I love mysteries, especially ancient and medieval ones. The Lewis Chessmen are one such mystery, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to go to The Cloisters to see them and give my imagination full rein! The British Museum lent 34 of its 67 chessmen to the Cloisters branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click here for exhibit information.
The Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s chilly Outer Hebrides. There are a bunch of stories about them: they were buried by a shipwrecked sailor, who was murdered by a herdsman, or they were stolen by a boy who jumped ship who buried them and meant to come back but never did. Carved mostly from walrus tusk, they were found in a sand dune in a small stone carrying case. Some were stained red, indicating the colors of the sides were red and white, not black and white.
How they got to that sand dune is a mystery. Some think they arrived from Iceland, but conventional wisdom has it that they somehow came off a merchant ship traveling a regular trade route between Norway and Ireland and that they were produced in Trondheim, a Norwegian town, between 1150 and 1200. The faces are generally stylized, but each is different enough that some scholars have speculated they might portray real people. Some of the expressions are certainly comic.
The archbishop of Trondheim, who along with the king of Norway had jurisdiction over the Hebrides, may have been the wealthy patron behind the chessmen. He may have had them made as gifts, based on the cost of the ivory and the quality of the carving.
But two chess aficionados from Iceland, Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson and Einar S. Einarsson, are pushing Iceland as the birthplace of the chessmen. Mr. Thorarinsson createded a website to explain his theory – http://leit.is/lewis.
Here it is: Icelandic is the first language to describe “Bishop” as a chess piece. The use of bishops in chess is mentioned as far back as the Icelandic sagas from the 10th and 11th centuries–predating the chessmen. The sagas even include descriptions of checkmates using bishops.
Mr. Thorarinsson says historic writings refer to Bishop Pall Jonsson (1155 – 1211) in Iceland sending carved gifts made from tusks. These were made by Margret the Adroit, his wife, so called because of her prodigious skill at carving walrus tusks.
He added: “One might even entertain the notion that the Lewis Chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Pll of Sklholt and carved by Margrt the Adroit whose carving skills were the stuff of legend.”The pieces were then sent abroad for sale or as a gift, but the ship was then lost”.
Chess fans and mystery buffs – what’s your theory?
If you would like to purchase a replica chess set, we recommend The Regency Chess Company in Bath, England. Their sets are produced from laser scans of the original pieces. Learn more or order the sets here.