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The Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen

  • Bishop

    Bishop

  • King

    King

  • Warder

    Warder

 

Height: 4 cm - 10.3 cm

 

1831,1101.78-144

Room 40: Medieval Europe

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The Lewis chessmen


The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

They were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.

The general condition of the pieces is excellent and they they do not seem to have been used much, if at all. Ninety-three pieces are known to us today, which could form - with some elements missing - four distinct sets. It has been suggested that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland.

By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes.

A board large enough to hold all the pieces arranged for a game played to modern rules would have measured eighty-two centimetres across. Records state that when found, some of the Lewis chessmen were stained red. Consequently the chessboard may have been red and white, as opposed to the modern convention of black and white.

Of the ninety-three pieces known to us today, eleven are in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh and eighty-two are in the British Museum.