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The Lewis Chessmen

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1831,1101.81

  • Title (series)

    • The Lewis Chessmen
  • Description

    Chess-piece; walrus ivory; king with sword with baldric wound around, guard decorated; damaged crown; back of throne decorated with animal heads at top of uprights framing leaf-scrolls in symmetrical composition.

  • Date

    • 1150-1175 (circa)
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 9.5 centimetres
    • Width: 4.7 centimetres
    • Depth: 3.6 centimetres
  • 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, 1978

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Dalton 1909 81 bibliographic details
    • Zarnecki et al 1984 no212 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    2016 Oct – 2017 Feb, Spain, CaixaForum Madrid, Medieval Europe,
    2017 Mar – Jun, Spain, CaixaForum Barcelona, Medieval Europe,
    2017 Jul – Oct, Spain, CaixaForum Zaragoza, Medieval Europe.
    2015 11 Dec- 10 Apr, Australia, Brisbane, Queensland Museum, Medieval Europe, power and legacy. 2006-2007 23 Sep-21 Jan, Luton Museum, Across the Board 2006 26 May-3 Sep, Lincoln, City and County Museum, Across the Board 2006 28 Jan-1 May, Leicester, New Walk Museum & Gallery, Across the Board 2005 1 Oct-31 Dec, Gosport, Discovery Centre, Across the Board 2005 23 Jul-17 Sep, Exeter, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Across the Board 2005 22 Jan-16 Jun, Wallsend, Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum, Across the Board

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1831

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1831,1101.81


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