Telling the Story of the Ivory Vikings

By Nancy Marie Brown

One book leads to the next. It’s a truism among writers, and particularly apt for explaining how my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, published by St Martin’s Press in September, came to be.

Lewis chessmen - photo by Sarah Ross, Flickr

Ivory Vikings is a biography of the Lewis chessmen, the famous walrus-ivory chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis in far western Scotland in 1831. While gathering illustrations for my previous book about medieval Iceland, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I was surprised to learn that these chessmen, long considered icons of the Viking Age, had actually been carved over a hundred years later, between 1150 and 1250, during the lifetime of Snorri Sturluson.


According to one theory I read, they may even have been carved by a woman in Iceland whom Snorri knew, Margaret the Adroit, who worked for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Snorri’s foster brother.

In Song of the Vikings, I argued that Snorri was responsible for most of what we know about Norse mythology. I argued that he invented the genre of “saga,” which his countrymen in the 13th and 14th centuries developed into the masterpieces of world literature they are now universally acknowledged to be. I included an image of one of the Lewis queens in that book, referring to the theory of their Icelandic origin in a caption. But there was no room in Song of the Vikings to develop the idea that medieval Icelanders may also have been exceptional visual artists as well as world-class writers.


That idea nagged at the back of my mind. I wondered why I’d never heard anything like it before. Was the author of this Iceland theory of the Lewis chessmen a crackpot? I did some basic research and learned that the theory was, in fact, a very old one: Frederic Madden of the British Museum, who was the first person to write about the Lewis chessmen, the year after their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, concluded that they had been made in Iceland in the 12th century.

And yet, when Icelandic civil engineer and chess aficionado Guðmundur Þórarinsson reintroduced the Iceland theory, he was ridiculed. Alexander Woolf, a professor of medieval studies from the University of St Andrews, was particularly dismissive. Responding to a reporter from the New York Times, he said that Iceland was too poor and backward a place to produce such stunning works of art. “A hell of a lot of walrus ivory went into making those chessmen, and Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers,” he said, adding, “You don’t get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa.”

(Woolf has since retracted his statement. The reporter had caught him off guard. Since meeting Guðmundur and visiting Skalholt in Iceland, Woolf has become a supporter of the Iceland theory.)

lewis chessmen ivory vikings - photo by Justin Ennis / Flickr

Woolf’s comment stung me. Having just spent several years researching and writing about the Iceland of that period, I knew he was wrong. Iceland in the late 12th and early 13th century was at the peak of its Golden Age: rich, independent, and in a frenzy of artistic creation.


The man Guðmundur suggested may have commissioned the Lewis chessmen, Bishop Pall of Skalholt, was not only the foster brother of Snorri Sturluson, he was the great-grandson of King Magnus Bare-Legs of Norway (1093-1103), who conquered northern Scotland and the islands and took his nickname from his fondness for wearing kilts. Magnus’s line ruled the Norwegian empire without interruption from 1103 to 1264, when northern Scotland and the islands were ceded to the Scottish crown. During that century and a half, King Magnus’s Icelandic kinsmen routinely visited Norway, where they were recognized as royalty. Many were knighted; Snorri Sturluson became the first Icelandic baron of Norway; his son-in-law became the first Icelandic earl of Norway.

Bishop Pall himself was a well-educated, well-traveled nobleman–hardly a “scrappy farmer.” As a youth he became a retainer of Earl Harald, who ruled the Orkney islands and Caithness in northern Scotland. Later, Pall traveled to England to attend school at a cathedral university, probably Lincoln, where his uncle and predecessor at the see of Skalholt, Bishop Thorlak, had studied. Pall returned to Iceland and became a wealthy chieftain, marrying and having several children. He was famous for the breadth of his book-learning and his excellent Latin, the extravagance of his banquets, the beauty of his singing voice, and his love of fine things. He was known to have in his employ several artists, including Margaret the Adroit, known as the best ivory carver in Iceland.

The Lewis chessmen are the most famous chess pieces in the world. They are considered masterpieces of Romanesque art, among the most important archaeological finds from Scotland and the most popular exhibits at the British Museum. If there was a chance they could indeed have been made by a woman in Iceland around the year 1200, that was a story I needed to tell.


Click here to learn more about Nancy Marie Brown from her blog

Click here to to learn more about her book Ivory Vikings from St. Martin’s Press 

Click here to read an excerpt from Ivory Vikings