Lewis Chessmen to tour the motherland

Lewis Chessmen in the National Museum of Scotland, EdinburghThe Lewis Chessmen are 12th c. ivory chess pieces that were found almost 180 years ago on the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.

There are 93 pieces in total, constituent parts of 4 different sets, and all of them in virtually untouched condition, so it’s thought that they belonged to a merchant who stopped on the island while traveling from Ireland to Norway.

The pieces were found in a small stone chamber 15ft beneath a sand dune near Uig on the west coast of Lewis at some point before 1831.

They include elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

It is believed they were made between about 1150-1200 AD when the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland.

Similar carvings from the period have been found in Trondheim, Norway, so it’s thought that the chessmen were carved there and brought to Lewis by the trader.

Lewis chessmen (kings and queens) in the British MuseumSince their discovery, they’ve been sold and resold, so now there are only 11 pieces left in Scotland. They’re part of the National Museum of Scotland‘s permanent collection. The 82 remaining pieces belong to the British Museum.

Needless to say, this is a sore spot for many Scots — including the Scottish National Party government — who would like to have the whole set back together again in Scotland. That’s not likely to happen any time soon, but at least they can get partial satisfaction from the loan of 24 of the British Museum’s chessmen for a year-long traveling exhibition in Scotland.

The National Museum of Scotland is adding 6 of its pieces to the exhibit, so a total of 30 of these exquisite pieces will be on display in various Scottish museums in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stornoway and Lerwickfrom from May of 2010 to May of 2011.

The SNP sees this as a compromise, a step towards the ultimate goal of repatriating the whole set. The British Museum disagrees. (Scoffs, really.)

Lewis Berserker rook biting his shield and king

4 thoughts on “Lewis Chessmen to tour the motherland

  1. Who should own treasures is an issue I fear I will never come to a conclusion on. I can see valid points from all sides.

    1. I’m pretty firmly on the side of restoration, as you know, when the artifact has been looted, stolen, butchered and/or exported illegally, but in cases like this, when the items in question were just sold and resold, I don’t see what a country can do about it.

  2. SNP are only interested in using this for political gains they should be buried on a deserted beach hopefully to be washed out to sea. Best place for the set is where they will be safe and cared for, with public access. It’s time the British museum had a place to display in Scotland. It maybe about time that all the various councils/museums were pulled together. How about bring the set to Glasgow kelvingrove. Centre of the Scottish population rather than the Edinburgh hamlet.

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