The Lewis Chessmen go on show today in a new exhibition in Edinburgh, the first time they’ve been north the Border in 14 years. And in spite of centuries of speculation the mystery surrounding them is no nearer being solved.
The National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition, Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked, seeks to shed new light on the peculiar playing pieces.
Here are the big questions about the little men:
What are they?
Some say they are the most precious archaeological treasures ever found in Scotland. The 78 pieces are up to 10cm tall and made from whale teeth and walrus tusks probably hunted in Greenland.
They have remarkable facial expressions showing strong life-like emotions. They are in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. While referred to as chess pieces it’s possible they were used in the game of hnefatafl.
Where did they come from?
It is thought they were made in Trondheim, Norway in the late 12th century. Although Scandinavian experts suggest they were made elsewhere. They may have been lost by a wealthy Norseman.
Their lack of wear and the number of items has led to the conclusion they were the stock of a chess piece merchant. Other theories include them being stolen from a ship or the possession of a local prince.
Where and how were they found?
They were found on Lewis in 1831. Locals took them to their hearts and called them “fairy folk”. Malcolm Macleod, a crofter, is said to have uncovered them and, the story goes that, he ran home to his wife terrified by their appearance.
Last year Dr David Caldwell claimed that they were actually found near Mealasta some six miles from the acknowledged location, something hotly disputed by the Uig historical society.
What’s happened to them since?
Macleod sold them to a merchant from Stornoway who took them to the mainland. The chessmen were divided and sold in Edinburgh and London. There are rumours that other pieces were sold secretly to private collectors.
Why are they controversial?
The SNP have long argued that the pieces were found in Scotland and, therefore, should be kept in Scotland, in Lewis itself. This isn’t a view supported by either the British Museum or the National Museum of Scotland.
What are the tiny marks on the pieces?
Thought to be the marks left by insects while they were buried in the sand.
Who is the Berserker? One of the warder pieces looks terrified and is biting the top of his shield.
Anything else we should know? The 1960s animated series The Saga Of Noggin The Nog was inspired by the pieces.
Some of the pieces had traces of red stain suggesting half were coloured to distinguish one side from the other.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER