The so-called Lewis Chessmen are by far the most beloved of all mediaeval artefacts recovered from Scotland. Found in uncertain circumstances in a hoard on the Isle of Lewis in the 19th centuries, the pieces are both figural and geometric, and capture the imagination as few other archaeological finds have done. Altogether, 93 items comprised the hoard, including 78 chessmen, 14 pieces from a game called tables, and a buckle. All but 11 of these items (in the National Museum of Scotland) are held by the British Museum.
From bug-eyed bishops clutching their croziers to warriors nibbling on their shields, they offer a direct connection between mediaeval game-players and the modern audience. At the same time, they speak to the requirements of lordly culture, and to the involvement of the Scottish islands in a much wider North Sea sphere.
Their existence, however, is a result of a much wider pattern of interaction, stretching all the way back to the Indian subcontinent. It is here that the game was first invented as a contest between the different military divisions–elephants, chariots, cavalry, and foot soldiers. Throughout the early Middle Ages, the game was diffused through Persia and reached Europe through the Arabs. As it entered these different societies, the pieces took on the significance of different social classes.
By the time of the Lewis Chessmen (late 12th or early 13th century), therefore, the pieces were divided into the thoroughly European categories of king, queen, bishop, knight, warder, and pawn (although there is some confusion over these last two.)
Adaptations to the appearance of the pieces is echoed in the way in which this foreign game was adopted into an existing gaming culture. Within this culture, accomplishment at the gaming table was regarded as a sign of wisdom, necessary for warriors as well as political figures. Prior to chess, hnefatafl (in which a centrally placed king and his retinue had to escape to the edges of the board) and tables (the precursor to modern backgammon) had served as a way for these elites to pass time during tedious winters and to display their skill.
We can see the importance of all three games in both the sagas and mediaeval law-codes, where gaming boards were a princely gift to be exchanged between men of high status. The Lewis chessmen, made predominantly from walrus ivory, are a part of this wealthy and consequential milieu. What, then, are they doing on this sparsely populated Scottish island?
The answer lies in the complex history of overlordship in the North Sea zone. During the 12th and early 13th century, Lewis was at least partially subordinated to the Isle of Man, which had its own king as well as a bishop. Through this Manx king, however, the island also fell under the influence of the King of Norway in the secular sphere, and the Archbishop of Nidaros (modern Trondheim) in the ecclesiastical. These connections meant that travel between Ireland, the Isle of Man, and mainland Scandinavia often went via Lewis, and that local lords on Lewis often travelled throughout this region.
It was undoubtedly on one of these trips that the chessmen came to Lewis. Because of their stylistic traits, most scholars agree that the pieces were carved in a workshop in Trondheim, Norway, by about five separate craftsmen. The individual trademarks of these mediaeval carvers can be seen most readily in the faces, which conform to five groups. Then these pieces, which might constitute up to 4 complete sets, were given, exchanged, or looted until finally deposited in Lewis.
Archaeologists still have not determined whether the pieces were new when they were buried, or whether they saw years, even generations, of use. It’s impossible to imagine, however, that their expressive postures and distinctive expressions did not bring wonder and delight to their original owners.
Caldwell, David H., Hall, Mark A., and Wilkinson, Caroline M., ‘The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces: A Re-examination of their Context, Meaning, Discovery, and Manufacture,’ Medieval Archaeology 53 (2009) offers a pleasingly complete look at the last 150 years of research into the Lewis Chessmen, and to comparable finds across mediaeval Europe.