The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

Another very interesting book about the Lewis Chessmen.

The humorous and intricately designed Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831, one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland. To preserve the hoard as intactly as possible in a public collection, the majority of the pieces were acquired by the British Museum where they are on permanent display. National Museums Scotland holds 11 pieces, again on permanent display. The book looks at the mystery and intrigue surrounding the chessmen and their discovery, and shows how the characters reflected society at the time they were made.

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The Chess Piece Magician

The Chess Piece Magician

Douglas Bruton’s first novel tells a fictional story behind the famed Lewis chessmen, which date from the 12th century and were found in Uig Bay in the 1830s.

This fantasy adventure accompanies the recent craze about the Lewis Chessmen and is used by the National Museum of Scotland to get children acquainted with them and excited about them.

I think I would have loved this as a child! I must get hold of a copy.

Doubts on origins of Lewis Chessmen

Doubts cast on Chessmen origins

New research has cast doubt on traditional theories about the historic Lewis Chessmen.

The 93 pieces – currently split between museums in Edinburgh and London – were discovered on Lewis in 1831.

But the research suggests they may have been used in both chess and Hnefatafl – a similar game that was popular in medieval Scandinavia.

It also casts doubt on the traditional theory that the ivory pieces were lost or buried by a merchant.

The research was led by Dr David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland, who believes the Lewis chessmen were more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking person who lived on Lewis.

Dr Caldwell told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that many of the pieces could have doubled for Hnefatafl, another conflict game which also pitted a king against pawns or warriors on the other side.

“ It is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through ”
Dr David Caldwell National Museum of Scotland

The ancient game has not survived into modern times. For the first time, they also tried to work out which pieces were made by the same groups of craftsmen by measuring the chessmen’s faces, looking at their clothing, and studying details of the workmanship. Dr Caldwell added: “We certainly still believe the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, perhaps made in a workshop by several masters in a city like Trondheim. “But one of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through.

“To take a relatively easy example, there is a praise poem written in the middle of the 13th century to Angus Mor of Isla, and the poem says that he inherited his ivory chess pieces from his father Donald – that makes Angus the very first Macdonald, and the poem also makes him the king of Lewis. “Now you of course you would be foolish to implicitly believe everything in a praise poem, but nevertheless it gives you some idea that we are dealing with a society in the west of Scotland – great leaders like Angus Mor, bishops, clan chiefs – who really valued playing chess and saw it as being one of their accomplishments.”

He said that the analysis tried to recognise the work of different craftsmen, and home in on pieces which may be replacements for ones which had been broken or lost. They used a forensic anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson based at Dundee University, to do a photogrammetric analysis of the faces as they believed individual craftsmen would have given their faces different characteristics, just like a modern-day political cartoonists.

Plenty of mystery

Dr Caldwell said the chessmen suggested that there was a reasonable amount of wealth in the western Isles in the 13th century, perhaps because the medieval economy placed greater value on fairly barren land that could be used to raise cattle.

He added: “It was certainly leading men there, people who could make a lot of money either by raising cattle or frankly by going raiding – there was still in some ways a Viking way of life surviving into the 13th century.”

Despite the extensive research, Dr Caldwell said he still believed there was plenty of mystery surrounding the chessmen.

“I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on the – 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,” he said.

The research will be published this week in the journal Medieval Archaeology.

Of the 93 pieces found, 82 are kept at the British Museum, with 11 held by the National Museum of Scotland.

Calls have been made for all of the pieces, which were made from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, to be returned to Lewis.

Story from BBC NEWS

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!