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Stalemate over the Lewis Chessmen

Chess playing analogies continue, as the Sunday Herald looks at some of the history behind the disputed Lewis Chessmen [1].

From:
Sunday Herald (Scotland) [2]

February 04, 2008
Stale mate

They were made in Norway. Lost en route to Ireland. Washed up in Scotland. Now most of them are on display in England. But which country can justly lay claim to the Lewis chessmen? By Allan Burnett

WHO OWNS the Lewis Chessmen? For the SNP government in Edinburgh and their Labour opponents in London, squabbling over whether this huddle of priceless medieval artefacts belongs in Scotland or England, the answer might seem obvious. But the fact they are contesting the issue at all, and that their conclusions directly contradict each other, only goes to prove that the answer is very far from clear. In fact, the truth about the Lewis Chessmen is infinitely more complex and colourful than the usual black-and-white certainties common to the games of politics and chess.

The full story of these enigmatic little figurines, where they come from and why their ownership matters, begins about three centuries ago, with a mysterious ship caught in the jaws of an Atlantic gale off the west coast of Lewis. The vessel narrowly avoided shipwreck by sheltering in the mouth of an inlet called Loch Resort. That night, while the crew rode out the storm by drinking, blethering and playing board games, a sailor boy in their midst made plans to escape his personal hell of confinement and on-board bullying.

But not before grabbing the most tradeable things he could lay his penniless hands on – the captain’s precious ivory chessmen. It may have taken more than one trip, but the boy managed to swim ashore with almost 100 of the fist-sized pieces in a bundle on his back.

Unknown to him, however, a cowherd was watching from the shore. When the boy made his final landing, the cowherd sprang to the chase, determined to get his hands on whatever riches the soaking sailor had under his arm. In the struggle that followed the boy was killed. The herdsman buried his victim’s remains on the moor and lugged the loot home.

When he examined the bag’s contents, the cowherd grew afraid that the glowering figures inside might prove evidence against him, should anyone launch a hunt for the missing crewman. So, under cover of darkness, the murderer took the chess pieces from his remote bothy to the Mains of Uig, about 10 miles away, and buried them in a sandbank. Years later, the herdsman was hanged in Stornoway for abusing women, but before he died he confessed to his earlier sin and told of the buried treasure.

The pieces remained undiscovered for a century or more until, around 1830, a cow belonging to a man called Calum nan Sprot, aka Malcolm Macleod, hooked a creamy white object out of the dune with its horns. Falling to his hands and knees, Macleod began to dig, eventually uncovering dozens more of the fairy-like figures.

Macleod – a staunch Presbyterian – was uncomfortable about having “idols” in his possession, especially the ones that looked like bishops. So the pieces were handed over to a Captain Ryrie, or Pirie, who sold them for £30 on Macleod’s behalf to an Edinburgh antiques dealer called TA Forrest.

The story of the murdered sailor and the bovine detective is a Hebridean tradition with varying details that can neither be proved nor disproved, but it does raise the possibility that the Lewis Chessmen were stolen property by the time they made their way south. The facts as noted by Neil Stratford, former keeper of medieval antiquities at the British Museum, are these: the pieces were discovered in Lewis, either in the sand or in a drystone chamber. They were sold by Forrest, after much haggling, for 80 guineas, to the British Museum in London, where the driving force behind their acquisition was Frederick Madden, assistant keeper of manuscripts and a keen chess player.

That accounts for the 82 pieces in London. But Forrest secretly kept 10 pieces in reserve, which he sold to a Scottish genealogist and artist called Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. Mysteriously, Sharpe later acquired one more piece, a bishop, directly from Lewis, making 11. Add to that the intriguing fact that both Sharpe and Madden were friends of Sir Walter Scott, who was given a private viewing of the British Museum collection by Madden on the very day they turned up for sale there. Although passionate about all things Scottish, Scott regarded chess as a bit of a waste of time, which might explain why he appears to have been unperturbed about most of the pieces ending up in England.

Upon Sharpe’s death, his smaller collection was bought by another antiquarian before finally being sold again at a Christie’s auction in 1888 to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland – who had tried but failed to raise enough interest back in the 1830s to buy a large number of the pieces. The Society in turn donated the figures to the Royal, now National Museum of Scotland.

In London, meanwhile, Madden had given each of the four-inch-tall pieces closer inspection. He noted that they were not just chessmen, but men and women; kings, queens, bishops, rooks (in the form of warriors, not castles), knights and pawns. He noted the probable use of dye to distinguish one side from the other. He saw that every single one was in some way unique. But there was something in their troll-like appearance, in the style of carving and the raw material, that pointed to a place of origin more distant and exotic than Lewis. Something in the way some of the rooks bit into their shields, uncannily like Vikings steeling themselves for a fight by going berserk.

The Lewis Chessmen’s creation began many centuries earlier, high up in the Arctic Circle in the freezing waters of the Norwegian Sea. There, blubbery, tusked walruses roamed freely like kings. Until, that is, the Greenland hunters turned up. It was after one typically gruelling expedition in the mid-1100s that a crew of hunters must have made their way back to Greenland, which was then under Norwegian rule. This fact helps explain why the Greenlanders partook of such a perilous activity: they had to pay their taxes to the archbishop of Trondheim, in mainland Norway, in the form of precious walrus tusks.

