Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Lewis Chessmen

"Scattered Heritage": The Lewis chessmen. By the end of the 11th century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. This group of 78 chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis (in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland) is however one of the few complete sets of chessmen from Early Medieval western Europe, and certainly one of the most elaborate. At this time the islands had been ruled by the Kings of Norway. The chessmen had probably been made in Norway (perhaps by craftsmen in Trondheim where similar pieces have been found) and were probably part of the stock of a trader headed for the rich settlements of Ireland.

The pieces are carved in walrus ivory (with a few of whales' teeth) in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. They come from several incomplete sets. Some of the figures are charming in their execution and facial expressions full of character, this together with the high standard of workmanship and decoration, made them eminently collectable as well as being iconic items used in many books on Medieval art and history.

The pieces were unearthed by Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod of Pennydonald in early 1831 in a small stone kist in a sand bank at the head of Camas Uig on the west coast of the iland of Lewis. The finder later sold them to Captain Roderick Ryrie who exhibited them at an April 1831 meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The chessmen were soon after split up, some being purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and Lord Londesborough, while others went to several private collections on the continent (Denmark, Holland, Germany) and some of them being lost in the Second World War. The British Museum obtained a few, as did the Museum of Scotland.

There has been recent controversy about getting all the remaining examples back into a group and the most appropriate place for the main display of these pieces.

Photo: The Lewis Chessmen

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