Believed to have been crafted in Norway sometime in the 12th century, these remarkable chessmen were concealed in a Scottish sand dune for more than 600 years! Nothing is known about the maker, how they came to be buried on the Isle of Lewis in the remote Outer Hebrides, or exactly when they were discovered. All that is known for certain is that they were first exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland on April 11, 1831.
The Best-Preserved Historic Chess Set
The best-known set of medieval chess pieces, the hand-cast, hand-painted pieces are the best-preserved specimens in existence. Unearthed from a sand bank at the head of the Bay of Uig, no contemporary account exists to describe how or when they were discovered, but it is believed that they were found in a small, hand-built stone chamber about 15 feet below the top of the sand bank.
The Journey from Norway
While it isn’t known who owned the chess pieces or why they were hidden, the most prevalent theory is that they belonged to a merchant specializing in luxury goods who buried them for some unknown reason while traveling from Norway to Ireland. This seems a likely scenario, as there were enough pieces (with a few elements missing), to make up several complete sets.
Chess of the 1100s
In all 93 pieces were found. The largest collection of objects made purely for recreational purposes from the medieval period, the Lewis Chessmen are an invaluable art treasure. Carved from walrus ivory, some were stained red by soaking in wine or beetroot. No board was found with them, but because of the red pieces, it is thought that ancient boards may have been red and white instead of the modern black and white. The sets also include an element from early Scandinavian chess sets––an armed figure called a Warder, which has been replaced by Rook in modern sets. The remaining pieces are the mirror contemporary pieces but the King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, and Pawn all wear uniquely expressive Romanesque features and dress of the 1100s.
Of the 93 pieces known today, 11 are housed in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are in the British Museum in London. Most recently the set achieved new popularity after they were featured in the popular movie, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”