The story of the discovery of the Isle of Lewis chessmen is full of intrigue and mystery. They were first found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Eighty two pieces of the Lewis chess pieces were eventually bought by the British Museum between November 1831 and January 1832.
Many of the original Lewis chess pieces were never found or were lost along the way.
There are now seventy-eight Lewis chess pieces known to us. This is enough to make at
least four incomplete Isle of Lewis chess sets.
The Lewis Chess Pieces
The Lewis chessmen were carved from the tusks of the walrus, thus giving them a glossy and creamy texture. A scientific study conducted by the National Museum of Scotland showed that four of them might have been made from whales’ teeth.
All the pieces are beautifully solid and have minor differences in facial features. They are also compact, which makes them perfect to handle and difficult to knock over accidentally during a game.
Each King, seated on highly ornate thrones, wears a cloak and holds a sword in his right arm. Most of the kings also has beards, with some of the beards heavier than others.
The Queens occupy thrones of similar construction to those of the Kings, and also wear veils underneath their crowns. They all assume a pose of intense thought, with the chin resting in the right hand, and the elbow supported by the left hand.
Each Bishop holds a crozier with either both hands, or with only one hand and holding a bible in the other. They wear mitres on the head and are dressed in copes or chasubles.
Even though chess is a war game, the presence of the Bishop reflects his status in the social system of the period. In fact, they can be found increasingly on the battlefield as a warrior-bishop.
The Knights are all mounted on horses, wearing rounded helmets and carrying spears and kite-shaped shields. The shields have either a flat or rounded top and come with a distinct design.
The Rooks are shown as foot soldiers carrying a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. A few of them can be seen to bite their shield. This gesture denotes their frenzy in going into battle and is also known as ‘Berserker’.
The pawns all look very much the same, and are not represented in human shape. Instead, they appear as standing slabs of walrus ivory.