Lost In The Dunes:

The Lewis Chessmen

   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.

         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.


         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.

  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.


          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.



         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...)


          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 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 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.