The most dangerous chess piece

by ChessBase
3/23/2014 – In a historical context chess pieces have not been used only to play the game. Made of stone, rock crystal and walrus ivory, they were precious artifacts and as such attracted the attention of jewelry designers and architects. Throughout the ages chess pieces had adorned church pulpits, women's necklaces – one even ended up as the handle of a fifteenth century knife.

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The most dangerous chess piece?

By Morten Lilleøren

Researching medieval chess pieces, we may every now and then come across chess pieces which have been redistributed and used in another context.

The most famous ones are the crystal set in Charlemagne's Cathedral in Aachen, Germany...

... specifically in the pulpit erected in the early eleventh century

The magnificent Golden Pulpit was commissioned by Emperor Heinrich II and built between 1002 and 1014. The inscription on the upper and lower edges clearly identifies REX PIVS HEINRICVS as the donor. It is covered in gold and adorned with jewels and precious objects, including ancient glass bowls.

The dishes are not the only unusual decorations: there are also six pagan ivory reliefs from Egypt, dating from the sixth century. And a set of reused chess pieces. The pieces, made of chalcedony and agate, are pressed into the decoration, all of them in a quadrate around the glass bowls. All 16 officers of the set are the cornerstones, and some of the pawns are in between. [Images: Wikipedia]

Image of reused chess pieces, from Kluge-Pinsker (Kluge-Pinsker 1991, 32)

The same thing happened in Spain: above you see rock crystal chess pieces ...

... from San Millan de la Cogolla (La Rioja, Spain), 10th Century

There are examples of reuse in different manners, too, and I will first give three examples where the church is not the perpetrator: the first one is the Clonard queen, found in a bog in County Meath, Ireland, in 1817. As I don't have any decent frontal image, the best I can do is show a drawing:

The hole, though, clearly seen on the images, was probably made in order to use the piece as a part of a necklace. The same use is probably the reason why a queen from the National Museum of Copenhagen (right) has lost part of her canopy. We can clearly see the traces of two holes on the sides at the top of the piece.

The size and shape of the piece seems to have been of little importance. In Historiska Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, the queen is mounted on a stallion. [Images: Gothic Ivories]. There are reasons to assume that these figures were reused as personal finery. However, the next piece from the Øm cloister, Denmark, has never been a part of a necklace.

Clearly this is a chess bishop. The mitre has been damaged and the piece shows every sign of having had a long use). However, we can see the bishop's staff, the hand lifted in blessing, the bishop's clothing, including the long, wide robe (the alba) and the infulae hanging down from the mitre at the back.

The images of this chess piece are taken from the book by Bo Gregersen and Carsten Selch Jensen Øm Kloster - Kapitler af et middelalderligt cisterciencer-abbedis historie (Gregersen, Selch Jensen, and Jensen 2003), from an article by Helle Reinholdt. The Monastery was founded in 1172 by the Cistercians. It was situated in Jutland, in the vicinity of Skanderborg Castle, which was the origin of the city of today with the same name. The Protestant Reformation forced the monks to abandon the place, and the last ones left in 1558, whereafter the buildings were torn down in 1561.

The chess bishop was found during archaeological excavations of the Danish cloister in 1996. The material is walrus ivory. It was found in a layer deposited in 1495. However, due to form and design I wouldn't hesitate to date this object as a piece related to the Lewis Chessmen. We may therefore safely date this object to around three centuries earlier.

For comparison I have added two more images, one of a Lewis bishop...

... and one of a bishop of the same shape from the British Museum,
though not from the collection of the Lewis Chessmen

Conveniently the last piece also has holes in the back, revealing that it has been reused as
something other than a chess piece. It shows signs of wear and therefore probably gives us an image of what the Lewis Chessmen would have looked like if they had not been buried for almost 700 years.

Now it’s time to reveal how this particular piece from Øm was reused: when it was found it was the shaft of a knife, shown below with the remnants of two other knives:

The total length of this knife was 25½ cm. It is assumed that it was a kitchen knife. Even though the author of the article cited above notices that the shape of the shaft must have made the knife difficult to use, she does not realise that this is a reused chess piece. Consequently this is the first report about the find of the item as a chess figure. And it has to be noted: once again it is ecclesiastical use which ended the life of this object as a chess figure. Archaeology can thus never provide evidence indicating that the church was against chess, but it can provide examples where the church (and others) were against chess sets.

There is a certain logic to all of this: these chess figures, made of stone, rock crystal and walrus ivory, were precious artifacts. Such items tended to "drift" towards the church and the female gender during the Medieval Age. Neither clerks nor women in general have been the most eager chess gamesters. So they turned them into objects suited for their own needs. They turned out to be not a threat to chess – but to chess pieces. And by that very change of use they probably committed the act that saved these figures for posterity.


  • Gregersen, Bo, Carsten Selch Jensen, and Carsten Selch Jensen. 2003. Øm kloster: kapitler af
    et middelalderligt cistercienserabbedis historie.
    Odense: Øm Kloster Museum; I
    kommission hos Syddansk Universitetsforlag.
  • Kluge-Pinsker, Antje. 1991. Schach und Trictrac : Zeugnisse mittelalterlicher Spielfreude in
    salischer Zeit.
    Edited by Frühgeschichte Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum
    Mainz. Forschungsinstitut für Vor- und. Sigmaringen: J. Thorbecke.
  • Thanks to Ole Drønen and Roland Cobbett for their assistance.


Chess history forum – Sjakkhistorisk Forum

Previous articles on the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen: Lillören's misdemeanor
06.01.2012 – 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 Lilløren disputing the Icelandic origin. This was the subject of a symposium on the Chessmen held in the location of their assumed origin.
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.

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