The Lewis Chessmen. Image © British Museum.
The BBC has a Web exhibition up right now (here and here) as well as a Radio 4 series, based on the book, A History of the World in 100 Objects by the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. Among the objects listed are the Lewis Chessmen (for my posts on Chess and its symbolic significance at the turn of the Millennium, go here, here and here). (Hat tip: -B.) The Chessmen were included in the 2001 Harry Potter movie, which renewed their popularity. They will be on exhibition at the Cloisters Museum in New York City from 15 November 2011 to 22 April 2012. If you are anywhere near New York, go have a look at them. A link to the other 99 objects is below the jump.
The Lewis Chessmen (from top: the Bishop, the King, and the Warder). Image © British Museum.
The Chessmen were discovered around 1831on a beach in the Isle of Lewis. Made of whale teeth and walrus ivory, they are Scandinavian in origin and date from around 1150-1200:
They were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.James Robinson, a British Museum curator, comments: "Rather than figures of fun, the chessmen represent the feudal order of society and convey the qualities of king, bishop, knight and soldier through the language of gesture. Despite their miniature size, they might be seen to embody truly monumental values of the human condition."
Who owned the chess pieces? Why were they hidden? While there are no firm answers to these questions, it is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are constituent pieces - though with some elements missing - for four distinct sets. Their general condition is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.
By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. The question of precisely where they were made is a difficult one to resolve.
When Sir Frederic Madden first published the finds in 1832, he considered them to be Icelandic in origin. This argument has been repeated recently by Icelandic commentators on the subject. Other authorities have thought them to be Irish, Scottish or English. Each of these attributions is possible.
What is known with certainty is that the chessmen are vigorously northern in their character and are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of Berserkers, fierce mythical warriors drawn directly from the Sagas. The historic political, economic and cultural links between the Outer Hebrides and Norway and its dominance of the Norse world might suggest that Norway is the most likely place to have produced these high status, luxury commodities.
The Rosetta Stone.
Other curiosities include the Rosetta Stone (see here) and the Lothair Crystal (see here). MacGregor also put the credit card on his list of great objects that are landmarks in the history of the world! You can see all 100 objects here.
The Lothair Crystal.
Images are © the British Museum and are reproduced here solely for the not-for-profit purpose of discussion and review.