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The Lewis Chessmen

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (series)

    • The Lewis Chessmen
  • Description

    Chess-piece; walrus ivory; queen wearing floriated crown over veil, mantle; holding horn; right hand placed on cheek; seated in chair ornamented on back with adjacent leaf scrolls with animal-heads on top of uprights; chair sides: interlace ornament.

  • Date

    • 1150-1175 (circa)
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 9.6 centimetres
    • Width: 5 centimetres
    • Depth: 3.4 centimetres
    • Weight: 156 grammes
  • 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


  • Bibliography

    • Marzinzik 2013 127 bibliographic details
    • Zarnecki et al 1984 212 bibliographic details
    • Dalton 1909 84 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    2017 28 Jun-08 Oct, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2017 1 Mar-31 May, National Museum of China, Beijing, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' 2016-2017 08 Sep-29 Jan, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2016 13 Feb-18 Jun, National Museum of Western Australia, Perth, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015-2016 20 Sep-11 Jan, Kobe City Museum, Kobe, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015 14 Jul–6 Sep, Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
    2015 18 Apr–28 Jun, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' 2012 27 Nov - 2013 18 Mar, France, Paris, Musee de Cluny, Jeux de la Babylone Antique 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 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 Oct 12-1996 Jan 14, 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 1989 28 May-27 Aug, Germany, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Europa und der Orient, 800-1900 1988 Mar 21-Oct 30, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, 'Gerald of Wales-the Crusading Priest' 1984 5 Apr-8 Jul, London, Hayward Gallery, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number



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