Lewis Chessmen May Be From a Different Board Game

The Lewis Hnefataflmen: doesnt quite have the same ring to it as the Lewis Chessmen, does it?

But if what a new paper by a trio of heritage experts is saying is true, the famous 900-year-old set of ivory-carved pieces discovered on a Scottish island in 1831 may not be from a chess set at all, but rather an ancient Viking board game.

The study also questions the popular notion of how the hoard came to end up on Lewis, and calls for new excavations at a site near to where they were reportedly found.

Hnefatafl, which was popular in Scandinavia in the medieval period, probably wasnt too dissimilar to chess it was also a warfare game that involved protecting a king from marauding opponent pieces. But it was likely played on a larger board (1313 squares, or 1111), and may have involved rolling dice in some way (the game rules were never properly recorded, and no full set survives today). The new study suggests that the artefacts would be best referred to as gaming pieces from here forth.

A Royal Hoard?

Elsewhere in their paper which is set to be published in the journal Medieval Archaeology this week David Caldwell from the National Museum of Scotland, Mark Hall of Perth Museum and Caroline Wilkinson a forensic anthropologist from Dundee University raise doubts over the traditional theory that the gaming pieces arrived on Lewis because they were left there, buried in a sand dune, by a Norwegian merchant.

One of the main things I think we are saying in our research is that it is much more likely that the hoard is in Lewis because it belonged to somebody who lived there rather than being abandoned by a merchant who was passing through, Caldwell told BBC News. He speculated that they could have easily belonged to a wealthy local king or lord or bishop, who really valued playing chess and saw it as being one of their accomplishments.

Opening Up The Debate

He hopes that their hypotheses will open up some new conversation on the nature and origins of the artefacts, which are set to be reunited in Scotland for the first time in over 150 years in 2010. I would be very disappointed if we have written the last word on them, said Caldwell, 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.

I hope we have opened up the debate and shown it is possible, even with something very well known, to discover new things. — Dr David Caldwell

Currently, the collection is divided between the National Museum of Scotland who own 11 pieces and the British Museum, who possess the other 82. The thorny issue of repatriation has been raised by the Scottish Government in recent years, but for the time being at least put to bed by a loan agreement, which will see a small selection of the pieces head north for a tour of Scotland over the next couple of years.

Caldwell et als study was wide-ranging, and the first to examine the artefacts in detail in a bid to work out which were made by the same groups of artists. They measured the faces, looked at their clothing, and studied details of the workmanship. They confirmed that the figures are of Scandinavian origin and were very likely made by master craftsmen at the Norwegian city of Trondheim, but admitted that much more remains to be learned about the pieces.

A New Excavation?

Caldwell also pointed out that a large proportion of the hoard is still missing the 93 pieces found may derive from as collection of as many as 128. He and his associates now intend to pursue funding for an investigation at Malasta on Lewis a souterrain, or underground passage, which some maps from the time suggest is the real spot where the chessmen were found, rather than the sand dunes at Uig, as is popularly believed.

Most people have gone to the sands at Uig, which is pretty fruitless, he told Caldwell the Scotsman in another interview. Ivory is an extremely tough material and it is not altogether impossible that they might turn up.

Read more about the complex and mysterious story of the Lewis Chessmen sorry, gaming pieces here.

Its been a busy few days for Dr Caldwell, who last week was also representing the Treasure Trove Unit at National Museum of Scotland in connection with the discovery of a 1 million horde of ancient gold treasure near Stirling.