Lewis Chessmen may not be chessmen after all…

Who has not heard of the Lewis Chessmen? These 900-years-old, beautifully carved ivory gaming pieces even made an appearance in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as living chess pieces.

A recent study made my heart skip a beat as it argues that these gaming pieces were not used for Chess, as has been believed for centuries. Instead the set may have been used to play Hnefatafl, an ancient Viking board game.

Hnefatafl is played on a larger board than chess (ranging from 9×9 to 13×13) but was also  a warfare game that involved protecting a king. The pieces of each player, however, did probably not occupy two rows adjacent one side of the main playing area, as in chess. Alternatively the king was placed in the middle of the board with defenders surrounding it. Playing the game, may or may not have involved dice.  Unfortunately no complete set of pieces has been uncovered, nor were the rules ever properly recorded. We only have rules from derivative  boardgames such as Tawlbrwdd and Tablut.

The paper also raises doubts on the traditional assumption that the pieces were buried on Lewis by a passing Norwegian merchant. One of the authors, David Caldwell, tells BBC news:  “One of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the hoard is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through.” Caldwell hopes that their hypotheses will open up new conversation on the nature and origins of the artefacts.  Currently, the collection is divided between the National Museum of Scotland – who own 11 pieces – and the British Museum, who possess the other 82. For the first time in over 150 years the pieces are set to be reunited in Scotland in 2010.

“I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on them,” said Caldwell, “what I hope we have done is opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things.”

This is wonderful news, for me, as it significantly broadens my research. Caldwell seems to have succeeded, then!

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