The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces: A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture

The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces: A Re-examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture

By David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson

Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 53 (2009)

lewis chessmen - photo by Stephen Coles / Flickr
Lewis chessmen – photo by Stephen Coles / Flickr

Abstract: Almost 180 years of scholarship on the Lewis chessmen have given us a solid foundation of understanding, primarily based upon their art-historical analysis. Taking a more interdisciplinary approach (combining elements of art history with archaeology and history), this paper focuses on some over-looked themes — primarily the archaeological, gaming and political contexts of the 12th- and 13th-century North Sea world — and some more familiar themes but in a new light. We suggest a more fluid composition and function of the gaming hoard, with at least four sets of chessmen from the same workshop conceivably made for use in Lewis, possibly in the early 13th century.

Introduction: The purpose of this interdisciplinary paper is to reopen discussions on the hoard of gaming pieces from Uig, Isle of Lewis (Western Isles: the Outer Hebrides), commonly known as the Lewis chessmen. Found in 1831, they are probably the most well-known archaeological find from Scotland. There are 93 pieces, including 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men and a buckle. With the exception of 11 chessmen in the National Museums Scotland, all the pieces are in the British Museum. The figurative pieces (‘face pieces’), the main concern of this paper, are illustrated in Figures 1–8, the captions for which all follow the formula of piece-type and its number, height, group and set. We have used the two museums’ numbering systems for the pieces: pieces 19–29 are in NMS, and those numbered from 78 onwards are in the British Museum. We explain group and set later.

Many see the pieces as icons of Scandinavian and Romanesque art, recognised throughout the world as archetypal chessmen. A ground-breaking and still important report on the pieces acquired by the BM was released by Frederic Madden a year after their discovery, and since then they have been well published and illustrated in numerous works of scholarship. The commonly held name, chessmen, fixed in both academic circles and popular culture, is in many ways apt but in reality is a rather limiting appellation for the diversity of material in the hoard (detailed discussion rarely also extends to the tables-men and the buckle). As we will argue below, the kings and pawns might also have been used to play hnefatafl, another board game popular in the Scandinavian world.

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