Our collection of Lewis Chessmen is made up from purchase from the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The complete chess set is from the National Museum of Scotland, who has been able to use 3D Scanning technology to recreate a complete chess set using their original 11 pieces.
We also own a selection of replicas of the pieces held by the British Museum that show the variations, and further detail shown on the British Museum pieces.
How and when the chessmen were discovered has always been a story of mystery. It is commonly believed that a herdsman saw a shipwrecked sailor swimming to safety with a bag on his back. The herdsman murdered the sailor for the riches he believed him to possess. After burying the sailor the herdsman reported the shipwreck to his master and elaborated a scheme where they should murder the remaining crew for the riches possessed on the ship. The herdsman’s master was outraged at this idea and instead provided accommodation for the remaining survivors for a month. When the remaining crew left the island, the herdsman went to examine the contents of the bag he had stolen, which turned out to be the chess pieces, tablemen gaming pieces and an intricately carved belt buckle.
In an attempt to dispose of the evidence against him he concealed the pieces in a sandbank in the Mains of Uig. The herdsman never returned for the pieces and was hanged at Stornoway for other misdemeanors. Before his death he confessed to murdering the sailor.
Malcolm MacLeod a resident on the west coast of Lewis discovered the collection in a sandbank in the Mains of Uig.
However, Lewis is in a part of the world where there is a strong tradition of story telling there are many variations to this (and other) stories about how the chessman were found. It is not even known if the chessman originated on the Island itself. One story tells of the ‘black women’ of Uig who populated a convent on the Island, (Archaeologia, Madden 1832) and in another story it is suggested that the solitary women may have carved the chessmen to reduce the tedium of their cloistered life.
The hoard was first shown publicly at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on 11 April 1831 (but was not recorded in the press until June of the same year). The press reported ‘upward of 70 pieces’ had been found by ‘a peasant of the place, whilst digging in a sandbank’. At this point the precise number of pieces had not been accurately observed. The peasant reported on seems to have been Malcolm MacLeod.
Malcolm MacLeod had clearly been uncertain how to convert his find into cash and sought the services of Roderick Pirie, a merchant from Stornoway. The transaction that took the hoard from Lewis to Edinburgh is not well documented. It is known that the pieces were shown to the Scottish Antiquaries, who were interested in purchasing a group of the pieces for their museum, the sale was unsuccessful. The hoard then fell into the possession of an Edinburgh dealer (for the sum of 30 pounds), the dealer brought the pieces to the attention of the British Museum. The British Museum acquired 82 pieces, 10 pieces had already been sold by the dealer without the British Museum’s knowledge. These 10 pieces were later acquired by the National Museum of Scotland (for a price of 100 guineas).
After acquiring the pieces the National Museum of Scotland attempted to purge the stories of local legend and stated in the museum records that the ‘museum had acquired eleven chessmen found in a stone chamber that had been exposed by action of the sea’. They described the pieces as having been buried 15 ft (4.6 m) down and it is noted that they were slightly covered with sand and heap of ashes on the floor next to them. The find spot is recorded as being close to Tigh nan Caillachain dhu nan Uig – The house of the black women of Uig.
93 ivory pieces were found – 14 plain disks (about 55 to 60 mm in diameter) clearly for use in some type of board game, and the remaining 78 pieces can readily be identified as chessmen. The chessmen include kings, queens, bishops, knights, warders (equivalent to todays rooks) and pawns. All but the pawns are carved in the image of humans. While the faces on the human designed pieces if realistic they are not in true human proportions. The face pieces vary in height from 70 to 103 mm and the pawns from 40 to 59 mm.
The general consensus is that the 78 pieces are the remains of four chess sets. However there 50 pieces missing consisting of a knight, four warders and 45 pawns. It is possible they were hidden away with the rest but might have been too fragmented to recover.
The pieces in the British Museum and Scotland museums vary considerably in condition. Some are near perfect while others are cracked and have pieces missing. Some early reports suggested there was traces of staining on some pieces (possibly to distinguish a red side from a white) however scientific analysis has not identified any substances.
The Kings are all seated on highly ornate thrones and hold a sword across the knees, right hand on the grip and left hand grasping the scabbard or blade. A great deal more energy is employed in the backs of the thrones of the seated pieces. Most of the Kings have beards, some heavier than others. Two of the Kings are unusual in being clean shaven. Their hair is generally arranged in thick braids across their backs and shoulders. The Kings wear open crowns with four trefoil ornaments.
All eight of the queens are also enthroned and crowned. The crowns worn by the Queens are similar to the Kings, but on four of the pieces the crowns trefoils have merged to form a continuous pierced band. The Queens wear veils under their crowns, a fashion of the late twelfth century. Each of the Lewis Queens assumes the same pose of their chin resting in their right hand, there are three slight variations of this. Two of the queens are seen holding a horn in their left hands. The significance of the horn is unknown – it is likely to be a drinking horn.
