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Ancient History - European Artifacts
After purchasing a history magazine last week which involved a spread based on the British Magazine's "A history of the world in 100 objects', it was brought to my attention the discovery of a beautiful set of 93 Ivory chess pieces found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland in 1831. The photographs in the magazine were very good quality, slightly better than the ones I gathered on Flickr Creative Commons, however if you wish to purchase the magazine, I bought mine at Tesco and it is 'The BBC History Magazine' accompanying Radio 4.
The Ivory is probably Scandinavian Walrus and dated late 12th century, eighty-two are kept in the British museum, and eleven are at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. It is believed they may have belonged to a travelling merchant who sold Ivory because a belt buckle and back gammon discs were also found, but the exact reason for their burial and how they were discovered remains unknown. In the history of chess, it is said the game can be traced some 1500 years and originated in India during the 6th century AD, during the time that the Arabs conquered Persia.
Origins of Pieces
The Lewis chessmen are thought most likely to of been made in Trondheim in Norway for commerce along the trade network that runs from the Volga to Dublin and across the whole of northern Europe. The fact they were found in Lewis gives evidence that this was a stop off on the trade route to Ireland, it is interesting that an object, its production and transportation can tell us a great deal about whole society. It is the first collection of chess pieces to include a bishop and it also tells us that at there was a distruption between ivory trade coming from Africa and India, so local sources from a different animal had to be located.
The rooks in the set take the form of foot soldiers, and as we can see from the shape of their helmets and shields, the a comparatively similar to that of Viking ones, we also know the pieces are Viking from the Scandinavian Viking rule of the ivory dating. It is a mis-conception of today where people believe the Vikings to be all pagans and have a hatred of the Christian church, however, Viking's first came into contact with Christianity during their raids and settled in the lands of Christian beliefs. They had many gods, and like other world cultures adopted Christian belief along with their own, although there isn't much reference to this in historical texts, there is archeological evidence where Viking dead were no longer buried with grave goods and it is also known of treaties being made which would of involved an acceptance of beliefs.
Above I have included some perspective shots of back of the King and Queens thrones to give you the full appreciation of the intricacy that these pieces involve in terms of design. The Gaelic influence can be seen clearly and in the latter photo we can see the design of the 'pawns' is a dome shape, maybe representative of a gravestone? The Queen pieces have expression of distress, holding their heads with one hand on their cheek, the foot soldiers have an agressive stance where they are biting the top of their shields and I think any chess set as a demonstration of societies at war in this time cannot do so without including the church as an authority.
I am going to end the article with a photo representing the chessmen's historical journey. Traigh Mhor is Scottish Gaelic for 'Big Beach' and is at the Southern most point of the Isle of Barra, outer Hebrides. It has statues comemorating the discovery of the chess pieces and maybe the king in this photo is also guarding the Island.
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