Originally Published December 2009.
Isle of Lewis “Chessmen” Revisited
(This one leans more toward an opinion piece than most articles.) One of my first articles since taking over the Celtic History Newsletter was about the Isle of Lewis Chessmen. These have long been considered one of the more important early Chess sets found in Europe. There are about six different stories told about how they were found, but all of them claim that the pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis. Recently I have run across a couple articles claiming that they are not actually Chess pieces. One even denies the Lewis connection and supports an opinion that they should be returned to a Scandinavian country where scholars agree they were most likely manufactured. In fact, a possible Swedish connection has been found in recent years. A fragment of a knight piece bearing a very close resemblance to the Lewis knights has been found in Lund, Sweden.
One of the articles I found appeared on the BBC News website. The other article I discovered was by Scottish Chess writer Geoff Chandler who suggests that there was some form of conspiracy surrounding the “discovery” of the Lewis pieces. He shows that they were “discovered” during a period when Chess was a topic in Scottish newspapers due to an on-going competition between the Edinburgh Chess Club and the London Chess Club in the 1820’s. While I agree it’s an interesting coincidence, and there is obviously controversy as to how, or where they were truly discovered, but at this point I don’t see a smoking gun that would justify to turning them over to Norway, or Sweden. But his argument that they are not Chess pieces, but rather intended for the Viking game Hnefatafl is what I really find to be ridiculous.
The Lewis find consisted 78 pieces: 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks (footmen), and 19 pawns. (Also included was an ivory belt buckle, and 14 ivory disks believed to be Backgammon pieces.)
There are twice as many bishops and knights as there are kings and queens, just as there are in a standard chess set. That sounds a lot like multiple incomplete chess sets to me. And as one of the earliest anthropomorphic chess sets, identifying the foot-soldier pieces as rooks would seem a reasonable interpretation. (There are examples of 4-player chess games going back at least as far as the 13th century, but the numbers the Lewis pieces do not seem to reflect the surviving descriptions)
Hnefatafl games use only a single king and twice as many attacking “pawns” as there are defender “pawns”. The number of Lewis pieces certainly do not seem to reflect that type of game. Further, If this is a set of Hnefatafl pieces why are there queens, bishops and knights?
Chandler argues the pieces “were all white. It’s impossible to play chess with pieces all the same colour. For this Viking game (Hnefatafl), you do not need to have to have two different colours.” Okay, I’ll admit that if the shapes of the pawns are different enough you can play Hnefatafl with all the pieces the same color, but this ignores the fact that there are a number of early chess pieces surviving that seem to have little difference in their colors remaining on them.
Also, I have personally experimented with dying bone game pieces and would find it believable that the original vegetable dye, or paint on the ivory Lewis pieces may have worn/washed off while they were buried -or perhaps their maker simply had not yet colored the pieces? One of the topics I mentioned in my original article was that an early description of the Lewis pieces mentioned possible traces of red pigment on some of them. To make sure the color does not wear off or chip off on the dark bone pieces at right I’ve actually resorted to chemically oxidizing them.
He also says “Another moot point. Where is the chessboard?” That’s a silly argument. Where are the boards for all of the other historic Chess pieces pictured on the history of Chess website I cited in the previous paragraph? They were simply separated from the pieces over the course of the centuries.
He goes on to say “A spokesman for the BM (British Museum) stated in a interview
with CHESS magazine remarked that he is often asked why the pieces are not displayed as a chess set on a chess board. (They are shown in their groups, Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights and “Rooks” – foot soldiers.) He added that, when set up on a board, the Lewis Chessmen do NOT look like chess pieces.”
Nonsense. They are the pieces for at least 8 incomplete Chess sets -of course they do not look as much like chess pieces when grouped by type of piece. But if you simply divide them and set them up on a chess board it’s obvious what they are. I agree that my first thought would be to display them set up for a game, with the extra pieces displayed around it, but it would also be a valid argument as a museum curator that they should stand alone since there was no game board found with them.
Certainly, similar pieces could be used to play Hnefatafl, I myself have made and sold tafl games using a Lewis king and extra pawns that I cast using commercial molds. But I find find no reason to believe the Lewis game pieces are not Chessmen -even if they were never on the the Isle of Lewis.