The Isle of Lewis chess pieces are part of the chess community’s lore. Characterized in great detail, the seated queens and kings, knights on mounts and pawns that look like obelisks are made of whales’ teeth and walrus ivory. A lot of mystery surrounds these chessmen. They were hidden but why? To whom did they belong?
The first time the Isle of Lewis chessmen were exhibited was on April 11, 1831 in Scotland at the Society of Antiquaries. Despite high expectations to acquire the chessmen, the Society of Antiquaries was not successful with the necessary fundraising. The Isle of Lewis chessmen were found some time before April 11, 1831 on a sand dune in the Isle of Lewis near Uig. It has been speculated that this classic chess set belonged to a merchant traveling to Ireland from Norway. The pieces appeared as if they had not been used very much. When the group of chessmen was found, it was seemingly comprised of pieces from four very different chess sets.
These chessmen were likely made in Norway between AD 1150 and 1200. They were originally buried in the Western Isles, which were part of the kingdom of Norway at the time. Likely, they were buried temporarily while their carrier was on their way to practice trade in Ireland. It is reported that, when the Isle of Lewis chessmen were found, some of them were stained red. This would indicate that the chessboard itself may have been red and white instead of the black and white combination to which we are accustomed.
These chessmen are so popular not only because they are ancient, but also because they represent the cultural and political ties between Britain and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. It is recorded that there are 93 pieces in existence. 82 of these pieces are currently in the British Museum in London and 11 pieces are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburg. The British Museum acquired the Isle of Lewis chessmen between November of 1831 and January of 1832. In this museum, they are displayed as a contrast to other world cultures. Visitors can view them along with other great works of European civilization. The pieces are often loaned to other areas of Britain and the world.