Sunday 1 February 2015

Lost In The Dune: the Lewis Chessmen - by Susan Price

Knight: Lewis Chess Set
          Look at this little fella. Isn't he great?
          I imagine most, if not all, of my readers will immediately recognise him  - even without the caption - as a knight from the Lewis chessmen. The photograph above, though, was taken by me of one that sits on my shelf. It's a replica, quite a good one, I think, and it allows you to hold the little character in your hand and get a good close look at him.
          He's very like a Norman (norse-man) knight, with his kite-shaped shield and his conical helmet with a nose-piece. His horse is a sturdy little beast - I think its size, proportionate to its rider, was probably accurately observed.  The rider has stirrups, and the horse has a caparison.
          I only own two pieces. Here's the other: a Bishop.

Lewis chess men: the bishop

          He may look as if he's making a rude gesture, but I think it's a blessing.  Here's the back of him, showing the beautiful carving of his elaborate chair, and mitre ribbons.

Lewis Chess men: the bishop's back side.
          I wish I owned more of them. I'd really like to have one of the berserkers who's biting his shield. And a Queen. And a King. Well, the whole set, really.
          The chessmen were found on the west coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, in 1831, one of history's great accidental finds.
          There are several differing stories about how they were found. One says they were unearthed by a cow. The first I came across said that they were found in a sand-dune, in a little 'cave', and that the superstitious Highlander who found them, Malcolm Mcleod, was frightened and ran away, thinking he'd stumbled on a gathering of 'the little people' or fairies.
Lewis is to the left of Scotland, marked with a red dot
         I was always suspicious about this story: it assumed that a Highland crofter was a fool, and I'm pretty sure that if you want to find a fool among the Highland crofters, then or now, you'll have to take one with you.

          If there was any truth in the tale at all, it sounded to me like a story Mcleod might have told to amuse his friends - and which was taken at face value by the antiquarian gentleman who later took an interest in the chessmen.
          It seems I was right to doubt it. Far from being afraid of the chessmen, Mcleod exhibited them for a while in his byre, before selling them to a Captain Roderick Ryrie. (Mcleod's family were later evicted from their land during the Clearances, so I hope he drove a hard bargain.)
          So, what is known about the pieces? Well, most of them are carved from walrus ivory, though a few are made from whales' teeth. Their manufacture has been dated pretty firmly to the 12th Century, in Norway, probably in Trondheim, where there was a market for such expensive, high-status articles, and where similar figures have been found. Dr. Alex Woolf, director of the Institute for Medieval Studies of the University of St. Andrews, argues that the armour worn by some of the figures is a perfect replica of that worn in Norway at the time.
          There is some disagreement, however. Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson has published a paper which makes a case for the chessmen being Icelandic. He points out that the chessmen are the oldest known to make a connection between the Church and chess, and that only two countries in the world call the piece above 'bishop', and those countries are Iceland and Britain.
          Some have also argued that the small horses ridden by the knights look like Icelandic horses.
Several of the chessmen - Wikimedia Commons

           They're called 'the chessmen' rather than 'the chess set' because there are figures from more than one set. There are, altogether, 19 pawns (which look rather like standing stones), 8 Kings, 8 Queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights and 12 rooks. Some of them seem to have been stained red, suggesting that Viking chess pieces were red and white, rather than black and white. As you can see in the photo above, the pieces differ quite a lot in size and style.
           Probably the biggest mystery about them is why on earth so many pieces from several different, high quality, expensive chess sets were buried in a sand dune, in a little stone 'kist', beside a bay on a remote Outer Hebridean island.
          Well, of course, in the 12th Century - and for most of the Viking Age preceding it - these islands weren't 'remote', as we think
of them. Take another look at that map. The Hebrides were ruled by Norway at the time - as were the Orkneys and Shetlands, and large parts of Scotland and Ireland. The Hebrides were in the middle of thriving maritime trade-routes, with ships coming and going from Scandinavia to Scotland, the Islands, Ireland, the Faroes, Iceland - and even Greenland and America. They traded in soapstone, timber, amber, walrus ivory and walrus hide - oh, and slaves. The Vikings were big in the slave-trade.
          One theory - which seems pretty convincing - was that the chessmen were part of the stock-in-trade of some merchant travelling these whale-roads. He'd bought from craftsmen in Trondheim, and hoped to sell to wealthy jarls in Shetland, Orkney or the Isles. But that still leaves us wondering why he buried them in the sand dune on Uig Bay. What happened? Was he attacked by pirates? Did he hope to return and recover them? - they must have been worth quite a bit.
          A friend suggests that perhaps the merchant was in debt, and hid these valuable items rather than see them taken in payment. And was then done in by the loan-shark before he could recover them. You have to admit, a Viking loan-shark is a pretty formidable notion.
          For whatever reason they were hidden, they then stayed in the dark, in their little cave, for nearly 600 years.
          They carry a lot of information, these little figures. Look at the Kings and Queens here. The Kings have different faces and different beards, though similar crowns and draperies. Both hold their swords across their knees. My friend suggested they were whetstones, ancient symbols of royalty - but I think, looking closely, they are swords. The kings seem to be holding a hilt at one end, and the carving suggests a scabbard. Sitting with a sword across their knees is how Viking kings and lords received vows of fealty.

