DNA used to discover origins of medieval chess set

Researchers in Poland have discovered new details about a nearly complete medieval chess set. By obtaining DNA from pieces of the Sandomierz chess set, they could determine what animals were used to make them.

Discovered in 1962 during an archaeological in Sandomierz, a town in southeastern Poland, it includes 29 pieces, just three shy of a full set. The very small pieces – the two kings are 25 mm and 23 mm in height, while the rest are below 20 mm – were created in the 12th or early 13th century. On one side of the chessboard there were figures with deep and clear carvings, while the other had shallow carvings that even disappeared in places.

Sandomierz chess from the collection of the Castle Museum in Sandomierz. Photo courtesy Castle Museum in Sandomierz

Dr. Danijela Popovic from the Center for New Technologies at the University of Warsaw carried out genetic testing on three pawns. She told Science in Poland, “In such old museum materials, DNA is preserved in very small quantities and is difficult to analyze. Fortunately, we managed to obtain almost complete mitochondrial genome sequences, which allowed us to find out what animal species the pieces we studied were made from.”

Collection of samples for genetic testing. Photo from the collections of the Castle Museum in Sandomierz

While researchers had hoped that the items were made of elephant ivory, it turns out that they have more mundane origins – the first pawn came from the bones of a horse, the second was made from cow bones, and the third, which was made at a later date, comes from the bones of a red deer.


When the chess pieces were discovered over 50 years ago, some scholars dismissed them as crude items. However, recent research reveals that they were more intricate and detailed, making use of an Arabic style. In an article published in 2018, Agnieszka Stempin suggests that the chess set came from Western Europe, possibly a workshop located in northern Italy. She writes:

The chessmen do not all come from the same period: at least one piece and one pawn were added to the suite at a later time. The craftsman making the whole set was up-to-date with fashions in manufacturing chess pieces, understanding the significance of individual pieces and making them skilfully with forceful strokes and giving them their final appearance by smoothing their surface. They appear to have been fashioned by groups (of pawns, of rooks, of bishops and knights and of queens and kings), which testifies to planned, routine activity, probably in a specialized workshop.

Sandomierz chess from the collection of the Castle Museum in Sandomierz. Photo Castle Museum in Sandomierz

Dr. Wojciech Rajpold, an archaeologist with the Sandomierz Castle Museum emphasized that the chess pieces are a unique find of this type in Poland and that few similar ones can be found in Europe. “The research conducted by Dr. Popovic’s team is important because thanks to it we know, among others: how to conduct proper conservation of this monument. For now, we are not able to say whether the chess pieces were created in our area, Russia, or whether they were made by Italian craftsmen,” he added.