This walrus ivory was shipped to Trondheim, about 300 miles north of Oslo, where the archbishop’s Nidaros Cathedral was a centre of medieval industry. This was the sort of place you would find coins being minted, crossbows being manufactured, stained glass being crafted, shoes being made. It was almost certainly the place, believes cathedral archaeologist Oystein Ekroll, that the Lewis Chessmen were carved from a shipment of walrus ivory. But how can we be sure?

“About 20 years ago I found a drawing of a small, Madonna-like figure of a woman holding her hand to her chin,” explains Ekroll. “I thought, I have seen this somewhere before – it is one of those Lewis Chessmen’. I showed it to a colleague and he agreed.” The original pieces detailed by the drawing were found, not in Nidaros Cathedral itself, but during an excavation a century ago of the ruins of Trondheim town’s parish church – a church believed to have once housed the remains of St Olaf, Norway’s patron saint and a crusader against the Vikings’ traditional pagan beliefs.

In a bizarre twist, the Trondheim chess queen was lost somewhere in the local museum, but luckily the drawing is authentic. And the evidence gets stronger. “We have a lot of stone ornamentation here that connects Trondheim with the Lewis pieces,” says Ekroll of the common foliage-like patterns and beasts found both on the backs of the Lewis Chessmen and on stone figures in Norway. The ornamental style, known as Romanesque, also accounts for the chessmen’s glaring, drilled eyes. “Three or four years ago,” Ekroll reveals, “a woman found a king made from walrus tusk on a beach near Trondheim. It’s not as old as the Lewis hoard, but it is in the same pose – it’s the same style.”

So if the pieces were fashioned in Trondheim, including those believed to have been made from whale’s teeth, why did they turn up in Lewis? Academic logic points away from a murdered sailor and towards something bigger and historically more ancient. When the chessmen were made, Scotland’s north-western seaboard, including Lewis, was under Norse political control. It was a sphere of influence that extended from Greenland right down to the Isle of Man and Ireland. This has prompted the British Museum and others to claim that Lewis was therefore not part of Scotland. But it is not as simple as that. The area had loyalties both to Norway and Scotland. The inhabitants were a hybrid people sometimes described as Norse-Gaels – a product of marriage between Vikings and native Scots.

This explains why Norwegian DNA is still found among a significant percentage of Lewis’s Gaelic-speaking male population today. The strength of the Norwegian connection prompts Dr Barbara Crawford, author of the book Scandinavian Scotland and a member of the Norwegian Academy, to suggest an explanation as to why the chess pieces went to Lewis. “I wonder whether these pieces were actually some sort of prestige gift from the archbishop of Norway to perhaps the bishop of Man,” she says. After all, in those days, to own such a treasure you needed the kind of wealth and status possessed only by a bishop or a king. While the bishop of Man answered to the archbishop in Trondheim, his regional beat covered the Western Isles – including Lewis. This explains how the pieces got there, perhaps, but not why they were hidden in the sand.

“So, instead, maybe the pieces were going to someone in Dublin, which was a Viking centre,” adds Crawford. This suggests that shipwreck or some other mishap along the busy sea road’ through the Western Isles might account for the pieces being buried. She points out that during the era when the pieces may have been en route via Lewis to Dublin, around the 1170s, the English were making their first moves towards conquering Ireland. Perhaps the prestigious figures were intended as a political sweetener to shore up Irish resistance to the invaders and loyalty to the old regime.

And so the shifting sands of fact and conjecture build up around the Lewis Chessmen. But are we any the wiser? There are, after all, so many other questions to be asked. Why chess pieces? Why that game? Board games involving counters and dice were popular among the Vikings, and Trondheim workshops made dice using cubes of bone that were drilled to give each face its numerical value. As for chess, it was a comparatively new pastime in 12th-century Scandinavia and its origins lie much further afield, beyond the borders of Christian Europe.

Chess was probably thought up in Iran, or perhaps India, around 2000 years ago. In the medieval Islamic world, chess pieces tended to be abstract geometric shapes, which might be because official Islam regarded engraved images like kings or queens as idolatrous. When chess sets arrived in Europe, probably brought to Spain by the Moors, their pieces began acquiring a number of key differences. They began to look more like people. And some of them looked like bishops, symbols of the rising power of the Christian Church. Again, this reinforces the theory that the Lewis pieces were probably a gift from one prominent churchman to another.

But if they were a gift between clerics, this only replaces some old questions with some new ones. Consider this: a fragment of a chess piece was found in the cathedral town of Lund in what is now southern Sweden, across Norway’s modern border. Experts identify the Lund piece as having the same origins as the knights of the Lewis hoard. This is significant because the archbishopric of Trondheim was a breakaway establishment from the original Scandinavian archbishopric at Lund. So can we really be sure that the Lewis Chessmen originate in Norway? Why not Lund, or somewhere else in Scandinavia?

But the biggest question is the one that all archaeologists – professional, amateur and armchair – will want answered. Are there any more of these priceless, irreplaceable pieces out there? The 93 figures in Edinburgh and London are not complete sets, but represent the partial remains of four or five different sets. And it was never established that the pieces sold to London and Edinburgh are the only surviving examples.

So perhaps some remain buried under the Uig machair? Or hidden in a crofthouse? Or lurking behind a wall in St Olaf’s Church in Trondheim, now a public library? When St Olaf’s was excavated in the 1980s, hundreds of skeletons were found, all witnesses to the events of long ago. Perhaps these people went to their graves, holding the ultimate answers to the puzzle of the Lewis Chessmen. If they did, it might be time to retire this game.