Two each of the eight Kings and Queens - Wikimedia Commons

          The Queens are dressed almost identically, and sit in a similar pose. Each has one hand pressed to her face - though one supports this hand by placing the other under her elbow, and one is holding a drinking horn. They teach us a lesson in being wary of thinking we understand the past, because these little figures seem comic to us. Do their woeful, pained expressions convey toothache or indigestion? Is the one with the drinking horn drunk? Are they thinking about household chores, or just fed up with being surrounded by drunken Vikings? (Spam, spam, spam, spam - spam, spam, spam, spam...)
Compassion and wisdom - not toothache. Wiki Commons
          In fact, they were surely never intended to be comic. Vikings took their chess seriously - and the wealthy aristocrats who were the intended market belonged to a society with strict class divisions. A comic chess-set which guyed their pretensions was unlikely to appeal to them.
           The Queens' pose is part of a complex visual code that would have been understood at the time (just as we understand many of the poses and 'uniforms' used in that modern propaganda we call advertising.) The Queen's glum face, and hand to her cheek, convey compassion and mercy - with perhaps just a dash of wisdom. That was understood to be a Queen's job - to leaven her husband's demands for loyalty and fighting men, with a little gentleness and understanding.
          You can see the strips of 'tablet-weave' decorating the edges of the queen's sleeves and cape. These strips were woven in bright colours and patterns on small 'tablets' or miniature looms. And is that a striped under-sleeve, or a pile of many bracelets?
          It's worth mentioning that the King, Queen and Bishop are seated in chairs to convey their high social status. They could just as easily have been carved standing. But no, the High-Ups didn't stand. They sat, in grand chairs with arms and high backs, while the hoi-polloi stood or knelt.
          Here's possibly my favourite - one of the two 'warders' or, in
A Lewis berserker
modern terms, 'rooks', shown biting his shield in berserker rage. There's an argument about whether berserkers, or belief in them, ever existed in the Viking Age (6th-8th centuries AD), or whether it was a later fantasy. It's pointed out that there are no depictions of berserkers from the Viking Age itself - and the Lewis berserker, sadly, dates to the medieval period.

          Not all the warders are about to run mad. The one below is stalwart and on guard with sword and shield at the ready, but not even tempted to give his shield a nibble. These figures aren't meant to be comic either, however funny and cute they seem to us. They're meant to convey ferocity in battle, a readiness to fight for their lord - the one they swore fealty to while he held his sword across his knees - and die in his service, if necessary.
          Perhaps one
Lewis Warder
of the selling points of these chess men was that you could choose the figures you liked best - berserkers if your taste ran that way, or sober guards, if not. I imagine many figures spread out on the table of a jarl's hall - perhaps the jarl allowed his children to choose which warders, kings, queens and bishops he bought. Or, maybe you could buy replacements for pieces lost or broken?

          Maybe they were carved to order? If so, several people were left wondering what had happened to their ordered chess set. Runic letters were dispatched by ship to Trondheim: 'I ordered a chess set last Egg-Month, and now it's Blood Month and they still haven't come.'
          My friend suggests that perhaps they were one massive chess-set, where players chose pieces according to their character or mood. "Tonight, Thorstein, I shall have the berserkers, the Queen with the drinking horn, the Bishop who's clutching his crosier as if he's going to bash somebody with it, and the King with the leer." It's an attractive idea, but I think the sizes of the pieces are too varied for them to be part of a single set.

          Why were they buried in that stone kist, in a sand dune? Why were they left there and never collected? - I so much want to know, and I never shall. There's a story there, somewhere. I wish somebody would write it.

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Mary Hoffman is away


Sue Purkiss said...

An intriguing puzzle - will be giving this some thought!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

A very enjoyable and entertaining post Susan. RE the 'striped' sleeve. It could also be a representation of the tight fitting tunic sleeves worn at that time which do look like that in illustration.

