The Lewis Chessmen, c. 1150-1175 AD
Walrus ivory and whales’ teeth
9.6 (height) x 5 (width) x 3.4 (depth) cm
Found at Uig, Scotland


On or before 1831, a hoard of carved chess pieces and other items made from ivory were discovered in a sandbank on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. They were likely made in Trondheim, Norway. The 93 pieces (82 of which belong to the British Museum) came from at least four different chess sets. Traces of red stain, visible when they were first uncovered, indicate that the game consisted of red and white opposing pieces.
The design of the pieces reflects the basic structure of medieval European society. Their status and roles are signified by what they wear and their actions. The bishops hold croziers, the knights bear swords and kite-shaped shields, and some rooks in the form of ‘bezerkers’ bite their shields. Each king sits atop an ornate throne with a sword on his lap, some queens rest their heads in their hands or clasp horns. These royal representations remind us that, in the early medieval game, the King was all-important and the Queen’s role and mobility were greatly restricted. The pawns, the least significant pieces of the game, are represented as abstract, non-human figures. Their stylistic depiction relates to the game of chess’s early history, which began in India around 500 AD and spread to Europe via the Islamic world in the 11th century.


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