The Lewis Chess Pieces

The Lewis Chess Pieces

Found in the Scottish island of Lewis, at the beach of Uig, in 1831, giving insights into the international connections of Scotland and the growing popularity of chess in medieval Europe. The pieces belong to the Scandinavian world, which, during the 12th and 13th century, the Scottish Hebrides were part of it. Around the time the pieces were buried some 800 years ago, Lewis belonged to the kingdom of Norway and the culture was a mix of Gaelic and Scandinavian. Even after the Isles were ceded to Scotland in 1266, ties to Norway remained close. The bishops remained part of the bishopric of Trondheim. Other medieval chess pieces have also been found in the Western Isles, for instance, a walrus ivory knight from Skye (Source: National Museums Scotland).

The hoard originally found contained 94 gaming pieces in total, including from at least four chess sets as well as from other games. The style of the carving links the pieces to Norway – there are similar pieces from Trondheim, and the Lewis figures’ thrones are reminiscent of carving in medieval Norwegian churches. Lewis chess pieces are likely to have been made in Trondheim, Norway, during the late 12th – early 13th century. Most of the Lewis chess pieces are made from Walrus ivory. Currently, eleven chess pieces are visible in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Two of the pieces on display at the Museum of Scotland (and three British Museum pieces) are different, carved from sperm-whale teeth. Height: 60-100mm.

The Lewis chess pieces can be divided into groups based on their size and on the quality and design of their carving. This suggests there are pieces from at least four chess sets amongst the hoard, and differences in pieces’ faces and clothes hint that the sets might have been carved by different people within a single workshop. If there were four sets buried in the hoard, a number of pieces are missing, including one knight, four warders and 44 pawns. 

The easiest way to distinguish between opponents prices is through colour. Though traces of colour may have been visible when the pieces were discovered, they are not apparent today. Scientific analysis of some of the pieces has found traces of mercury, suggesting some may once have been coloured red with cinnabar (mercury sulphide).

The Queen – The Lewis Chess Pieces 

Three Queens, each seated on an elaborate throne, cradling their faces in their hand. Source: Museum of Scotland.

The King – The Lewis Chess Pieces 

Two Kings, each seated with a sword lying across their knees. Source: Museum of Scotland.

The Bishop – The Lewis Chess Pieces 

Three Bishops, each seated on a throne, holding a staff knows as a crosier. Source: Museum of Scotland.

The Knight – The Lewis Chess Pieces 

One Knight, mounted on his horse, bearing a spear and a shield. Source: Museum of Scotland.

The Rook – The Lewis Chess Pieces 

Two warders or rooks, holding swords and shields. Right hand side rook bites his shield, like a Viking berserker. Source: Museum of Scotland.