Isle of Lewis Chess Sets
In 1972 in Iceland, a titanic battle took place. The Russian, Boris Spaski, faced the American Bobby Fischer in a chess competition that some regarded as a microcosm of the world’s situation at the4 time. Fischer described the game of chess as war on a board. Two opposing armies lined up against each other across the board, foot soldier pawns at the front line and officers behind their rank.
If we wanted to visualize European society around 1200AD we have no better offering of rich insights than the way chess was played and displayed in the form of the unique pieces of the day, now known as the Lewis chessmen set. Found on a sandbank at the head of Camas Uig, on the Hebridean Island of Lewis, on the North West Edge of Scotland, in 1831. These intensely ‘human’ pieces strikingly reflect the structures of the great medieval power game as fought out across Northern Europe from Iceland and Ireland to Scandinavia and the Baltic, the heart of the Norse world in the 13th century. There were 78 pieces discovered in all. 67 of them now reside in the British Museum in London. The remaining 11 are owned by the National Museums of Scotland. In the medieval world, these pieces would have been of great value, as did other valuables, they would create an ostentatious show of knowledge, taste and intellect. Traces of red dye were found on some of the pieces indicating that the pieces would be light brown versus red, unlike the usual black and white of today.
Only 19 pawns were found. These are small ivory slabs that stand up like gravestones. They would have represented the peasants who would have been brutally conscripted to the battlefield. They have no individuality; they are identical, relatively dispensable, and interchangeable. All societies regard the people at the bottom of the social scale as faceless, disposable non-entities, never more so than in medieval times.
Conversely, the main pieces of the Lewis Chess Set are full of individuality and character, elite guards, knights on horseback, meditative queens and commanding kings. All kings sit on ornate thrones with a sword across their knees. Here was the ultimate source of power. Capture him, and all fighting stops. Guarding the king were two specialist warriors. Firstly, the knight, fast moving, versatile, and importantly mounted on horseback. From earliest times, as far back as the earliest Indian chess pieces, the mounted warrior is a constant, appearing in every age and every country. The knights were flanked by the ultimate shock trooper of the Scandinavian world, the berserker. These were terrifying fighters. Berserker was an Icelandic word for a soldier wearing a shirt of bearskin. The word is synonymous with wild, destructive violence, reminding us of the terrifying world of Norse warfare. They stand menacingly at the edge of the board, some working into a frenzy of bloodlust by chewing the tips of their shields. The bishop in medieval Europe was one of the great powers of state, controlling not only spiritual life, but also commanding land and armies. The bishops are a powerful reminder of how the church was an unholy participant in military campaigns, such as the European crusades to the Holy Land.
The Lewis Chess Set may have been buried for later collection by a wealthy trader. Lewis, on the northwest edge of Scotland was at the heart of the Norse world and part of the Kingdom of Norway. Its language would have been Norwegian. Its archbishop had a cathedral at Trondheim, 250 miles north of Oslo. Trondheim was a great centre of walrus ivory carving. The style of the Lewis chess set is similar to other pieces of sculpture located in the area from the medieval era. The designs on the shields and a king of similar design were found on Hetra Island near the mouth of the Trondheim Fiord. It has been noted by archaeologists that the carefully carved armour on the Lewis chessmen matches perfectly with armour worn by Norwegian soldiers of the day.
The Lewis Chess Set design has now become a very desirable object and replica sets abound. The most highly rated is the British Museum Isle of Lewis Chess set and board which is of course available from chess sets uk.