The Lewis Chessmen

Dating to the 12th or 13th centuries, the Lewis Chessmen are one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland. We bring you a taster of some of the intricate walrus ivory and whale bone pieces currently on display across Scotland.

Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.

About the chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered in the vicinity of Uig on the western shore of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1831, as part of a hoard of walrus ivory. The hoard includes assembled pieces made of whale bone and walrus ivory from at least four chess sets, probably made in Norway in the late 12th or early 13th century; these are some of the largest and finest group of early chessmen to survive. It is possible that they once belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland.

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Eighty-two of the 93 surviving pieces are currently housed at the British Museum in London, with the remaining 11 cared for by National Museums Scotland. However, more than 30 pieces from both London and Edinburgh are currently on tour at various locations throughout Scotland until September 2011. For more information on the chessmen and where you can find them, visit www.nms.ac.uk.

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All images © National Museums Scotland.

Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
The bishop is shown giving a blessing with his right hand and wearing a mitre on his head. His left hand grasps a crosier and a floor length cope, commonly worn by members of the clergy, is draped over his shoulders.
Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
Looking rather glum, the queen cradles her chin with her right hand while her left hand clasps a drinking horn. The back of the piece (pictured right) shows the queen is wearing a veil beneath her crown, which covers her hair, and is sitting on a throne decorated with a foliage design.
Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
The unhappy looking king sits on a throne, holding a scabbard across his knees, right hand on the grip, left hand grasping the blade. He wears an open crown with four trefoils and his hair in braids down his back, as well as a long mantle and a vestment with sleeves and slit sides.
A piece from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
Seated on a horse and wearing a protective coat divided at the front and back for ease of movement, the knight piece carries a kite shaped shield and a lance ready for battle.
Pieces from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
A piece from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
Front view of a warder, or soldier, holding a shield in his left hand and a sword in his right.
A piece from the Lewis Chessmen, some of the earliest chessmen to survive.
According to Old Norse literature, berserkers were renowned for fighting uncontrollably while in a trance-like state. The berserker here has bulging eyes and is angrily biting his shield, ready for battle.