Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lewis Chessmen Back in the News

This cropped up a few days ago - haven't had time to post it until this evening. I think the title is a little misleading; an alternate theory of how the pieces got to (or never left) the Isle of Lewis is proposed. Is it credible? Hell, is the original theory that the pieces were buried there by some travelling salesman credible? Beats me! Personally, I don't care how the pieces came to be on Lewis - I'd like to know more about the methods of production, see close-up photographs of ALL of the pieces instead of the piecemeal stuff one can find on the internet and in various books, learn more about whether more exact dates for the creation of the individual sets can be pinpointed with the latest dating methods (and the various problems associated with such dating techniques). It seems to be the consensus that the Lewis pieces were most likely produced in Trondheim in the late 12th century (c. 1170 ce). But - would Trondheim craftsmen have had a long enough time after chess was introduced to the area to develop a certain "school" of artistic tradition? I would like to know how it has been (if it has been) determined which pieces form sets, etc. For instance, this image from the article of two "berserkers" -- are they from the same set (representing the two different sides)? From different sets? What is up with the bug-eyed expression on these pieces and the shorter dude chewing on his shield? Are these actually Hnefatafl pieces that were pressed into service as chess pawns? Or meant to be used as both? So, I'm glad to see that more indepth research about the many pieces (93, from four different sets) is being done. I tried to track down the journal the article will be published in but I did not have much luck - seems they don't offer online subscriptions (not that I could afford it in any event, LOL!) or one-off purchase of articles of interest. Sigh. Article from the BBC News Doubts cast on Chessmen origins Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009 New research has cast doubt on traditional theories about the historic Lewis Chessmen. The 93 pieces - currently split between museums in Edinburgh and London - were discovered on Lewis in 1831. But the research suggests they may have been used in both chess and Hnefatafl - a similar game that was popular in medieval Scandinavia. It also casts doubt on the traditional theory that the ivory pieces were lost or buried by a merchant. The research was led by Dr David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland, who believes the Lewis chessmen were more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking person who lived on Lewis. Dr Caldwell told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that many of the pieces could have doubled for Hnefatafl, another conflict game which also pitted a king against pawns or warriors on the other side. The ancient game has not survived into modern times. For the first time, they also tried to work out which pieces were made by the same groups of craftsmen by measuring the chessmen's faces, looking at their clothing, and studying details of the workmanship. Dr Caldwell added: "We certainly still believe the pieces are Scandinavian in origin, perhaps made in a workshop by several masters in a city like Trondheim. "But one of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the horde is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through. "To take a relatively easy example, there is a praise poem written in the middle of the 13th century to Angus Mor of Isla, and the poem says that he inherited his ivory chess pieces from his father Donald - that makes Angus the very first Macdonald, and the poem also makes him the king of Lewis. "Now you of course you would be foolish to implicitly believe everything in a praise poem, but nevertheless it gives you some idea that we are dealing with a society in the west of Scotland - great leaders like Angus Mor, bishops, clan chiefs - who really valued playing chess and saw it as being one of their accomplishments." He said that the analysis tried to recognise the work of different craftsmen, and home in on pieces which may be replacements for ones which had been broken or lost. They used a forensic anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson based at Dundee University, to do a photogrammetric analysis of the faces as they believed individual craftsmen would have given their faces different characteristics, just like a modern-day political cartoonists. Plenty of mystery Dr Caldwell said the chessmen suggested that there was a reasonable amount of wealth in the western Isles in the 13th century, perhaps because the medieval economy placed greater value on fairly barren land that could be used to raise cattle. He added: "It was certainly leading men there, people who could make a lot of money either by raising cattle or frankly by going raiding - there was still in some ways a Viking way of life surviving into the 13th century." Despite the extensive research, Dr Caldwell said he still believed there was plenty of mystery surrounding the chessmen. "I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on the - what I hope we have done is opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things," he said. The research will be published this week in the journal Medieval Archaeology. Of the 93 pieces found, 82 are kept at the British Museum, with 11 held by the National Museum of Scotland. Calls have been made for all of the pieces, which were made from walrus ivory and whales' teeth, to be returned to Lewis. Here is a bit more information in an article from The Press and Journal. Famous figures may have been used to play hnefatfl rather than chess, researchers claim New light shed on origins of Lewis Chessmen By Joanna Skailes Published: 11/11/2009 Research has shed new light on the world’s most famous chess set. A major study involving Tayside researchers has revealed a different interpretation of the origins and uses of the iconic Lewis Chessmen. The figures, believed to have been made in Scandinavia, were found in 1832. The majority are in the British Museum’s collection and 11 are owned by the National Museum of Scotland. The study challenges the widely-held view they were part of a merchant’s hoard when they were buried in Lewis and finds they may have belonged to a bishop or a clan chief. The research, led by David Caldwell, Keeper of Scotland in Europe at National Museums Scotland, was yesterday published in the journal Medieval Archaeology. He worked with Mark Hall, of Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. The accepted version of the hoard’s 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. Mr Caldwell and his co-authors believe it is more likely they were found at Mealasta, a few miles south of Uig Strand, where there was a mediaeval settlement. This could mean, they argue, that they could have belonged to a significant local figure. The researchers also found some of the pieces may date from the early 13th century rather than the 12th century and they may have been used for games other than chess – primarily hnefatfl, popular in the medieval Scandinavian world. Their work showed the pieces could be divided into groups, possibly representing the work of five different craftsmen. Mr Caldwell said: “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 hope that this research proves it is always possible to cast new light on these fascinating pieces.” Western Isles SNP MSP Alasdair Allan said: “It is certainly interesting to hear that they have may belonged to somebody relevant on Lewis rather than somebody passing through. “If that is the case it even further strengthens the case for their return to Scotland.” 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, which will open in Edinburgh in May, 2010, and then be on show in Aberdeen Art Gallery in October, 2010. Shetland Museum will host it in January, 2011 and it will move to Stornoway in April that year.

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