Over 30 chess pieces from the National Museums Scotland and British Museum are starting a tour at National Museum of Scotland
on 21 May and will continue to further Scottish venues.
A major study led by National Museums Scotland has cast new light on the story of the origins and uses of the iconic Lewis Chessmen.
The Lewis Chessmen were found on Lewis in 1831. They are believed to have been made in Scandinavia and to date to the late 12th century. The majority are in the collection of the British Museum and eleven are owned by the National Museum of Scotland.
The research, led by Dr David Caldwell, Keeper of Scotland in Europe, National Museums Scotland, is the most wide-ranging and multidisciplinary study on the chessmen since 1832 and is published today in the journal Medieval Archaeology. Dr Caldwell worked with Mark Hall of Perth Museum and Art Gallery and Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the University of Dundee to re-examine existing theories and look at the chessmen in a new way.
The study challenges the widely held view that they were part of a merchants hoard when they were buried on Lewis, and suggests that they may have been used for games other than chess. It also proposes they may have been buried in a different place in Lewis than previously thought, and that the pieces may have been carved by up to five different craftsmen.
Key points include:
1) The currently accepted version of the hoards discovery is that it was recovered by a local man, Malcolm MacLeod, from the sand dunes at Ardroil on the south side of Uig Strand. However this is based on later accounts by a local story-teller, and Dr Caldwell and his co-authors believe it is more likely that they were found at Mèalasta, a few miles south of Uig Strand.
2) If this is the case, then there is evidence of a medieval settlement at Mèalasta, and the the hoard could have belonged to a significant local figure such as a bishop or clan chief, rather than being left by a merchant on his way elsewhere.
3) Dr Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist, analysed the faces of the chessmen and demonstrated that the majority of the pieces could be divided into groups possibly representing the work of five different craftsmen.
4) The pieces may have been used for games other than chess primarily hnefatfl, popular in the medieval Scandinavian world. At least three games are represented in the hoard.
5) Some of the pieces may date from the early 13th century rather than the 12th century.
Dr Caldwell says: These are arguably the most famous treasures to come out of the ground in Scotland, and have worldwide recognition so the danger is that we assume we know all there is to be known about them. We were keen to reassess the whole story of the pieces and their significance, to reignite interest in a little known period of our history.
We found problems with the accepted version of where the chessmen were found, and would argue that they could have been owned by an important local person rather than abandoned by a travelling merchant. We also looked at the hoard from an entirely new perspective, examining their faces to check for similarities in their carving. We hope that this research proves it is always possible to cast new light on these fascinating pieces.
The research will feature in the major touring exhibition on the Lewis Chessmen, held in partnership with the British Museum and with funding from the Scottish Government.