The Lewis Chessmen were likely to have been made in Trondheim in Norway from walrus ivory. This kind of bone was hard to come across at the time (1150-1200 A.D), as it required hunting during a brief window of time per year in the Arctic Circle, using primitive hunting tools of the time and in tough environmental conditions.
This means that the chess pieces would have been valued greatly for their ivory alone. Yet the craftsmanship of these tiny chess pieces is a marvel in itself. It would be difficult to replicate that sort of level of detail using today’s technology of power tools let alone some chisels and knives. This makes the pieces dated from the medieval times even more impressive.
The Lewis Chess Men were discovered in the 19th Century were discovered in a sandy cove on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In the early medieval period, when the chess men were dated from – this area was the stomping ground of the Vikings.
There was 92 pieces found in the hoard on the Isle of Lewis, including eight kings, enough for four chess sets. Although some pieces from the four sets were missing (128 pieces are contained in four chess sets). Nobody knows where they are, it’s a mystery.
Each walrus tusk could contain 3-4 pieces of different sizes within it. It’s estimated that about 4 walruses (or eight tusks) would be needed for each chess set. The design itself is made in a Scandanavian style with short, stubby and comical appearance. Each of the pieces are have interesting and comical facial expressions.
The rules of chess have remained largely the same, since it was invented as a war game in India in the 6th Century A.D. However the design of the pieces themselves changed greatly as the game went from India to (what is now) Western Europe.
In the original Eastern game of chess, elephants were figures of power. However this was changed to the bishop chess piece in medieval Europe, reflecting the status of bishops as powerful feudal figures. The feudal hierarchy of medieval Europe: those who rule, those who pray and those who work are reflected in the positioning and relative power of the chess pieces.
The queen chess piece is intriguing. She holds her hand to her face. This gesture has been imbued with a broad variety of meanings depending on who looks at them, but we still aren’t sure. Some people have suggested that the look on her face is neurotic. Some experts compare the hand on her face with the depictions of the Virgin Mary at the time, after she loses her son to crucifixion. As chess is a war game (and reflected the war-like life of the medieval world), perhaps the Queen’s look reflects the sad and mournful look of a woman who has lost her family to war. That was a very real likelihood for women living in medieval times – whether they were royalty, nobility or field workers.
Having a chess board and mastering the game was considered to be a knightly accomplishment in the Middle Ages. Other knightly skills held in high favour included falconry and swordsmanship. The clergy also enjoyed the game and this was a leisurely activity undertaken by all noble people.
How exactly the chess pieces ended up on the sandy cove on the Isle of Lewis, who they were made for or where the missing pieces are is a complete mystery.