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Newsletter Blast from the Past: Isle of Lewis Chessmen

Originally published November 2005
With the next Harry Potter movie coming out I thought it might be fun to mention a Scottish historical connection that made a cameo appearance in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” The chess set used for “wizard’s chess” (The scene above where the queen’s chess piece picks up her throne and uses it to smash one of the other pieces) is actually based on a set of historic chess pieces.

Legend has it that in 1831 a storm swept away a sandbank on the seashore near Uig on the Isle of Lewis, and the next day a local man discovered the newly exposed ruins of a building. While exploring the site, the superstitious islander is said to have stumbled upon a group of elves, or gnomes, whereupon he threw down his spade and ran away in fear of the “little people.” Later, when his wife convinced him to return to the spot, he discovered what are now often said to be the most important early chess pieces in Europe. Had they all been complete, there were enough pieces for what would have been 8 Chess sets carved in elaborately worked walrus ivory, and whale teeth. Also included in the hoard was a carved ivory belt buckle, and 14 ivory Backgammon pieces. Of the 93 pieces surviving today, eleven are housed in the National Museum of Scotland, and the remaining 82 are at the British Museum.

Isle of Lewis Rooks
Isle of Lewis Rooks

A board large enough to use the pieces played by modern rules would have measured about 82 cm across with squares 10.3 cm on a side. The tallest piece is about 10.3 centimeters. The clothing and weapons portrayed indicate they were probably made in the 12th century. They are sometimes a little confusing to modern players since the rooks are portrayed as warriors instead of castles. Early chess sets did not use castle towers as rooks, these early rooks symbolize “warders” or guards. (In the medieval game shatranj, the rook symbolized a chariot.)

Isle of Lewis Bishops
Isle of Lewis Bishops

The bishops in the Isle of Lewis pieces also provide a convenient clue to their age. The style of hats, or miters worn by bishops changed in the mid-12th century, and the miters on the Lewis bishops suggest that the pieces are most likely to have been carved after the 1150’s.

There are actually several legends telling how the Lewis Chess pieces were found. These range from the humorous story above, to a tale about a cow accidentally bumping open a hidden dry-stone chamber in a hillock. The most dramatic version connects the pieces to a 17th century murderer. Prior to execution he is said to have confessed to the murder of a seaman that he observed jumping ship off the Isle of Lewis with a bundle that the murderer hoped was some treasure. When he saw the unique nature of the loot, the murderer was afraid it would be too hard to sell and might connect him to the missing sailor, and so he left the hoard buried near the seashore.

Whatever the true story, it is clear that the pieces were buried at some point. Several have worm-like channels in their surface, which may be the tracks of burrowing organisms, or the effect of acid etching from contact with plant roots. Some of the pieces also show deterioration from being in a damp location. All that is truly known about them is that they were found some time before April 11, 1831, when they were first exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries at Scotland.

The manufacture of the Lewis Chessmen has been attributed either to Scandinavia, or possibly a Norse craftsman in the British Isles. More recently, a possible Swedish connection has been found. A fragment of a knight’s piece bearing a very close resemblance to the Lewis knights has been found in Lund, Sweden. It has been suggested that they may have belonged to a merchant traveling through the area. This seems possible, since there are enough different pieces – although with some missing – for perhaps four slightly different styles of Chess set. Some of the pieces do appear to be unfinished in minor respects, and these areas may have been intended to be filled with additional decoration.

In the Harry Potter movie, one side of the “Wizard” Chess set is red, and although all of the original Lewis pieces are of uncolored walrus ivory or whale teeth, there is some historic justification for this portrayal. Eight of the pieces were reported in 1832 to have evidence of red pigment. A modern examination by the British Museum also discovered green flecks on four of the pieces. These green flecks seemed to fluoresce under X-ray, suggesting the possibility of a lead-based pigment. But these flecks appeared on portions where they would be most likely to wear off, or get rubbed-on from contact with other objects, as opposed to appearing in the nooks and crannies of carved details where pigment should have been protected from wear. The Museum report was unable to confirm whether the red tint to some pieces was an artificial
application, or staining due to contact with plant, or mineral deposits while they were buried. There is also a form of red or brown iron oxide on some of the Lewis pieces, which is common on museum artifacts that have been in storage for a length of time. In general, the report accepted the possibility of the early report of red pigment, but after 160 years of fading, handling, possible unrecorded cleanings, and contact with other museum artifacts, the truth remains subject to opinion.

Regardless of the mysteries surrounding them, the Isle of Lewis Chessmen are tiny masterpieces of what Walter Scott and his fellow Victorians first termed “Romanesque” art. But beyond their importance in terms of artwork, they also mark a significant point in the European history of Chess. Even though Arabian-style Chess pieces have been found in Central Europe dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, the Lewis pieces show that Chess had been assimilated into Northern Europe long enough by the late 1100’s that the local peoples had begun to create their own motifs for the artwork of the game.

Combination Chess and Tablut game
MacGregor Games Isle of Lewis pieces with a combination Chess and Tablut game table.

There are reproductions of the Lewis chess pieces that are available to the modern chess player. They come in a small version that often sells for around $80-$130.00 depending on the game board included. In order to make the the pieces more like a modern chess set some makers of the small version have added square towers as rooks, and use the “rooks” as pawns. The larger versions that are available are more accurate in that they preserve the “warders” in their original role as rooks. The large versions use 3.5-inch tall kings (requiring a chess board with at least 2-inch squares) and range in price from around $125 to $170.

Groomporter

Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games http://historicgames.com

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