The Lewis Chessmen

P1090676In 1831 a remarkable hoard of carved walrus ivory was discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, Scotland. It included 78 chessmen reflecting medieval Europe.


Kings with swords on their laps, queens resting their chins in their hands, bishops dressed for Mass, knights on horseback and infantrymen (rooks) on foot. The rooks biting their shields depict fictional heroes of great ferocity known from Norse saga as Berserkers.  (Probably made in Scandinavia, thought to be Norway, about AD 1150-1200 | Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland)

Information from the British Museum

Wouldn’t you love to hold one of these pieces in your hand?

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

33 thoughts on “The Lewis Chessmen”

  1. I would indeed like to hold. I believe that if you don’t want people to want to hold you don’t do 3D – and of course they were made to be held. Just not 8 centuries on.

    1. True, but I’d still like to hold one piece. And ivory is very strong. But I’ll accept your argument and be content with looking 🙂

  2. I love the knight. The horse detail is perfect, and his lance is so straight, considering the medium. Good one Jude.
    Regards as always, Pete. x

    1. I’m only sad that my camera card was full so I could only take very small photos which don’t really do these pieces justice. Click on the link for better images from the BM.

      Have you read the books by Peter May about the Isle of Lewis? They are fiction, but it is a good trilogy and ends with one about the chessmen.

    1. Where were they made? Who made them? Where were they found? Who found them? So many questions. And they really are beautiful.

  3. Oh, how I should like that, Jude …! I’m half in love with the Middle Ages, in spite of the fact that they must’ve been hell to live in.

    1. It is certainly a fascinating and ruthless time – and makes for great reading. As for living then? No thank you, especially as I would have been a peasant – some may say I still am 😉

  4. Those pieces look so detailed, but why 78 chessmen?
    In any game there are 16 white and 16 black pieces. So a complete second set makes 64 pieces. What are the extra 14 pieces?

    1. There were other pieces found at the same time – flat discs and a buckle so I suppose some of the hoard may not have been discovered? According to the BM: ” It is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are enough pieces – though with some elements missing – to make four sets.”

    1. As far as I can tell they have never been on display in Lewis, but do go on tour now and then. The British Museum in the Medieval Gallery is where you will find them. Well worth a visit, they are so much more beautiful than my images show.

  5. Berserkers?!? They are lovely pieces and invitingly tactile.

    Do you play Chess? It’s on my “some day I’ll” list -maybe this winter…

    1. “Norse warriors who are primarily reported in the Old Norse literature to have fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, a characteristic which later gave rise to the English word berserk.” Now you know…

      My brother taught me to play chess when I was eight (he was 13) so he’d have someone to beat (my older brother was 15). Unfortunately for him I was very good at the game 😀 Haven’t played in years though.

      1. Man”‘s inhumanity to man has always been with us! But I do think Berserkers would be a good name for something – perhaps a roller derby team ? 🙂

        Too funny about your bro’ and chess !! Bet he didn’t teach you any other competitive activities!

    1. They are. Click on the BM link to see them in detail – my images are very small and do not show the intricate carving and texture.

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