One of the earliest examples of a Northern European chess set is the 12th century Lewis Chessmen, gaming pieces found on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides of Scotland. Several pieces are on display at the British Museum in London.
They are amazing. Carved sometime between 1150-1200 AD of walrus ivory, they were probably originally made in in Trondheim, Norway, and then sent to Stjórnavágr (now the town of Stornoway), a major town on the important trade route through the Norse Kingdom surrounding the Irish Sea. They were probably carved by various artists. Forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson analyzed the chessmen and suggested that at least five artists were involved in making the pieces based on characteristics like “round open eyes” and “inferiorly placed nostrils.”
There were enough pieces make four sets, so a merchant might have been transporting them for sale in the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles or in Norse Ireland. The sets would have been intended as a very expensive playthings for very wealthy Vikings, perhaps the high-ranking vassals of the King of Norway. Or the pieces could have been intended for trade south into the lands of the newly victorious Normans in Britain, or even further into the edges of the Kingdom of Norway, destined for Norse outposts in Iceland or Greenland.
The Norse Gaels had learned about chess from their southern trading partners in Europe, who had been introduced to the game when the Moors had conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 10th century. The Moors had picked up a taste for the game during the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, and the Persians had learned about chess from the game’s originators in the Gupta Empire of Eastern India. It was one of the first board games to require skill to play, and it was thus as much a way to show off as it was a way for the upper-crust to entertain themselves in the evenings.
The method of play and the movements of some pieces were very different during the early Middle Ages. The queens were the weakest pieces on the board, instead of one of the strongest (a shift that had occurred by the 15th century). Additionally, some of the Lewis chessmen have traces of red stain on them, indicating that the board was divided between red and white, rather than white and black as it is today.
The Lewis chessmen also exhibit traits from both the oriental versions of tablemen and the occidental versions. The pawns remain abstract obelisks without human stylization, a hallmark of the Islamic form of the game, while the battle elephants of the Indian game have been replaced with figures that are clearly recognizable as Christian bishops. This is one of the earliest recorded occurrences of an obvious bishop on the board, with distinctive miters, croziers, and holy books in hand.
The kings are also notable for their extreme detail, including long hair in either twists or braids, and intricate knot-work indicating the Celtic influence on Norse art. The kings may even have been modeled on real Norwegian monarchs – either Magnus V (the first crowned King of Norway) or his rival and successor, Sverrir Sigurðarson, who killed Magnus at the Battle of Fimreite in 1184 and ruled Norway until his own death in 1202.
Other pieces of the chessmen are unmistakably Norse as well. For one thing, the knights all ride on the short, stocky horses typical of Scandinavia, now exemplified by the Norwegian Fjord horse and the Icelandic horse. The knights are almost as tall as their mounts; their feet could nearly reach the ground. The horses also display the long, shaggy forelocks so notable on the northern equestrian breeds. To me, the mounts also appear to have the minimally feathered fetlocks of the Norwegian Fjord horse.
Like the knights, the rooks also wear the military “fashion typical of the late-Norse period: long leather coats, kite-shaped Norman shields, expensive swords, and mostly pointy helmets.” More importantly, some of them are biting their shields, almost surely a depiction of the Norse berserker. The Viking berserkers were famous for going into a frenzy during battle, when they howled “like wild beasts, foamed at the mouth, and gnawed the iron rim of their shields.” I also think the robes of the shield-biting rooks seem to be cross-hatched as stylized fur – perhaps the bear-hide clothing worn by the berserkers?
The discovery of the chessmen was a great one for medieval archeology, but no one really knows how such perfect and expensive gaming pieces wound up buried in the sand of Uig beach on the Isle of Lewis. However, I can tell you that the chessmen are as gorgeous as their placement was mysterious, and that the people who made them where masters of their craft. It is almost a shame that no one ever got to use them, even though the lack of use is what has kept them so marvelously preserved. Still, for such beautiful things to remain untouched … it seems almost tragic.