Lewis chessmen

Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

Scholarly paper warning.

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson have written an interdisciplinary paper on the Lewis chessmen, uncovered in Scotland in 1831. They are centuries-old, walrus ivory chess pieces, 78 in all. The authors suggest the story may have become too streamlined to reveal reality.

Whether kings or princes from the Isle of Man or descended from Somerled, local nobles or high-ranking clerics, there were several men in late Norse Lewis who could have aspired to own the Lewis pieces, and who would have valued them as gaming pieces. Rather than accepting the deus ex machina  explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock, it is surely more plausible that the Lewis pieces were found in Lewis because that was where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed.
   . . .
There are two final points to make here. First, no matter how or why the Lewis pieces arrived at Uig, it is only a presumption that they were new when buried. If they belonged to a local nobleman or cleric they may have provided many years of enjoyment before they passed out of use. This is a significant point to which we will return after a more detailed analysis of the individual pieces. Second, the circumstances of the hoard’s discovery are so vague that there can be no confidence as to whether it was lost or deliberately hidden.

This isn’t quite the storyline of The Chessmen by Peter May, but you may find it interesting. Abstract to follow.

Almost 180 years of scholarship on the Lewis chessmen have given us a solid foundation of understanding, primarily based upon their art-historical analysis. Taking a more interdisciplinary approach (combining elements of art history with archaeology and history), this paper focuses on some over-looked themes — primarily the archaeological, gaming and political contexts of the 12th- and 13th-century North Sea world — and some more familiar themes but in a new light. We suggest a more fluid composition and function of the gaming hoard, with at least four sets of chessmen from the same workshop conceivably made for use in Lewis, possibly in the early 13th century.

Photo credit: Bochum1805 on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

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