Checkered Pasts – The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

Few would consider the popular computer game Grand Theft Auto – notorious for its adult content and violent themes – to be a reliable witness to our daily lives. But 800 years from now, if all that survived of our modern world were scant archaeological remains and a copy of this controversial game, what conclusions would archaeologists of the future draw?

lewis_kingThe Lewis Chessmen are some of the most famous treasures to have emerged from Scottish soil, and 30 of the original 93 ivory pieces are now the subject of a major new travelling exhibition from the National Museum of Scotland. The exhibition centres on new research recently published in Medieval Archaeology, including an analysis of the facial features of the chess pieces by forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson. This is the ‘unmasking’ of the exhibition’s title, and the curators have sought to explain the relevance of this new work to what we already know about the hoard through folk tales and archaeological evidence.

The facial expressions are what first struck Oliver Postgate, creator of the children’s TV series Bagpuss, The Clangers, and Noggin the Nog; expecting Viking barbarity, he found “essentially kindly and non-belligerent characters… strongly dismayed by the prospect of contest.” Perhaps it is this that gives the objects such a sprit of playfulness, and the exhibition brings this to life with an interactive area for chess, hnefatafle and checkers, as well as an engaging website aimed at the younger visitor. Unfortunately, the more serious business of archaeological analysis is less well handled, with inconsistent captioning, poor grammar, and basic errors crowding out the key message that this exhibition is based on new research. The chess pieces, for instance, were ‘the inspiration for J. K. Rowland’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.’ Whoever was responsible for the final edit certainly didn’t go to wizard school.

But these distractions are minor not major, check not check mate, and given that the pieces have been on permanent exhibition for the last 170 years, it would be hard for the curators to muck this one up. The original hoard (78 chess pieces, 14 plain discs and a buckle, perhaps fastening the original bag in which the objects were placed) was first unveiled at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831 by Roderick Ririe, and like the world to which they originally belong, the circumstances of discovery remain clouded in mystery. They were found in a sand dune on Uig Strand in the west of the island by a crofter called Malcolm MacLeod (although he left no personal account, and was never questioned by archaeologists at the time). The pieces have been carved from walrus ivory likely to have been traded along ‘the north way’ – from Greenland, down to Iceland, the Faroe Islands and into Scandinavia – a route that had enabled successive waves of Viking raiders and settlers to colonise further and further afield. Stylistic analysis dates the chessmen to the 12th century AD, sometime after the period named for the Norse warriors who went ‘i viking’ or ‘raiding.’ But like the Icelandic sagas from the same period, the shield gnashing berserkers, anxious queens and broad shouldered kings hint at a world redolent with Viking imagery.

The new analysis aimed to evaluate the two competing explanations for the hoard – was it a hastily buried merchant’s cargo on route from Trondheim to the rich markets of Dublin, or did the hoard belong to a native King of  the Islands, grown rich from links with the Scandinavian world and the Norwegian homeland. This question is difficult to assess – walrus ivory is hardwearing and leaves few clues of wear and tear indicating the age of the objects before they were finally buried. The study has shown, however, that the chessmen were carved by five different craftsmen, and both the similarity in the size of the pieces and the occasional errors of detail have led the researchers to the conclusion that these were all produced in the same workshop – perhaps a games compendium to fulfil a single order.

If there are any answers to this enigmatic archaeological puzzle, the chessmen themselves remain tight lipped. Like future archaeologists pondering their solitary copy of Grand Theft Auto, we must conclude that more needs to be known of the contemporary society that played the game, and this has to mean further archaeological work on the Isle of Lewis. As the exhibition moves on to Aberdeen in October 2010, Shetland in January 2011, and Stornoway in April of the same year – temporarily returning some of the original pieces to the Island where they were originally found – it’s clear that this match is far from entering it’s end game.

The contest continues…


  1. elizabeth adler says:

    Thank you for providing this information. I want to get a replica of the Lewis chess set for my granddaughter for christmas, being sure that world heritage is passed on.

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