Humour in the Game of Kings: The Sideways Glancing Warder of the Lewis Chessmen
By Annika Husing
Mirabilia, Vol.18:1 (2014)
Abstract: The cultural turn of the twentieth century’s last quarter gradually led to a new approach to the classical objects of historical research. Historians nowadays are required to take on a ‘cultural perspective’ in the course of their studies. Using the example of a particular piece of the Lewis Chessmen this paper examines both the benefits and the limitations that come about with the cultural approach and cautions against a too rigid application.
Excerpt: Take the twelfth century Lewis Chessmen for example. First of all, not all 78 of the pieces look the same. They vary in clothing, equipment and carving style. It is also possible that they were not all made at the same time. Two pieces, a king and a warder, seem to have been inserted later, maybe as replacements. The 78 pieces form the remains of four different chess sets.
Researchers in the past few years, with the help of forensic anthropologists, have tried to determine which pieces belonged together in one set. In addition to that, they also tried to identify which pieces were made by the same hand. They came up with five different hands that were involved in the production of the chessmen. Nine pieces were either too damaged or too different to be associated for certain with any hand, thus altogether six different groups of chessmen can be distinguished. One group, known as ‘Group D’, is characterised by a wide, short face, a straight nose with rounded tip, round wings of the nose, visible nostrils, round, open eyes, a down-turned mouth, an infraorbital crease, a clear philtrum, nasolabial creases and an overbite. There is also a similarity in vertical and horizontal proportions between all the eleven pieces of that group.