Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Lewis Chess Pieces

The most famous chess sets in the world were found on the island of Lewis, Scotland in 1831.  The nature of the find  is somewhat controversial and among the speculations most favored is that a young boy stole away from a ship in a rowboat in the wee hours of the morning bringing with him the chess pieces in a stone carrying case.   Most likely he was escaping the difficult working conditions on the ship and took the pieces as a way to buy his way to a new future. He was observed by a crofter's employee hiding something in a cave among the sand dunes of Uig beach located just over the green sands in this picture.  The story gets more disjointed at this point with the farm hand killing the boy and stealing the pieces for his own.

Of the 93 pieces found, odd pieces from 5 different complete sets, 11 are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the rest are in the British Museum in London.  I was fortunate to view about 30 of the walrus tusk carved animated figures while they were on loan to Edinburgh.  Some pieces had evidence of red dye indicating the two sides were red and white instead of black and white.  These historic relics are the earliest known example the present day configuration of chess in this area of the world.  Earlier versions of chess-like games existed in India, Persia, Portugal, and Spain.

Carved in Norway over 800 years ago is further proof that the Norse Vikings were plying the waters of the Western Isles, as the Outer Hebrides is also known, in the eighth to twelfth centuries in their longboats on their way to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland.  I am amazed to think that  sophisticated carving and sea navigation was happening that early in history.  The pieces have been dated to between 1150 and 1200.

Some have recently challenged that the piece's origins are actually Icelandic, but it seems clear these pieces are true to life of church and military dress and armor of the day that did not exist in Iceland.

The Harry Potter movies used replicas in the filming of chess playing sequences.

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