did the Icelanders have skilled artists to carve artifact s of this quality? Yes, read the biographies of our bishops, contemporary writings of that time.

I am fully aware of the difficulties presenting evidence from this time, looking through the clouds of centuries. But I am fully satisfied if the Icelandic theory is considered at least to be as likely as other theories of their possible origins that have been presented.

Dr. David H. Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland commented on how there was still a lot to learn and understand about the Lewis Chessmen, including how and where they were discovered and where they were made. He hoped that the symposium would encourage participants to devise ways of testing new ideas, for example by research excavations at key sites like Skálholt. Until 1266 the Isle of Lewis was part of the Kingdom of the Isles, ruled by a Scandinavian dynasty of kings. He thought it was likely that the chessmen belonged to an important individual in that kingdom, and pointed to evidence for other high quality artefacts from the region.
James Robinson of the British Museum stressed the need to interrogate historical sources accurately rather than imaginatively. He questioned the value of hypothesizing about the origin of the Lewis hoard without sufficient evidence and felt that we should rest assured in the knowledge that they are an outstanding achievement of medieval Scandinavian culture. Given the dominance of Norway in the Scandinavian world when the chessmen were made and their links with both Greenland (settlement and trade) and the Isle of Lewis (sovereign and ecclesiastical), Norway is most likely to be the place of production for the hoard, although this does not discount other possibilities.

Previous articles on the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen on a Fantasy Iceland
02.12.2011 – Oh dear. The Icelandic-Norwegian war over the origin of the Lewis Chessmen – they are a collection of chess pieces, handcrafted in the 12th century from walrus tusks and whale teeth and discovered on the Isle of Lewis – continues with unabated (academic) vigor. In this installment it is Norway's turn to claim heritage over the chessmen. CCGM Morten Lilleøren explains.
Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt, Iceland
01.08.2011 – 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.
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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