The Lewis Chessmen
The British Museum exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures.
Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Lewis Chessmen are an important symbol of European civilisation. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the chessmen at the British Museum and they are frequently loaned for display in museums across the country and across globe.
What are they?
The Lewis Chessmen form a remarkable group of iconic objects within the world collection of the British Museum. They were probably made in Norway, about AD 1150-1200. At this period, the Western Isles, where the chessmen were buried, were 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 chessmen testify to the strong cultural and political connections between Britain and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and to the growing popularity within Europe of the game of chess, the origins of which lie in ancient India.
Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are in the British Museum. The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.
The Lewis Chessmen
What is their history?
The chessmen were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis some time before 11 April 1831. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.
The assemblage was initially shown at the Scottish Antiquaries Society in Edinburgh which hoped to acquire it but was unsuccessful in its fundraising efforts. The dealer offering the hoard for sale, Mr T.A. Forrest, then approached the British Museum who acquired it between November 1831 and January 1832.
It is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are enough pieces - though with some elements missing – to make four sets.
Where are they on display?
The British Museum has made the Lewis Chessmen in its collection freely accessible since the nineteenth century. There are currently a number of pieces on display in Room 40. They are hugely popular with the Museum’s visitors who can admire them alongside other masterpieces of European civilisation and can compare and contrast them to other world cultures.
They have been frequently loaned to venues across Britain and Europe and most recently, Asia.
From 1995, chessmen with other items have been lent periodically to Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway. Forty-five chessmen were shown as part ofThe Lewis Chessmen exhibition there from June to October 1995. The exhibition then travelled to the National Museum of Scotland from October 1995 to January 1996. Thirteen chessmen were lent to Stornoway as part of a larger loan of objects to the exhibition Norse and Viking Isles: Gall Ghadheil from 4 April 2000 to 14 October 2000. At the same time four other pieces were lent to the exhibition Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga which was held at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. from 29 April 2000 to 5 September 2000 and moved to the American Museum of Natural History, New York from 21 October 2000 to 18 January 2001.
Between 2003 and 2006 seven pieces toured the country, travelling to Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich, as part of the exhibition Buried Treasure: finding our past.
Over a two-year period from January 2005-7, 24 of the chessmen were the centrepiece of Across the Board, Around the World in 18 Games, a highly successful exhibition seen by 128,000 people in Newcastle, Exeter, Gosport in Hampshire, Leicester, Lincoln and Luton. Audiences of all ages were enthralled by the Chessmen with many visitors travelling considerable distances to see them. Another, smaller group has recently toured East Asia as part of the British Museum show Treasures of the World’s Cultures where they were appreciated by 2.7 million visitors in 10 venues.
The British Museum and Scotland
The British Museum has close relations with the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland, frequently lending material to Edinburgh. The principal member of our Partnership UK scheme in Scotland is Glasgow Museums service where we have a major long-term loan of 84 Egyptian objects at Kelvingrove. Since 2004 we have also sent the Queen of the Night, the Emperor's Terrapin and an acclaimed William Blake exhibition: Mind-forg'd Manacles: William Blake and Slavery, to the Burrell Collection. In 2009 the Burrell will host another British Museum touring exhibition: Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, the largest group of ancient Greek material ever to be lent by the British Museum. In 2005 the Throne of Weapons was shown at Perth Museum and Art Gallery and we are currently in discussion with Aberdeen Art Gallery about two future exhibitions.
The British Museum is committed to maintaining and extending access to the chessmen for its audiences across the UK and the world. The Museum is currently working in partnership with the National Museum of Scotland and Museum nan Eilean on a programme of loans to Stornoway and elsewhere in Scotland as part of its Partnership UK scheme.