Saturday, January 14, 2012

More on the "Haunted Lewis Chess Pieces"

See original post from November 30, 2011, from information forwarded to me by Judith Weingarten of the Xenobia, Empress of the East blog.

Geoff Chandler provides much information that is new to me about the background of the Lewis chess pieces.  One note: Chandler mentions a Captain Pyrie, while the information I published in my prior blog post came directly from H.J.R. Murray's A History of Chess (account of the discovery and subsequent history of the Lewis pieces) and he refers to a Roderick Ririe as being the person who first brought the pieces to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831.  I double-checked the name and spelling this morning just to make sure I had it correct from Murray.

Not Even From Lewis, Mate
Geoff Chandler

Based on the date of the initial comments at the bottom of the article, I figure it was written in October, 2009.  Comments have continued to be made.  Please read them.  They contain some very interesting discussion.

In addition to providing more background information about the discovery and subsequent sale(s) of the Lewis pieces, Mr. Chandler provides an interesting theory that the Lewis pieces aren't chess pieces at all, but are hnefatafl pieces!  I'm no expert on the game, mind you, but I do not recall reading any accounts where there were more than two different types of pieces used in hnefatafl:  a king and the guardsmen (in some accounts, these were females).  That being said, my memory isn't what it used to be, and I haven't done much study on hnefatafl, so Mr. Chandler could be perfectly correct in his assertion that hnefatafl games sometimes used more than two types of playing pieces... [more information on hnefatafl at Wikipedia]

It is an interesting theory.

Three issues from Mr. Chandler's article and the subsequent comments thereto kept poking at me since I read it a week or so before Mr. D and I left for Madrid -- I didn't have time to write about it then. 


Mr. Chandler gets right to the heart of the issue surrounding the mystery of the Lewis pieces.  If they are chess pieces, where are the rooks? His discussion of why he thinks the warders were never meant to be rooks is very interesting, but so is the counter-evidence presented by a commenter by the handle of Pipistrel

It does not seem, contrary to what Mr. Chandler asserts, that the British Museum has changed its assertions that the Lewis pieces are chess pieces.  This summary from the British Museum website (today) continues to identify the pieces as chess pieces and the warders as "rooks."

The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

They were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.
Who owned the chess pieces? Why were they hidden? While there are no firm answers to these questions, it is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are constituent pieces - though with some elements missing - for four distinct sets. Their general condition is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.

By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. The question of precisely where they were made is a difficult one to resolve.

When Sir Frederic Madden first published the finds in 1832, he considered them to be Icelandic in origin. This argument has been repeated recently by Icelandic commentators on the subject. Other authorities have thought them to be Irish, Scottish or English. Each of these attributions is possible.
What is known with certainty is that the chessmen are vigorously northern in their character and are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of Berserkers, fierce mythical warriors drawn directly from the Sagas. The historic political, economic and cultural links between the Outer Hebrides and Norway and its dominance of the Norse world might suggest that Norway is the most likely place to have produced these high status, luxury commodities.

A board large enough to hold all the pieces arranged for a game played to modern rules would have measured 82 cm across. Records state that when found, some of the Lewis chessmen were stained red. Consequently the chessboard may have been red and white, as opposed to the modern convention of black and white.

Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are in the British Museum.

I was shocked, however, when I read this in Mr. Chandler's responsive comment dated May 20, 2011:

They are not chess pieces and this is now accepted even by the museum.

They have recently replaced the shield biting man with a stone tower in the Lewis Sets they sell - go an see for yourself.

This Tower is a PR job to make it look more like a chess set.

WHAT?  That really set me back.  I mean, how could the British Museum possibly do such a thing -- substitute a different "rook" piece altogether in replica chess sets that are meant to be the Lewis pieces???

I happen to own a replica Lewis chess set.  It was a gift to me in 2002 and means a great deal.  I haven't played with the set at all but I did take some of them out (kings, queens, knights) and photographed them once when I got my digital camera in 2006 and I was playing around, learning how to use it properly and trying my hand at "staging: a scene.  The set has a certificate that says it is "entirely hand made at S.A.C. Ltd, Studio Anne Carlton, Hull, England."  I took it out and opened the box - lo and behold!  The rook is not the crazed warder chewing on his shield!  It is, in fact, a four-sided rectangular tower!  The same tower design was used for both sides.

[After initial posting, it is now 1:31 p.m., I visited the British Museum shop online and discovered that the three types of Lewis chess sets they are selling - small, medium, and delux, all feature the warder as the "rook" and the "tombstones" as pawns -- no substituted tower for rook to be found!  So -- what does it all mean???]

[After writing the above, I did some image searches.  This set looks identical to mine. I learned that S.A.C. was sold in 2003 and production of the pieces was subsequently moved to China!  Ohmygoddess!  If my "Certificate of Authenticity" is to be believed - and the fact that I KNOW the set was gifted to me in May, 2002 - my set was produced in Hull, England, not in China.  Note: my rooks (towers) and my pawns (miniature warders) are the same as in this image, and the colors look about the same.  Compare these figures to some of the figures in the sets depicted below and you will readily see differences in the amount of detail inscribed on the pieces.]


