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The Lewis Chessmen

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1831,1101.78

  • Title (series)

    • The Lewis Chessmen
  • Description

    Chess-piece; walrus ivory; king: bearded wearing floriated crown, mantle, brooch, tunic, seated upon high-backed chair; holding sheathed sword across knees; chair: back ornamented in two compartments with double floral scroll and dragon with floriated tail: interlaced designs on sides.

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1150-1200 (circa)
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 98.31 millimetres
    • Width: 53.67 millimetres
    • Depth: 34.27 millimetres
    • Weight: 215.4 grains
  • Curator's comments

    Text from Zarnecki et al 1984, cat. no. 212; see bibliography.
    'A hoard of 78 pieces was found in 1831 in the parish of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in what was described as a 'subterranean' chamber. Eleven pieces from the same find are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh. From the pieces it is clear that the hoard was not made up of a number of complete sets, and as none of the carving is incomplete, a workshop hoard is most unlikely. Perhaps they formed part of the stock of a merchant ship wrecked on the shores of the island, subsequently hidden and not recovered. The pieces show virtually no signs of wear.

    The form of the chessmen and the decoration on the back of the thrones on which the kings, queens and some of the bishops are seated, have led to pieces being dated from the middle to the end of the 12th century and to their being attributed to either Britain or Scandinavia. It is difficult to find a parallel for the figure style, except in other gaming pieces, and even amongst these the Lewis pieces are more stylized and rigid than any others that survive. It is unlikely that they were carved later than the middle of the century, unless they were produced in a very remote centre, but their very high quality and especially the subtlety of their decorative carving would not support this. They belong to a group of carvings whose style is found in both Scandinavia and East Anglia: at, for example, Lund Cathedral and Ely Abbey, regions that were linked by trading and by political and close ecclesiastical contacts. The actual carving of such pieces of walrus ivory could have been carried on either side of the North Sea.'

    See also:
    Beckwith, 1972, no.166
    Dalton, 1909, pp.63-73
    Lasko, 1972a, pp. 236-7
    Gaborit-Chopin, 1979, no.168
    M. Taylor, The Lewis Chessmen, 1978This Lewis Chessman featured on an Isle of Mann stamp issued in January 2013.

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • MacGregor 2010 61 (part) bibliographic details
    • Dalton 1909 78 bibliographic details
    • Zarnecki et al 1984 no212 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G40/dc5

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    2014-2015 Jul-Jan, Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Vikings
    2014 6 Mar-22 Jun, London, British Museum, Viking: Life and Legend
    2013 21 Jun-30 Nov, Denmark, Copenhagen, National Museum of Denmark, Viking
    2012-2013 27 Oct-2 Mar, Douglas, Isle of Man, Manx Museum, The Forgotten Kingdom
    2011 14 Nov-2012 22 Apr, USA, New York, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis
    2011 15 Apr-12 Sep, Stornoway, Museum nan Eilean
    2011 29 Jan-27 Mar, Shetland Museum & Archives
    2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2010 7 Oct-8 Jan, Aberdeen Art Gallery
    2010 21 May-19 Sep, Edinburgh, National Museum of Scotland
    2007 14 Sep-2 Dec, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2007 3 Feb-27 May, Taipei, National Palace Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2006 18 Mar-4 Jun, Beijing, Capital Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 27 Oct-2006 31 Jan, Haengso Museum, Keimyung University, Daegu, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 25 Jul-8 Oct, Busan Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2005 11 Apr-10 Jul, Seoul Arts Centre, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 26 Jun-29 Aug, Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 10 Apr-13 Jun, Fukuoka Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2004 17 Jan-28 Mar, Kobe City Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2003 18 Oct-14 Dec, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
    2000 14 May-29 Oct, Germany, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Seven Hills-Images and Signs of the 21st Century
    1997 4 May-28 Sep, Norway, Trondheim, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum-National Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim 100
    1995 12 Oct-1996 14 Jan, Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, 'Lewis Chessmen'
    1994 28 Jan-8 May, Italy, Rome, Museo di Palazzo Venezia, I Normanni Popolo d’Europe (1030-1200)
    1992 26 Dec-1993 14 Mar, Denmark, Copenhagen, Nationalmuseet, Vikings and Christians
    1992 1 Sep-15 Nov, Germany, Berlin, Altes Museum, Wikinger, Waräger, Normannen. Die Skandinavier und Europa 800-1200
    1992 1 Apr-20 Jul, France, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Les Vikings... Les Scandinaves et l’Europe 800-1200
    1990-1991 17 Nov-1 Apr, Glasgow, Art Gallery and Museum, 'Scotland Creates-500 years of Art and Design'
    1989 28 May-27 Aug, Germany, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Europa und der Orient, 800-1900
    1988 21 Mar-30 Oct, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, 'Gerald of Wales-the Crusading Priest'
    1984 5 Apr-8 Jul, London, Hayward Gallery, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200
    1977-1978 May-May, Norway, Bergen, Games and Gaming (?)

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1831

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1831,1101.78


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