October 23, 2010

Lewis Chessmen – or Icelandic Chessmen?

Posted at 4:59 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

More coverage of the research that suggests that the Lewis Chessmen may have originally been carved in Iceland. The relevance of this is of course the fact that the British Museum likes to refer to them as Norwegian Chessmen (to avoid claims for return to Scotland), yet it is clear that nobody knows for certain where they are from originally – in the case of theses objects, their home (inasmuch as it plays a part in their history) has to be seen as the place they were discovered, not the place (now long forgotten) where they originated. Either way, the British Museum should see itself only as a temporarily custodian, rather than the rightful owner.


Mum’s gone to Iceland for Lewis Chessmen
Published Date: 11 September 2010

BEHIND the great men, there could be a talented woman. Or at least that’s the latest theory about the origins of the iconic Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis Chessmen, carved about 800 years ago mostly from walrus tusks, had previously been considered of Norwegian origin Picture: PA

The chessmen have fascinated historians and scholars since they were found in Uig in Lewis in 1831. But fresh claims challenge some long-held beliefs about the pieces.

The most commonly held view on the origin of the 93 pieces, primarily made from walrus tusks, is that they were made in Norway in the 12th or 13th century and were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

However, a seminar today at the National Museum of Scotland will hear claims that the chessmen could have been made in Iceland by a priest’s wife.

The new theory has been put forward by Icelandic chess fans Einar Einarsson and Gudmundur Thórarinsson, who was the chairman of the organising committee of the famous world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykavik 1972.

They argue that at the time of the creation of the Lewis Chessmen – around 1150-1200 – it is likely that no nation except Iceland had connected chess with bishops or the church.

They say the word “bishop” for a chess piece is used in only two languages, Icelandic and English. In most other languages, including Norwegian, this piece is known as a “runner”.

Other pieces of evidence include the chess knights being mounted on horses that seem Icelandic in both size and head shape and the rooks resembling berserkers (an Icelandic word for a soldier wearing a shirt made of bearskin) who figure prominently in contemporary Icelandic writings but not in written works in Norway at the time.

Mr Thórarinsson says historic writings refer to Bishop Páll in Iceland sending carved gifts made from tusks. These were made by Margrét the Adroit, his wife, so called because of her prodigious skill at carving walrus tusks.

He added: “One might even entertain the notion that the Lewis chessmen were made at the request of Bishop Páll of Skálholt and carved by Margrét the Adroit whose carving skills were the stuff of legend.

“The pieces were then sent abroad for sale or as a gift, but the ship was then lost”.

The British Museum presently holds 82 of the chess pieces and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the other 11.

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