Lewis chessmen

Lewis chessmen

Infobox Artifact
name = Lewis Chessmen

image_caption = Lewis chessmen in the British Museum
material = Walrus Ivory
created = 12th century
discovered = Uig, Lewis in 1831
location = nowrap beginBritish Museum·wrap Museum of Scotlandnowrap end

The Lewis Chessmen (or Uig Chessmen, named after their find-site) constitute some of the few complete medieval chess sets that have survived until today. Discovered in 1831, they are currently exhibited in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and the British Museum in London. There has been recent controversy about the most appropriate place for the main exhibit to be held.

History and description

The chessmen are believed to have been made in Norway, perhaps by craftsmen in Trondheim (where similar pieces have been found), sometime during the 12th century. During that period the Outer Hebrides, along with other major groups of Scottish islands, were ruled by Norway. Some historians believe that the Lewis chessmen were hidden (or lost) after some mishap occurred during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland.Fact|date=March 2008

Almost all of the pieces in the collection are carved from walrus ivory, with a few made instead from whale teeth. The 93 pieces form parts of four or five sets, though the sizes are irregular and it is not clear whether any full original set can be compiled from the known pieces. Altogether there are 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns. All the pieces are sculptures of human figures, except the pawns (which are smaller, simple sculptures resembling carved gravestones). The knights are shown mounted (on rather diminutive horses) holding spears and shields, and all of the human figures have decidedly glum expressions (other than three rooks, which are shown as berserkers, wild-eyed and biting their shields with battle fury). The whole series displays a sensitivity and sense of humour to rival any modern art. Some bore traces of red stain when found, indicating that red and white were used to distinguish the two sides, rather than the black and white used in modern chess.

Modern discovery

The chessmen were discovered in early 1831 in a sand bank at the head of the Bay of Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. There are various local stories concerning their arrival on Lewis and modern discovery. One unverifiable tale suggestsFact|date=March 2008 that in the 16th century (long after the period of Norse influence in the Hebrides) a cabin boy stole the pieces from a ship whilst it was anchored in Loch Resort. However, he was then murdered by a local cowherd, who buried the pieces at Uig. The cowherd was later hanged for other crimes but is said to have confessed to this act before he died.

Three hundred years later Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod from the nearby township of Pennydonald discovered the trove in a small stone kist in a dune, exhibited them briefly in his byre and sold them on to Captain Roderick Ryrie. One reported detail, that it was a cow that actually unearthed the stash, is generally discounted in Uig as fabrication. Malcolm Macleod's family were evicted from Pennydonald several years later when the area was cleared to make the farm at Ardroil.

Exhibition and ownership

They were exhibited by Ryrie at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, on April 11, 1831. The chessmen were soon after split up, with 10 being purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and the others (67 chessmen and 14 tablemen) were purchased on behalf of the British Museum in London.

Kirkpatrick Sharpe later found another bishop to take his collection up to eleven, all of which were later sold to Lord Londesborough. In 1888 they were again sold, but this time the purchaser was the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who donated the pieces to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. The eleven are now on display in the Museum of Scotland.

The pieces donated to the British Museum are still located there, and can be found in Room 42 with the registration numbers M&ME 1831, 11–1.78–159.

The chessmen were number 5 in the list of British archaeological finds selected by experts at the British Museum for the 2003 BBC Television documentary "Our Top Ten Treasures" presented by Adam Hart-Davis.


In 2007–2008 a dispute arose regarding the most appropriate place to display the pieces. The issue first aroseFact|date=March 2008 late in 2007 with calls from Scottish National Party politicians in the Western Isles (notably Cllr Annie Macdonald, MSP Alasdair Allan and MP Angus MacNeil) for the return of the pieces to the place they were found. Linda Fabiani the Scottish Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture stated that "it is unacceptable that only 11 Lewis Chessmen rest at the National Museum of Scotland while the other 82 remain in the British Museum in London". Richard Oram, Professor of Medieval and Environmental History at the University of Stirling, agreed arguing that there was no reason for there to be more than "a sample" of the collection in London. Both points of view have been dismissed by Margaret Hodge the UK Minister of State in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, writing "It's a lot of nonsense, isn't it?"Burnett, Allan (3 February 2008) "Stalemate". Glasgow. "The Sunday Herald".] The local historical society in Uig, "Comann Eachdraidh Uig", which operates a registered museum near the find site featuring detailed information about the chessmen and Norse occupation in Lewis, has indicated publicly that it has no intention of pursuing any claim to the ownership of the pieces and does not support demands for them to be sent to Edinburgh, but would welcome short-term loans. [Uig News, February 2008]
British Museum.


* N. Stratford, "The Lewis chessmen and the enigma of the hoard" (The British Museum Press, 1997)
* Michael Taylor, "The Lewis Chessmen" (British Museum Publications Limited)
* HJR Murray, "A History of Chess" (Oxford University Press)


External links

* [http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_lewis_chessmen.aspx The British Museum's page on the chessmen]
* [http://history.chess.free.fr/lewis.htm Chez.com's page on the chessmen]
* [http://www.chess-sets-reviews.com/theme-chess-sets/isle-of-lewis-chess-sets Further reading on the Isle of Lewis chessmen]
* [http://textualities.net/writers/features-a-g/chandlerg05.php Not Chess pieces, Not from Lewis]

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