Museum Tourist: British Museum–Lewis Chess Set

In 1831, someone found a 78-piece chess set on a beach on the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland.

The pieces are medieval, probably Norwegian, from about 1150-1200 AD. The National Museum of Scotland got a few pieces, but most are in the British Museum.

The pieces are totally charming. For one thing, look at their buggy eyes.

 Apparently her pose is inspired by the Virgin Mary.

Apparently her pose is inspired by the Virgin Mary.

A label said the queens have a “dignified pose,” but to me they look very, very concerned.

The knights ride horses that could be mass-produced in plastic for the toy stores of today.

 Lookit, more chesspieces

Lookit, more chesspieces

If that forelock was pink and purple, the resemblance to Princess Twilight Sparkle would be even stronger.

And it’s so relatable. You know exactly what these pieces are and what they’re for, and they’re nearly a thousand freaking years old.

Another reason I love the set is that the raw material was grown by an animal. One of the museum’s labels says that much of the reason that Norway colonized Greenland was for the huge population of walruses, because their ivory was so valuable. The walrus that made that knight spent a lifetime bobbling around eating and mating and doing whatever walruses do for fun. Then it died–the ivory shows signs of damage by marine snails, which means the walrus was already dead before somebody collected the tusks. (I guess live walruses don’t tolerate any guff from marine snails.) Then someone used metal tools to turn its tusk into a chess piece.

 That must be a bishop.

That’s a bishop.

If the biology doesn’t enchant you, look at the craft. The carving is detailed and orderly, from the faces to the pattern on the back of a king’s throne.

 Lookit the snakes!

I mean, just look at how detailed that is.

Somebody spent a lot of time on that. I’m so glad someone stumbled across them 182 years ago so I can look at them today.

photos: me

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2 Responses to Museum Tourist: British Museum–Lewis Chess Set

  1. Lila says:

    Love this post, Helen. Very fun.

  2. Pingback: My Taste is Amazing | Helen FieldsHelen Fields