The Lewis Chessmen are the most important chess pieces in history. Ever since the ivory figures were discovered sometime before 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, these kings, queens, knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns carved from walrus tusk and sperm whale teeth have long fascinated us with their exquisite craftsmanship and adorably anxious expressions.
Despite their fame, some key details about them remain unknown. Here are 12 facts about these Viking-age treasures.
1. No one knows who discovered the Lewis Chessmen—or how.
According to Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown, the chessmen may have been unearthed from beneath 15 feet of sand at the head of Uig Bay. Or perhaps they were found in a sandbank by a simple farmer who mistook them for elves and promptly fled, only returning to retrieve them at the urging of his braver wife. Or perhaps the survivors of a shipwreck buried treasure they salvaged from the wreck but never returned for it. Yet another theory places them in the ruins of the House of the Black Women, an abandoned nunnery.
These various tales have one thing in common: they put the discovery of the chessmen in Uig. All we know for sure is that the chessmen had to have been found before April 11, 1831, when they were displayed in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland.
2. They may have been carved by a woman sculptor ...
The most widely accepted theory puts the chessmen’s place of origin as Trondheim, Norway. Another has them carved in Skaholt, Iceland. According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, Margret the Adroit, the high-status wife of a priest, “was the most skilled carver in all Iceland” and was regularly commissioned by the bishop to craft walrus ivory gifts he sent to friends overseas. In this theory, that could be how the chess pieces got to the Isle of Lewis, which was an important trading center at the time. Some archaeologists have floated the idea of excavating areas in Skalholt to look for Margret’s ivory workshop.
3. ... Or up to five different artisans.
Two museum artifact specialists have proposed that, based on the varying quality of the chessmen, at least four carvers created them. And in 2009, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson, a specialist in facial reconstruction who has “fleshed” out the skulls of King Richard III, Mary, Queen of Scots; and Johann Sebastian Bach, put that number at five based on her analysis of the varied faces on 59 chessmen. She sorted them into five groups based on common characteristics like “round open eyes” and “inferiorly placed nostrils.” (Perhaps it’s possible Margret the Adroit had four assistants in her workshop.)
4. The Lewis Chessmen were probably carved between 1150 and 1200.
There’s no archaeological context for the pieces, so we can’t date them precisely. But their clothing offers reliable clues. The rooks are all warriors decked out in a fashion typical of the late-Norse period: long leather coats, kite-shaped Norman shields, expensive swords, and pointy helmets (though two look more like a bowler hat and a bucket, respectively). As for the bishops’ miters, or pointed hats—the way they’re peaked front and back identifies them as a style worn in the late 12th century.
5. Four of the rooks are berserkers.
How can we tell? They’re biting their shields. Berserkers, according to a 13th-century account by Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, “wore no armor and were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed other men, but neither fire nor iron could kill them.” The battle frenzy depicted on the chess pieces marks the warrior rooks as being from the North. As Brown notes, “No other culture claims shield-biters.”
6. The Lewis chess set may be the first to include bishops.
The 16 bishops in the set are unarmed, richly clothed, and well fed. How did these chubby men of the cloth get onto the battlefield of the board? As the oldest extant chess set that clearly includes bishops, the Lewis set could mark their debut. Perhaps their inclusion was ordered by Pall, bishop of Skalholt, the commissioner of Margret the Adroit’s famed ivory works.
7. The knights’ horses have short—but historically accurate—legs.
The tall steeds we picture knights in the Middle Ages mounted on weren’t actually very common in the 12th century; from Italy to England, most people rode stocky breeds, with the rider’s legs dangling well below the horse’s belly. The Lewis knights’ horses are no different. Even today, Icelandic horses, purebred since the 12th century—the time of the Lewis chessmen’s creation—are strong and agile, but they are also pony-sized.
8. All of the queens hold their hands against their cheeks.
At the time, the queen was the weakest piece on the board, moving only one space per turn; it wasn’t until the late 15th century that the queen began to emerge as the most powerful piece in the game. Does that lowly status account for the intense emotion on the queens’ faces, and the position of their hands? All eight queens are crowned, seated on thrones, bedecked in elaborate gowns, and hold their right hand to their cheek. The emotion behind this distinctive pose has been variously read as grief, despair, patience, calculation, disapproval, or surprise, among others. Despite these wildly different interpretations, Brown writes, “everyone can agree that the Lewis queens do not look pleased. Though not warrior women, they are women at war.”
9. Two of the kings might be based on actual kings.
Like the queens, the eight kings sit on thrones, and their faces are equally grim (except for the two young ones, who are a bit eager). They have swords across their laps and all but one sport long hair twisted into locks. If the pieces do indeed date to the late 12th century, we may be able to identify two of them: Magnus V, crowned in Norway in 1164, and Sverrir (1184–1202), who followed him.
Magnus V—not to be confused with Magnus Barefoot or Magnus the Blind—became king at just 8 years old, but his father Erling Skew-Neck ruled Norway until he died in 1179, by which time Magnus was a handsome man fond of drink and women. Sverrir, on the other hand, was stout and broad, and “looked most kingly when he was sitting down,” Brown writes.
When Magnus died in 1184, Sverrir took the throne, but clashes with the archbishop led to his excommunication, and he soon had an armed rebellion on his hands. Eventually the rebels were trapped at Viken and reduced to eating their walrus-hide ropes, and Sverrir gave them quarter. A kind of peace ensued, but Sverrir died months later of illness, still excommunicated. The year was 1202. According to the Saga of King Sverrir, the king griped towards the end, “Being a king has brought me war and trouble and hard work.”
10. Harry and Ron play wizard chess with the Lewis Chessmen in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).
In the scene from the first Harry Potter film, the iconic chess pieces move by themselves.
11. The Lewis Chessmen are considered Scottish national treasures.
Today, 82 of the 93 known pieces from the hoard—which contained the Lewis Chessmen and other gaming pieces— are in the British Museum, and 11 chessmen are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
During the movement for Scottish independence in 2012, some called for the repatriation of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum. The pro-independence, center-right Scottish Democratic Alliance party published a white paper titled “The Future Governance of Scotland” that included five key aspects of the “exit strategy from the UK.” Number three on the list: “Negotiation on division of the U.K. assets (oil, financial, military, Lewis chessmen, etc.).” In 2014 Scotland voted against independence, and the chessmen remain at the British Museum.
12. Six Chessman have returned “home” to the Isle of Lewis.
Museum nan Eilean, on the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway, is the new home of six Lewis Chessmen on permanent loan from the British Museum. In addition to the display of the figurines, the museum showcases the heritage of the Outer Hebrides so visitors can understand the world from which the chessmen emerged.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.