September 21, 2010

Ten things you didn’t know about the Lewis Chessmen

Posted at 1:07 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

An interesting article about the Lewis Chessmen – although by my count there are nine facts in their list, not ten. Some of the points (such as the fact that there is no basis for their repatriation) are somewhat contentious however.


Ten things you didn’t know about the Lewis Chessmen
By Malcolm Jack
Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition in Edinburgh brings together the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland’s collections of the Lewis Chessmen – a set of medieval gaming pieces, originating most likely from Trondheim in the 12th or 13th century, which were discovered on the Hebridean island of Lewis sometime between 1780 and 1831.

Individually hand-carved from walrus ivory, and numbering 93 pieces in total – 82 of which are held by the British Museum, the remaining 11 by the National Museum of Scotland – the Lewis Chessmen are world famous for their mysterious origins, unique design and curious, almost comical expressions, which range from moody kings to a frightened-looking warder biting down on his shield. They even made a cameo in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Lewis Chessmen Unmasked curator Dr David Caldwell revealed ten fascinating facts about the artefacts, covering everything from the story behind their enchanting expressions to a new theory on when and where on Lewis they were found, why it’s unlikely that a handful of missing Chessmen will ever be discovered, and why the 82 pieces owned by the British Museum will most likely never be repatriated.

1. They’re One of a Kind

‘There are other single pieces that have turned up around Europe,’ reports Dr Caldwell, ‘but the Lewis Chessmen are by far the biggest and best hoard of such things.’

Several individual medieval ivory chess pieces can be viewed at places such as the Louvre and the National Museum in Denmark, but very few are directly comparable to the Lewis Chessmen. ‘There are one or two pieces that are very close, including part of a knight that comes from Lund in Sweden, and a now lost broken queen that came from Trondheim itself. Other pieces may turn up here and there.’

2. There’s An Odd One Out

While research on the faces of the Lewis Chessmen by forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson has determined that the pieces were probably carved by five different craftsmen, there’s a general uniformity visible across the set. ‘Although we might be dealing with five different craftsmen, they probably were all based in the same workshop,’ notes Dr Caldwell.

A single king, which may have been a later replacement for a lost original, is the odd one out. ‘There’s one of the pieces that we’ve highlighted who I think looks so different it’s probably from a different workshop somewhere else. It could be a different town even ? it’s certainly somewhere else altogether.’

3. The Chessmen’s Creators Were Having a Laugh

If the Chessmen’s bug-eyed, worried expressions appear comical to you, that?s probably because they’re supposed to.

‘I think in lots of ways, humans haven’t changed over the years,’ says Dr Caldwell. ‘I think it’s very likely that craftsmen would have had the same emotions and the same ways of thinking as we do now. When we have these images of the warriors biting the shields, I think that’s very likely to be a gentle bit of poking fun at contemporaries.’

5. It’s Impossible to Put a Price on Them

‘None of the chessmen have appeared on the market since the 19th century. The British Museum got 82 for something like £84 ? so at that time in 1841, they were being valued at about a pound a time. So I think they drove quite a hard bargain. Now I think that if some came up at auction, the figure would be very, very large indeed.

‘We say they’re treasures, and they are treasures ? they’re invaluable in all sorts of ways. Monetary value is something we never have to bother ourselves with, perhaps apart from insurance.’

6. The Chessmen May Have Been Found 50 Years Earlier than Is Believed

While writing a research paper on the Lewis Chessmen, Dr Caldwell uncovered evidence that they may have been found at the medieval settlement of Mèalasta rather than the sand dunes of Uig Bay, as is popularly believed. Additionally, he found evidence which implies that they were found half a century earlier than normally reported.

A team of Ordinance Survey mapmakers who visited Lewis in 1851 noted for Mèalasta: ‘Chessmen found here 70 years previously, taken to Edinburgh.’

‘These are guys who were trained to make sure they got accurate information,’ says Dr Caldwell. ‘I do now actually seriously wonder whether the Chessmen were actually found in 1780, and lurked around in somebody’s barn until they were rediscovered in 1831.’

7. There Probably Aren?t Any More Intact Pieces Still Out There

Dozens of Chessmen remain missing, leaving the hoard shy of four or five full chess sets. ‘The reason we haven’t got them I think is quite simple ? that the finder, well, he didn’t quite appreciate the value of them or what they were. He seems to have picked the pieces which were in perfect condition, and he’s picked up ones which don’t look too good, and he’s picked up ones which are chipped or have bits missing.’

The remaining Chessmen were most likely just tiny broken, fragments deemed not worthy of being collected. ‘I think it’d be reasonable to predict that there were probably several other pieces ? literally pieces ? and he wasn’t bothered with them.’

8. But There Are Enough Pieces to Play a Full Game of Chess

Despite the fact that a number of pieces are missing, it’s still possible for two players to sit down over a board and play a full game of chess with the Lewis Chessmen.

‘There’s only three of the face pieces missing, and a lot of pawns,’ says Dr Caldwell. ‘So I think there’s enough. You would need 16 pawns, and there are at least 16 pawns.’

9. There’s No Case for Repatriation

According to Dr Caldwell, there’s no grounds – morally or practically – for the NMS or any other Scottish museum to claim the British Museum’s quota of the Lewis Chessmen should be returned north on a permanent basis, not least because they were purchased entirely legitimately from the Scottish antiquarian Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe.

‘Once you start repatriating objects from museums, they’re all the losers,’ says Dr Caldwell. ‘I frankly think it’s important that major museums, whether they’re here or in North America or in Greece or wherever else, ought to be able to show to their people and their visitors human endeavour in different parts of the world. The British Museum is a major international museum and lots of people see them there, and that is the name of the game.’

10. The National Museum of Scotland’s Pieces are the Pick of the Bunch

While the NMS may only have 11 Chessmen to the British Museum’s 82, Dr Caldwell believes that the very best pieces – among them the iconic warder chewing on his shield, a scowling king with his sword across his lap and a thoughtful-looking bishop with is hand raised in blessing – are those few which reside in Scotland.

‘That’s not my prejudice, my bias – Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe clearly had a very good eye,’ says Dr Caldwell, ‘and he picked 11 good ones. And we do always have them on display here.’

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1 Comment »

  1. Dennis Porter said,

    12.15.10 at 8:33 pm

    Comment for Dr. Caldwell, has anyone ever put together an illustrated book that depicts all the anchient chess pieces that have been discovered as of 2010 including the recent Chinese discovery???

    Thank you,

    Dennis Porter

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