Playing games with the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis ChessmenNo one knows exactly where they came from, where the were going or how they happened to be discovered on a small island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. What is known about the Lewis Chessmen, however, is that they are simply amazing. The collection of nearly 80 pieces represent phenomenal craftsmanship and give insight into the lifestyle of the Nordic people from roughly 800 years ago.

The pieces are carved in intricate detail from walrus ivory and whale teeth. The characters are somewhat comical in appearance, though some historians suggest that they are meant to appear contemplative or fierce. In either case they are a sight to behold. The facial expressions vary somewhat widely, as do the other details of the carvings. These differences are attributed to the pieces belonging to different sets – at least five in total.

The history of their discovery and how the collection came to be is rather interesting. Reportedly located in a stone kist in the sand dunes on the island, the collection was displayed locally for a brief period and then sold to a passing ship captain who brought them to the Scottish mainland. They were sold in two different batches, splitting the set up. This split has caused much controversy in the recent past as the Scottish and British museums that hold the pieces vie to consolidate the collection to a single display; each side wants the entirety of the collection for themselves.

Despite the differences on who should own the collection, there is currently a exhibit with 30 of the pieces form both the British and Scottish sets. The exhibition is traveling throughout Scotland for 18 months. We got to see them at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh where they are on display through 19 September 2010. The exhibit shares not only the history of the pieces and their discovery but also a bit of the history of the culture at the time the pieces were made. The exhibit has more than just the pieces on display; there are interactive opportunities as well. In one corner of the room several tables are set up with games to be played by visitors. Chess is there, as expected, but so are other games from the region’s history, including Hnefatafl. I don’t know how to pronounce that name but I learned to play it during a quite relaxing moment that afternoon. Oh, and I won.

The Lewis ChessmenThe exhibit was also the highlight of or visit to the National Museum of Scotland. The other exhibits we saw – one on telecommunications and another “hands on” gallery for kids – were not particularly great. But the Chessmen were.

The Lewis Chessmen   The Lewis Chessmen

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.