Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lewis Chessmen might not be Chessmen

Some of the Lewis Chessmen may not have been chessmen at all according to new research.

The 12th and 13th century gaming pieces which were discovered in Uig on the Isle of Lewis in 1831 are considered to be Scotland’s most renowned archaeological find.

An article in the journal Medieval Archaeology by David Caldwell, Mark Hall and Caroline Wilkinson suggests that many of the 93 ivory pieces may have been used in a game called hnefatafl – an ancient Viking board game that pre-dates chess.

Hnefatafl is similar to chess in that it also pits a king against pawns or warriors on the other side.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Caldwell said, "We certainly still believe the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, perhaps made in a workshop by several masters in a city like Trondheim.

"But one of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through.

"To take a relatively easy example, there is a praise poem written in the middle of the 13th century to Angus Mor of Isla, and the poem says that he inherited his ivory chess pieces from his father Donald - that makes Angus the very first Macdonald, and the poem also makes him the king of Lewis.

"Now you of course you would be foolish to implicitly believe everything in a praise poem, but nevertheless it gives you some idea that we are dealing with a society in the west of Scotland - great leaders like Angus Mor, bishops, clan chiefs - who really valued playing chess and saw it as being one of their accomplishments."

They concluded that while most of the items were likely to have been crafted in the same workshop, up to five different craftsmen of differing ability may have created them.

Dr Caldwell said the chessmen suggested that there was a reasonable amount of wealth in the western Isles in the 13th century, perhaps because the medieval economy placed greater value on fairly barren land that could be used to raise cattle.

He added: "It was certainly leading men there, people who could make a lot of money either by raising cattle or frankly by going raiding - there was still in some ways a Viking way of life surviving into the 13th century."

Despite the extensive research, Dr Caldwell said he still believed there was plenty of mystery surrounding the chessmen.

"I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on the - what I hope we have done is opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things," he said.

All but 11 of the chessmen are housed in the British Museum. The rest are held in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh and next year will go on tour around the country. Click here to read more about this tour.

The paper, which will be published next week, concludes by suggesting that more information should be gathered from further detailed study of the constituents of the hoard, including chemical analysis of the ivory.

It also promotes a fieldwork project to pinpoint the exact area where the pieces were discovered.