August 13, 2010

The Lewis Chessmen are reunited temporarily

Posted at 1:04 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

More coverage of the (temporary) exhibition reuniting some of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum with those in Edinburgh.


Lewis chessmen reunited with mates
Published Date: 21 May 2010
By Tim Cornwell

AFTER years of political point-scoring over their rightful home, more than 30 of the historic Lewis chessmen go on show in Edinburgh today in an exhibition expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors.

“The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked” runs for four months at the National Museum of Scotland. It incorporates 23 Lewis chess pieces and other artefacts from the British Museum – the first loan of any chessmen to Edinburgh in 14 years – alongside all 11 pieces in Scotland’s own collection.

The chessmen are housed in elegant, simple cases in an upstairs room, with film footage showing the figures in close-up.

Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland (NMS), said: “These iconic objects have a special place in the public imagination … we are delighted to be opening the exhibition in partnership with the British Museum.”

The exhibition also reflects new Scottish research questioning long-held assumptions about when the chessmen were made, who owned them, how they were used, and where they were found on Lewis.

“Until we did our research, the standard story was: Lewis chessmen, wonderful works of art, abandoned in Lewis by mistake, Scandinavian, late 12th century. We have deliberately challenged a lot of that,” said NMS expert Dr David Caldwell.

“We may not be right, but at least we’ve demonstrated it’s possible to ask questions.”

Close analysis of the figures shows that while some are superbly carved, others are “very poor”, he said. “There’s evidence of craftsmen who were very good, but others made mistakes.”

One of the exhibition cases notes that one of the knights had a “bad hair day”, with strands only carved on one side of his head.

The traditional story of the chessmen tells that they were found in sand dunes at Uig on Lewis in 1831. They were made in Scandinavia in the 12th century, it was assumed, and probably abandoned by a passing merchant.

Dr Caldwell and others now suggest they were actually found several miles south, and hope new excavations could confirm that view. The exhibition says it is possible that one of several historical figures on Lewis might have collected and owned them – possibly Olaf, the younger brother of a King of the Isles, or a local bishop.

While it is still widely thought they were made in Trondheim, Norway, close analysis of some carvings now point to a later date. Three of the bishops, for example, wear mitres, their traditional headgear, in styles thought to date from after 1300, a century later than previously thought.

When First Minister Alex Salmond took power in 2007, he called for the return of some 90 Lewis pieces bought by the British Museum in the 19th century. His former cultural minister, Linda Fabiani, said division of the set was “unacceptable”.

But the British Museum and the UK government has stood firm, and that appears unlikely to change.

While some Liberal Democrats have supported moves to return cultural artefacts to their countries of origin, the new UK minister of culture is a Conservative, Jeremy Hunt.

“The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked” exhibition tours to Aberdeen in October, to the Shetland Museum and Archives in February and March, and to the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway for four months next summer.

The British Museum has loaned 23 chessmen plus three “tablemen” counters and a buckle. Only six of the NMS pieces will tour Scotland with the British Museum pieces, as it is felt tourists expect to see some when visiting Edinburgh.

Stornoway Gazette

Politicians welcome start of Lewis Chessmen tour

Published Date: 20 May 2010
By Taylor Edgar
THE official launch of the Lewis Chessmen tour across Scotland has been welcomed today by Western Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan.

The tour will see the Lewis chessmen temporarily exhibited in the Western Isles from April to September 2011.

Alasdair Allan commented: “The Lewis Chessmen were found in Uig in Lewis in 1831 and I warmly welcome the news that they will once more be returning to Lewis, if only temporarily as part of this tour.
“It is in large part thanks to funding and support by the Scottish Government that this exhibition of huge local and cultural importance to the Western Isles, and national important to Scotland, are able to be displayed across Scotland.

“The Scottish Government is maintaining negotiations with the British Museum with the aim of ensuring that the chessmen return to Scotland permanently. I believe such a deal should include an exhibition of some of the pieces in Lewis.”

The MSP added that for the moment, however, this represents real progress, and the British Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Scottish Government are all to be congratulated for ensuring that the chessmen will be here during the Year of Island Culture.

“Historic artefacts always mean a hundred times more in context, and the Lewis Chessmen have always been a symbol for the islands. I look forward to seeing them in Lewis,” Dr Allan pointed out.

His comments were echoed by another long time campaigner for the return of the Lewis Chessmen, Western Isles MP, Angus Macneil. Mr Macneil along with the SNP Councillor for Sgire Uig and Ceann a Tuath Na Loch, Annie Macdonald will attend a reception tonight in Edinburgh to commemorate the beginning of the Lewis Chessmen tour, showcasing 30 of the Lewis chess pieces which were found in Uig, Lewis in 1831.

The historic launch event will see 30 pieces of Lewis chess set off for exhibition at four venues in Scotland, beginning in Edinburgh, then moving on to Aberdeen and Shetland, and rounding off the exhibition in Stornoway between April and September 2011.

Commenting Angus MacNeil said: “This will be a huge opportunity for many people in Scotland who have never seen the Lewis chessmen now to see them on their doorstep.

“In a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons earlier this year, I argued the case that the Lewis chessmen should be returned to their rightful home on the Isle of Lewis, but the then Labour Minister informed me that this would not happen.

“Since then, there were attempts to move an Anglo Saxon horde found in the West Midlands to the British Museum, but a local campaign ensured that it would remain in the area where it was found. Which was the correct thing to do.”

He commented that if the Lewis Chess pieces had been found over the past few years, there is no doubt that they would have remained in Lewis, and one can only surmise what the economic worth of this would be to the Island of Lewis.

Councillor Annie Macdonald added: “As the Councillor for the area the where the chessmen were discovered, I am pleased to see them being exhibited in Scotland, and I along with many others will be delighted when they visit Stornoway next year.”

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1 Comment »

  1. Hels said,

    08.14.10 at 1:39 am

    “The chessmen are the most precious archaeological treasures ever discovered in Scotland. It is believed they were made in Trondheim, Norway, in the late 12th century and dug from the sands of Lewis’s Atlantic coast in 1831”.

    “The exhibition says it is possible that one of several historical figures on Lewis might have collected and owned them – possibly Olaf, the younger brother of a King of the Isles, or a local bishop.”

    Whether or not the Trondheim, 12th century and the royal attributions turn out to be correct, only one thing can be certain: that the pieces were dug out of the Lewis beach in 1831. If it is not possible to have a small, beautiful museum on Lewis itself because not enough people go there, why not in Inverness? The chess pieces could be surrounded by every other relic of late medieval Scotland, Norway and the islands.

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