Monday, January 4, 2016

Walruses, Vikings and Chess

Three of the most popular exhibits at the British Museum in London are the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis chessmen?

Carved from the tusks of walruses, the Lewis chessmen were found in the 1830s on a beach on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides, off the Scottish coast. Some 92 pieces from four sets of chessmen were discovered, but exactly where they were found, and who found them, remains something of a mystery.

Where the pieces originated is also a mystery – and some controversy. Many experts say the most likely source was a workshop (or workshops) in Trondheim, Norway. Others argue for Iceland. It’s also possible that the pieces could have made in Scotland or England. Clearly, they reflect a Norse design influence and were created about 1200, give or take a few decades.  The official guidebooks on the chessmen published by the British Museum and the National Museums Scotland seem to accept the Trondheim argument.

In Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, Nancy Marie Brown, who has written books about the Vikings and reads both Icelandic and Old Norse, argues for Iceland. Even more provocatively, she argues for a woman carver, Margret the Adroit, known for her work in carving walrus ivory about the time the Lewis chessmen were created.

But Brown does far more than that. She envelops the chessmen in the times they were created, exploring the influence of the Vikings and Norse kings over the North Sea, Scotland and its outer islands, Iceland and Greenland. She goes into detail about walrus ivory, and how the chessmen would have been carved. She describes the history of the period, bringing in the Caliphate in Baghdad, Charlemagne, the Vatican, Christian politics of the time, and the Norse sagas, which I was only vaguely familiar with from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

And she uses a structure built around the pieces themselves, which keeps the story centered on the chessmen even as she ranges across a number of fields of study. Her story continually reminded me of how little I knew of Norse history (I also learned about the history of chess, and that it was with the Lewis chessmen that the bishop first appeared as one of the pieces).

Nancy Marie Brown

Whether you accept her argument for Iceland or not, Ivory Vikings is a fascinating tale of history, told through the means of these small figures. In their history context, the Lewis chessmen are about far more than a game and pastime that people enjoyed and occasionally fought over.

Additional reading on the Lewis chessmen:

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked (2011) by David Caldwell, Mark Hall and Caroline Wilkinson (published by the National Museums Scotland).

The Lewis Chessmen by J. Robinson (published by the British Museum).

Photograph: The Lewis Chessmen at the British Museum.

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