OFF the west coast of Scotland lies the Isle of Lewis and reputedly hidden in the 12th or 13th centuries by a passing ivory merchant was a hoard of chess pieces. Enough pieces to make up four complete sets of chess except for one Knight and four Warders.
The hoard was discovered and the long lost treasure consisted of 93 objects. Of these, 82 are at the British Museum in London with the remainder in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland. The location of the remaining five pieces remains unknown. On July 2, 2019 what appears to be an additional piece from the Lewis Hoard, the first to be discovered since 1831 comes up for auction. It appears in the Ledger of an Edinburgh antique dealer in 1964 as an ‘Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior’ recording the purchase of the Warder. According to a family spokesman: “It can be assumed that he (the owner) was unaware he had purchased an important historic artefact.
It was stored away in his home and then when my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece. “My mother was very fond of the Chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have some magical significance. For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness.” The origins of the Lewis Chessmen probably lie in Trondheim in Norway, a centre for the carving of chessmen in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The good condition of the pieces and their lack of wear supports the theory that they were, at the time they were lost, the stock of a trader in chessmen who did not return to their resting place to recover them. Scholars have advance competing theories, however, this one appears to have the strongest claim. In any case, collectively they are a significant symbol of European civilisation. Neil Macgregor, a past director of the British Museum, included the Lewis Chessmen amongst his selection of ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects.’ He said that “if we want to visualise European society round the year 1200, we could hardly do better than look at how they play chess.
And no chess pieces offer richer insights than the Lewis chessmen.” The warders who made up the Hoard are of two types, the majority are bearded with a sword in their right hand and shields either at their left side or in front. Three are shown biting the tops of their shields, marking them out as representation of those legendary Norse warriors known as Berserkers. “The whole world is like a chess board, of which one square is white and another black” wrote the Franciscan John of Wales, “following the dual state of life and death, praise and blame.” The society – familia – of this chessboard are men of this world who are all taken from a common bag and placed in different parts of this world and, as with individuals, have different names.
One is called king, another queen, a third rook, a fourth knight and a fifth alphin (bishop), with a sixth called pawn.” Which of the men and women of the world will bid to acquire this piece, a chess Warder lost to the world for more than seven centuries. Where are the remaining four chess pieces? Perhaps the estimate of £1,000,000 set by Sotheby’s will call them out.
Nick Horne, London, England