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19.06.2021

Lewis chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen or Whig Chessmen, named after the island or bay where they were found, are a group of distinctive twelfth-century chess pieces, along with other game pieces, most of which are carved from walrus bone. Discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, they may represent one of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets, although it is unclear whether the set can be assembled from these pieces in its original form. When the treasure was found, it contained 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 table pieces and one belt buckle. Today, 82 of the pieces belong to and are commonly exhibited by the British Museum in London, while the remaining 11 are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In addition, a recently identified piece, a "garder," the equivalent of a castle or rook, was sold for £735,000 in July 2019. Four other large pieces and many pawns are still missing from the chess sets.

Most sources say that the pieces were found in Uig Bay on the west coast of Lewes, but Caldwell et al. of the National Museum of Scotland (NMSH) believe the more likely location of the hoard is Mealista, which is also in the parish of Uig and about 6 miles (10 km) south of the coast. In the 19th century the hoard was divided and sold; eighty-two pieces are in the British Museum (BM), and the remaining eleven are in the National Museums of Scotland.

At the British Museum it was Sir Frederick Madden, assistant curator of manuscripts, who persuaded the trustees to purchase for eighty guineas (£84) the eighty-two pieces, which he was misled into believing constituted the entire hoard. Madden was a paleographer, a scholar of early vernacular literature, but he was particularly intrigued by these artifacts because he was a lover of chess. Madden immediately set about writing a monumental scholarly work about the collection entitled Historical Remarks on the Introduction of the Game of Chess in Europe and the Ancient Chessmen Discovered on the Isle of Lewis, published in Archaeologia XXIV (1832), which remains informative and impressive today.

The British Museum claims that the chess pieces were probably made in Trondheim, the medieval capital of Norway, in the 12th century, although some scholars suggest that they were from other Scandinavian countries. During this period the Outer Hebrides, along with other large groups of Scottish islands, were under Norwegian rule.

Selandists Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Einar Einarsson have suggested that chess figures originated in Iceland because only in Iceland were bishops so called at the time, while in other countries they used a name unrelated to the church, they argued. However, this has been challenged by Wolfe, who claimed that the use of bishops originated in England, and by Morten Lilleoren, a Norwegian chess historian and member of the Chess History and Literature Society. The text referred to by the Icelanders is from the early 14th century, while two 13th-century Latin texts from other countries refer to the chess piece as a bishop, and Lewis's chess pieces probably date from the 12th century. In addition, there are many medieval chess bishops of various origins in various museums in Europe and the United States. A bishop that probably predates Lewis' chess pieces was in the collection of Jean-Joseph Marquet de Vasselot and was sold at a Christie's auction in Paris in 2011 with a radiocarbon dating report stating that with a 95% probability the ivory dates to between 790 and 990 AD. It is believed to be an English or German statuette carved in the 12th century. Stylistically, it predates Lewis's chess pieces in that its mitre is worn on its side. According to an essay on the lot with references, the bishop's presence among the chess pieces was a twelfth-century European invention. The inclusion of the bishop reflects his status in the social system of the period, especially in Scandinavia and England, where clergymen played an important role in military conflicts.

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