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.
Since 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.)