The issue of the color of the Lewis pieces.  Yes, it is well known that over time color put on things wears off or fades away.  I recall reading descriptions of the Lewis pieces that authoritatively said that some of the pieces had traces of red.

Except -- Mr. Chandler proposed a very interesting theory for how some of the pieces obtained their traces of red color!  In 1831, would anyone have been able to detect such a fraud, if indeed some of the pieces had been newly colored with "beetroot?"

From the little reading I've done on hnefatafl, the pieces were brown and natural ivory.  Some chess sets, on the other hand, often featured red and natural-colored pieces.  "The Book of Games" of King Alfonso X of Spain, for instance, holds many depictions of such sets. 

The mere fact that the pieces were mostly ivory colored at the time of discovery doesn't mean they were not parts of chess sets.


The missing pawns.  It has been said that the Lewis pieces comprise parts of four different chess sets.  Four chess sets would mean 64 pawns.  However, only 19 pawns are known to exist.  Mr. Chandler correctly pointed out that 45 are missing, and this seems a great deal of missing pawns when one considers that most of the other primary pieces for comprising some four different chess sets are NOT missing.

Consider what this might mean.  It could mean that the pawns aren't pawns at all, but something else -- perhaps pieces from a different game altogether.  We do know that 14 other game pieces (Murray called them "tablemen") were included in the Lewis "hoard" that was purchased by the British Museum and it seems that they were never considered as being chess pieces.  Or, perhaps one of the commenters to Mr. Chandler's article was correct when he (or she) suggested that the "pawns" were meant for use with both chess and hnefatafl.  That still does not solve the mystery of the great number of missing pawns, however.

The foundation of hnefatafl that differentiates it from other forms of "tafl" ("table") games is that the attackers have twice as many pieces as the king.  So, if the king has 8 defenders around him, the attackers total 16; if the king had 12 defenders, the attackers total 24.  With 19 pawns at hand, a hnefatafl set would have the king and 6 defenders and there would be 12 attackers, with 1 piece left over.  Murray's illustration of the Lewis pawns shows four (possibly five) different types:

I do not know how many exist of each type of pawn.
Where are the other 45 pawns?  Did they sink into the sea long ago?  Are they still buried somewhere?  I don't know - were excavations or a good old-fashioned treasure hunt ever conducted around the area where the sellers said the original Lewis pieces had been discovered?  One would assume so, but then again --

In a search I found several images of Lewis replica sets still for sale featuring the "warder" as the "rook" with the "tombstones" as pawns (the first two pawns in Murray's drawing, above, remind me of Islamic pieces):

An S.A.C. set in red/white.

Brookstone set in brown and white. Brookstone was a relatively expensive set - and comparing the quality of these pieces to the others depicted - thumbs down!

Design Toscano set with checkers set.
There looks to be a lot more research that could and should be done about the Lewis pieces.  Perhaps someone has written a thesis?  I sure would like to read it if that's the case.  I've learned things today that I never knew before just putting this little blog piece together .  How much more might we be able to learn?

1 comment:

Vivienne said...

I have adored these beautiful chess pieces for years. The mystery surrounding their discovery (and the myths which have grown up to fill the void, such as that the pieces are haunted) only adds to their allure.

My own take is this:
(1) Is the horde complete? We will never know. I suspect that what we have is all that was hidden, and what makes me think that is that the pieces are so popular that everyone who has ever walked on a beach on Lewis for the last hundred years has probably had their eye open for fresh finds.

(2) What game was intended to be played? There is no doubt whatever that the answer is chess. The king, the queen, the bishop and the knight are unmistakable.

Were some of the pieces tafl pieces? Maybe. The pawns would do for tafl pieces, but the numbers don’t add up: the quadrilateral symmetry of the tafl games means that the king would need 4 or 8 defenders; 6 wouldn’t work.

There are also the round flat pieces called “tablemen” in the literature. They would do for tafl (but why so few?) but not chess. It’s possible that they were intended for another purpose entirely, perhaps not even gaming.

(3) The shape of the rooks. The warder and berserker pieces are of a similar scale to the other pieces. It seems likely they were intended to be rooks. Whether or not this was actually so, adding in castle-like pieces to replica sets is wrong: if I am going to have a replica set, I want it to contain only replicas of pieces which were found, not pieces which someone, centuries after the fact, decided would look better than the originals.

In fact the berserker pieces are my favourites of all, and they do a fine job.

If I could change one thing about my replica set, which is magnificent, it would be that the replica pieces displayed the same variation as the original pieces. For example, the knights consist of four identical reproduction pieces, two white and two black, while a game involving the original pieces would have had much more variation. I would love to see what the array would look like with the original pieces all set up.

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