Of the total sixteen bishops seven are seated on thrones and nine are standing, the bishops show the greatest variety in terms of design. They all wear mitres, the ceremonial headdress of bishops and all carry a crozier, their hooked staff of office. Five wear a cope (cloak) as their outer garment, the rest have chasubles (sleeveless vestments).
The presence of the bishops is significant in terms of dating the pieces. By 1150 the fashion was established for bishops to wear their mitres facing frontally, as here, rather than sideways. This change is noticeable in the representation of bishops on seals found attached to twelfth century documents. While it is unlikely the bishops in the Lewis Chess set were the first such chess-pieces to be invented it can be safely stated that the bishop in the set was a twelfth century innovation.
The bishops inclusion undoubtedly reflects his status in the social system of the period. He sits beneath the king and queen on the board and his presence is a token of the importance and power of bishops. Disputes between Church and State had been rife throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
However, the game of chess is essentially a game of war. In this context the bishop may seem out of place in comparison to the other pieces. During the most extensive period of conflict in Norway’s civil wars bishops known as the Baglar or ‘croziers’ fought under the leadership if the Bishop of Oslo (between 1196 and 1202) to prevent the erosion of Church privilege. It is possible the Lewis Bishops could have some connection to these battling bishops in Norway. From the time of the first crusade in 1095, bishops could be found increasingly on the battlefield. During the course of the Third Crusade, the bishops of Lydda and Acre went into battle at Hattin in July 1187 carrying before them the relic of the True Cross.
The fifteen knights sit astride sturdy ponies with shaggy manes, appearing almost Icelandic in character. Each of the knights wears a helmet and are armed for battle, carrying spears and shields with swords slung around their shoulders. The knights provide a wealth of information about the arms and armour in use in the second half of the twelfth century. The headgear includes the pointed, conical helmets with earflaps and nasal guards which were adopted from the eleventh century. They also wear distinctive rounded helmets with or without a rim which resemble bowler hats. This type of helmet appears on seals of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries showing knights on horseback. Their kite-shaped shields have either a rounded or flat top. Each shield has a distinguishing design which emulates the adoption of heraldry, usually considered to be widespread by the end of the twelfth century.
The warders (known in today’s chess as rooks)
There are twelve warders, all of whom defend themselves with shields decorated in a similar fashion to the knights.They are represented as foot soldiers and all carry swords. All wear helmets apart from one who, along with three others, bites the top of his shield.
This odd ‘shield biting’ gesture is believed to communicate a ‘frenzy’ behaviour. In 1832 Madden wrote an article about the chessmen for Archaeologica quoting Heimskringla Snorri Sturluson:
“The soldiers of Odin went forth to the combat without armour, raging like dogs or wolves, biting their shields, and in strength equal to furious bulls or bears”.
This seems to be a likely explanation for the strange postures of the three warders.
The nineteen pawns all take a similar non human shape. The pawns appear as inanimate, standing slabs of ivory which have no formal identity. Most of the pawns are octagonal in shape, rising or tapering to a curved top. The pawns represent the greatest variety of sizes of all the pieces found.
Apart from minor variations in dress, beard, hair or stance, all of the figures have the same facial features. As the pieces are carved from ivory there are a variety of sizes, as the tusk narrows from a wide base to a sharp point. A small group of pieces were carved from whales teeth, this may have been a cheaper alternative to ivory. There is a 3 cm difference between the largest king and the smallest. The smallest pawn measures only 3.5cm high.
From the outset there have been no serious doubts about the Scandinavian origin of the Lewis chessmen. They are mostly made of walrus ivory and that tends to favour a northern European origin rather than one further south. Useful comparisons have been made between the carvings on the thrones occupied by Kings, Queens and Bishops and other ivory carvings with a Scandinavian provenance, with the wood carvings of Norwegian stave churches, and with architectural sculpture in Trondheim Cathedral in Norway – all material dateable to the twelfth century.
Two other ivory chessmen are known from Scandinavia which are so similar to the Lewis chessmen that they could have been made in the same workshop.
However who made the chessmen, where, when and how they returned to us all remain somewhat of a mystery.
Caldwell, D., M. Hall and C. Wilkinson, 2010. The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked. Scotland: National Museums of Scotland.
Caldwell, D., M. Hall and C. Wilkinson, 2009. The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces; A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture. Medieval Archaeology 53 (2009) 155-203.
Robinson J, 2004. British Museum Objects in Focus: The Lewis Chessmen. England: British Museum Press.