Published August 23, 2011
In 1831, an ancient set of chess pieces was found in the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland. The most amazing fact about these chessmen—made of walrus ivory and whale teeth—is that they were the oldest figures showing a clear resemblance to modern pieces. Since then, it had been believed that the most important chess set of all time was handcrafted in Norway in the 12th century. But recently things have changed with the discovery of a little chess piece found in an excavation at Siglunes, Iceland. And guess what? Surprisingly, this Icelandic piece, handcrafted from fishbone, bears similarities to those Lewis Chessmen, but might be older. The plot thickens!
Einar S. Einarsson and Guðmundur G. Þórarinsson are the main advocates of the “Iceland theory” of the Lewis Chessmen. These chess aficionados believe that Iceland is the origin of the famous set of medieval pieces. The strongest evidence for this seems to be the ‘bishop’. Icelandic is the first language where the word ‘bishop’ was used to describe this chess piece and—funnily—in the Lewis Chessmen, a figure carved in the image of a bishop appears for the first time. Einar, a close friend of the late Bobby Fischer, says “the most important reason is perhaps the bishop, apart from the berserkers [a medieval Norse warrior that also appears in the Lewis set as a rook]. The linguistic factors play a big role when figures of art are created, which suits Iceland perfectly in the olden days.” Or as Mr. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, states: “In every place the chess pieces will change to reflect the society that played it.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating story full of mystery and controversy. In the meantime, we can learn more about the Lewis Chessmen and their link to Icelandic culture in a symposium held in Skálholt next August 19. In addition to Mr. Þórarinsson, speakers will include scholars from the British Museum (the current location of the Lewis Chessmen), the National Museum of Scotland and the University of Iceland.
Is the original source of the Lewis Chessmen in Iceland? That remains to be seen. But as Einar concludes: “It has already been discussed with the British Museum to lend some of them to have on display in Skálholt, or perhaps our National Museum, some time in the near future.”