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 the 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 chess pieces 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 chess pieces 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

The Lewis Chessmen

What is their history?

The chess pieces 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 their acquisition in the nineteenth century. The chess pieces are on display as the highlight of the Museum’s Medieval Gallery. 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, Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Tour of Scotland

The British Museum is committed to maintaining and extending access to the chessmen for its audiences across the UK and the world. Recently, the Museum in partnership with National Museums Scotland organised a tour of a group of the Lewis Chessmen which travelled to four venues across Scotland between May 2010 and September 2011. The tour was generously supported by the Scottish Government. The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked was hugely successful and was seen by over 115,000 visitors at the National Museum of Scotland, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Shetland Museum and Archives and Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway. At all venues, more than 70% of visitors were seeing the Lewis Chessmen on display for the first time.

Lews Castle

Following on from the success of this tour, National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are further supporting Museum nan Eilean in the development of Lews Castle. The castle will become a major museum site for the island and a long term loan of six chess pieces to the new galleries is being discussed by the British Museum Trustees. These objects will join varied and significant loans from National Museums Scotland.

Previous loans

The chess pieces, and other objects, have been lent periodically to Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway over the past 20 years. Forty-five chess pieces were shown as part of The 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 chess pieces 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 chess pieces were the centrepiece of Across the Board, Around the World in 18 Games, a highly successful British Museum touring exhibition seen by 128,000 people in Newcastle, Exeter, Gosport in Hampshire, Leicester, Lincoln and Luton. Audiences of all ages were enthralled by the chess pieces with many visitors travelling considerable distances to see them. Another, smaller group 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.

Other loans to Scotland

The British Museum has close relations with the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland, frequently lending material to Edinburgh. National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are working together on a major exhibition on the Celtic world, opening in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery in the British Museum in September 2015 and transferring to Edinburgh in spring 2016. One of the principal partners of our Partnership UK scheme in Scotland is Glasgow Museums service who we work with on touring, lending and knowledge exchange activities. We currently have a major long term loan of 84 Egyptian objects at Kelvingrove and the British Museum toured the award winning exhibition, Pharaoh, King of Egypt to Kelvingrove in 2012/13. In 2009 the Burrell hosted a 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 and the Burrell will be the first tour partner on the BP exhibition tour Made in China, an imperial Ming vase opening on 12 April 2014.

An important early Christian reliquary from Whithorn went on display at Whithorn Priory in summer 2012 and a Spotlight loan of the Lochar Moss Bowl and Torc travelled to Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura as part of the Great Moss exhibition in June 2013. The British Museum and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have collaborated on the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies which will be shown at both venues between July 2013 and January 2015. In 2015, the McManus in Dundee will be host to the British Museum’s major touring exhibition, Roman Empire: Power and People, providing a unique insight into the Roman Empire ‘beyond the border’. Many Scottish Museums and venues participated in the 'A History of the World' Project in 2010 which was a collaboration between the BBC, British Museum, and museums and galleries across the UK.

January 2014