The Lewis Chessmen

The British Museum exists to tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago until the present day. The Museum is a unique resource for the world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures. Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Lewis Chessmen are an important symbol of European civilisation. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the chessmen at the British Museum and they are frequently loaned for display in museums across the country and across the globe.

Lews Castle

National Museums Scotland and the British Museum have supported Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in the redevelopment of Museum nan Eilean, part of the Lews Castle Museum and Archive project on Stornoway. The Museum is part of a major development for the island and six of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum are now on long-term loan to the new galleries. These represent the six types of pieces found on the chess board: a seated king (1831,1101.83), a seated queen (1831,1101.87), a mitred bishop (1831,1101.89), a mounted knight (1831,1101.106), a warder (1831,1101.116) and a pawn in the shape of an obelisk (1831,1101.129). These objects join varied and significant loans from National Museums Scotland.

What are they?

These chess pieces form a remarkable group of iconic objects within the world collection of the British Museum. They were probably made in Trondheim, Norway, about AD 1150-1200. At this period, the Western Isles, where the chess pieces were found, were part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland. It seems likely they were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

The chess pieces testify to the strong cultural and political connections between the kingdoms of the British Isles and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and to the growing popularity within Europe of the game of chess, the origins of which lie in India after around 500 BC. Chess arrived in Christian Europe via the Islamic world, where the game was adapted to reflect medieval European society.

Of the ninety-three pieces of this hoard known to us today, eleven pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and eighty-two are in the British Museum. The hoard consists of chess pieces made from of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks. The chessmen represent the social hierarchy and convey the qualities and status of those represented through their dress and gestures. The hoard also includes 14 ‘tablemen’ gaming pieces and a buckle.

It is possible that they originally belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are enough pieces - though with some elements missing – to make four sets.

The Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen

What is their history?

The chess pieces were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis some time before 11 April 1831. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber. The assemblage was initially shown at the Scottish Antiquaries Society in Edinburgh which hoped to acquire it but was unsuccessful in its fundraising efforts. The dealer offering the hoard for sale, Mr T.A. Forrest, then approached the British Museum who acquired it between November 1831 and January 1832.

Where are they on display?

The British Museum has made the Lewis Chessmen in its collection freely accessible since their acquisition in the nineteenth century. The chess pieces are on display as the highlight of The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery: Medieval Europe 1050–1500. They are hugely popular with the Museum’s visitors who can admire them alongside other masterpieces of European civilisation and can compare and contrast them to other world cultures. The current long-term loan of six of the Chessmen to Museum nan Eilean is the latest in an extensive programme that have seen them frequently loaned to venues across Britain, Europe, Asia and the Americas. Selected chess pieces have recently been exhibited in international touring exhibitions, A History of the World in 100 Objects and Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour.

Previous loans

The British Museum is committed to maintaining and extending access to the Lewis Chessmen for its audiences across the UK and the world. In recent years, the Museum organised a tour of a group of the Lewis Chessmen in partnership with National Museums Scotland, which travelled to four venues across Scotland between May 2010 and September 2011. The tour was generously supported by the Scottish Government. The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked was hugely successful and was seen by over 115,000 visitors at the National Museum of Scotland, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Shetland Museum and Archives and Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway. At all venues, more than 70% of visitors were seeing the Lewis Chessmen on display for the first time.

The chess pieces, and other objects, have been lent periodically to Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway over the past 20 years. Forty-five chess pieces were shown as part of The Lewis Chessmen exhibition there from June to October 1995. The exhibition then travelled to the National Museum of Scotland from October 1995 to January 1996. Thirteen chess pieces were lent to Stornoway as part of a larger loan of objects to the exhibition Norse and Viking Isles: Gall Ghadheil from 4th April 2000 to 14th October 2000.

Other loans to Scotland

The British Museum has close relations with the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland, frequently lending material to Edinburgh. Most recently, National Museums Scotland and the British Museum worked together on a major exhibition on the Celtic world, which was on display in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum from 24 September 2015 to 31 January 2016 before transferring to Edinburgh from 10 March to 26 September 2016. A Spotlight tour was also developed in partnership with National Museums Scotland to accompany the major exhibition. Reflections on Celts showcases two Iron Age mirrors, one from each museum, and is travelling to the National Civil War Centre in Newark, Littlehampton Museum, Old Gala House in Galashiels, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and the McManus in Dundee from 2015 to 2016.