Susan Price said...

Oh, thanks, Elizabeth! That's a good point.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you, what a fascinating post. I love these pieces - managed to pick up a chess set second hand some years ago in a Sue Ryder store (it doesn't have the mysterious standing stones, sadly).

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for such a fascinating post, Susan. You have made me see differences between the pieces that I had never noticed before. The queens do look comical, but I'd always imagined they were meant to seem deep in thought (which perhaps they would need to be, if they were expected to show compassion and wisdom.)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Gorgeous! I wonder where one can get replicas - where did your two come from, Susan? I think you posted about it on your own blog a while back, but can't recall.

Susan Price said...

Some of the pieces are in the British Museum in London, and some are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh - replicas can be bought in the gift shops at both museums.
I have a knight and bishop, given to me as presents, so I don't know where they were bought. I bought my king and beserker in the gift shop in Edinburgh - but you can also get them from - who else? - Amazon. Search for Lewis chessmen in Toys and Games. I want a Queen and a warder for my set.

Carol Drinkwater said...

This is a fascinating post, Susan, thank you. Has there been any earth/sand movement where they were discovered? As we know from elsewhere amazing historical finds have been uncovered where sand has sifted. Is such a geological explanation feasible? I know nothing about this area at all. I like the idea of a travelling salesman specialising in games or even chess pieces. Perhaps he was robbed, buried or the pieces buried to hide evidence? So many stories to dream up on a Sunday afternoon.

Ruan Peat said...

sometime in the seventies the craft of resin molds and casting chess sets came into fashion, my father made several sets form rubber molds that he bought, one was a set of birds that are fabulous and my choice as a child with rooks for rooks and peacocks for queens and eagles for kings but another set that I recently got given by my mum doing a clear out, was a set of Lewis chess men. Made in white and green resins, which smelt foul as a small child watching but now just makes me remember my late father more. As I now live in the highlands of scotland this gift is much loved and is drawing me back to chess after many years a part, but I do not think until now I had ever thought about where they came fomr. Thank you.

Chuggie said...

Susan, thanks for an interesting post. Regarding your bishop, there is no doubt at all that his gesture is one of blessing. His hand is held in the traditional position, with the thumb and first two fingers raised to represent the three persons of the Trinity, and the last two fingers bent to represent Christ's dual nature as God and man. There are countless images, going back some 1500 years, of saints, popes, bishops and other ecclesiastical persons making exactly this gesture. So I think you can be pretty sure that this is what your bishop is doing too!

Freyalyn said...

And this is of course the reason why Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote 'The Shifting Sands' - to explain the broken string of beads found just where they fell in Neolithic Skara Brae. So yes, I'd love for someone to write the Chessmen's story too.

K.S. Barton said...

Great post! I never realized they were pieces from different sets. I'll take the berserker knight, please. :)

Leslie Wilson said...

I loved this post and found it fascinating! entertaining! and enlightening. Thanks, Sue!

Leslie Wilson said...

Soz for exclamation marks, they were meant to be commas...

Bill Marshall said...

In the interests of balance I should mention that not everyone believes that they are chess pieces at all. Geoff Chandler, a chess writer from Edinburgh, has spent a long time trying to highlight the discrepancies in the stories surrounding them, and prove that they are some other form of Viking gaming piece. See this article on the Textualities site.

The academics have been reluctant to listen to him but seem unable to refute his research, but apparently even the British Museum have started referring to them in more general terms recently. I know Geoff, having worked with him on the Edinburgh chess scene, and while he's a little unconventional I have no doubt he is both sincere in his beliefs on this and thorough in his research. But the story is so romantic that it's very difficult to fight it as we all rather want it to be true.

Bill Marshall

Marjorie said...

very interesting. I love them, and always pop up to say hello when I visit the BM, but didn't know much abut how they werefound.

Elspeth Scott said...

How fascinating! I have known of and admired them for years (and visit them when in the BM or NMS)but have learned so much from this post. I shall look at them with even more attention now.

Unknown said...

If anyone would like to purchase replica Lewis Chessmen, either single pieces or the complete set, from the National Museum of Scotland, we'd be delighted to help. Our pieces are completely unique in that they are based on laser cans of the real pieces. Please contact me for further information.
Best wishes, Helen Osmani
Product Development Manager
National Museums Scotland

Unknown said...

That's laser scans!

Joan Lennon said...

I'll be in the Museum in Edinburgh tomorrow and will greet them from you!