Lewis Chessmen

Contributed by British Museum

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These chess pieces were found unexpectedly on a beach on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in 1831. They were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth between around 1150 and 1200. When found some were stained red, suggesting that the original colour combination of the pieces was red and white. The chess pieces were probably made in Norway. At this time the Isle of Lewis was part of the kingdom of Norway. The chess pieces may have been buried by a merchant travelling along the trade route from Scandinavia to Ireland.

Where did chess originate?

Chess originated in India after 500 BC and had arrived in Christian Europe via the Islamic world by at least the AD 990s. The original Indian and Islamic game was adapted to reflect medieval European society, so that the Indian war elephant was replaced with the figure of the bishop. The rooks biting their shields resemble the Viking berserkers of Norse myth, while the pose of the queens is derived from depictions of the grieving Virgin Mary. The pawns, lacking any human features, reflect the abstract pieces used in the Islamic version of the game.

The name rook comes from Persian word rukh, which means chariot, and was the original Indian form of the modern castle

Playing it for laughs

Few objects compete with the Lewis chessmen in terms of their popular appeal. These endearing little figures have attracted audiences to the British Museum since the moment of their acquisition in 1831.

In recent years, they have found new fame from their inclusion in the 2001 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the film, Harry and Ron compete at wizard’s chess using replicas of the Lewis chessmen. At the critical moment of victory, an enraged queen stands from her throne which she picks up to smash across her opponent.

This animated sequence taps into a longstanding appreciation of the Lewis chessmen’s comic qualities. But were they made for laughs?

The pieces that probably raise the biggest smiles are the famously grumpy queens who rest their chins in their hands, nursing a toothache or fretting about the weather. The bulging eyed foot soldiers that bite their shields with enlarged teeth come a close second. But, although we can never be certain what the carver originally intended, it is worth looking at the wider context to try to understand the significance of these figures for a twelfth century audience.

Chess was conceived and developed as a game of intellect and skill. Though increasingly played by mixed sex opponents where it acted as a forum for flirtation, it was initially cultivated in knightly circles as a game that sharpened strategic thinking.

Chess, indeed, is generally played in earnest and rarely provokes a laugh. It is essentially a war game and it is the horror of the battlefield that is probably reflected in the poses of these two very distinctive pieces.

The queen’s attitude is derived from contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary in contemplation of the crucified Christ. On the chessboard she undoubtedly surveys the carnage and considers what solace she can offer. The foot soldier, conversely, is a figure of great heroic ferocity drawn from Norse legend.

Known as berserkers, these fictional warriors are described in the sagas as biting their shields in a state of self-induced frenzy.

Rather than figures of fun, the chessmen represent the feudal order of society and convey the qualities of king, bishop, knight and soldier through the language of gesture. Despite their miniature size, they might be seen to embody truly monumental values of the human condition.

James Robinson, curator, British Museum

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  • 1. At 00:42 on 29 June 2010, Pansceptic wrote:

    The weakeest piece on the mediaeval board, in contemporary eyes, was not queen the bishop, or 'aufin', which leapt to the next square but one on the diagonal and became proverbial for something useful.

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  • 2. At 06:42 on 29 June 2010, Ian Campbell wrote:

    thanks for an inspiring contribution to broadcasting. we have an 18inch bronze of the greenham marcher and would like to add her to the list..

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  • 3. At 20:39 on 30 June 2010, wordtweaker wrote:

    About 15 years ago I was in Vienna and I visited the Jewish Museum there. A famous chess match was the central theme, with each move shown on a different chessboard, a wonderfully inventive idea. A set of Lewis chessmen was there, and I asked the curator whence it had come. She said they were from a private source in England. This shocked me. I live in the Outer Hebrides where these chess pieces originate. I assumed all of them were in public hands (ie British Museum). Was she wrong?

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  • 4. At 18:05 on 1 July 2010, James Robinson wrote:

    I'm intrigued by Wordtweaker's comment about a set of Lewis chessmen on display in Vienna. What I suspect is that the Jewish Museum was using a replica set. Over the years many of these have been made with varying degrees of accuracy. To my knowledge no other original 'sets' or pieces resembling the Lewis chessmen have been discovered to exist in private hands - though there may be some out there somewhere! The pieces known to us can be enjoyed in the public collections of the British Museum and National Museums Scotland.
    James Robinson, curator, British Museum

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  • 5. At 18:58 on 15 August 2010, Pigeonman wrote:

    My favourite objects in the BM - I have been coming to see the everytime I am in the museum for many years now.

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Probably made in Norway




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