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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen - British Museum - Joy of Museums 2

Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis Chessmen is a collection of unique 12th-century chess pieces that were made from walrus ivory and with a few of the chess pieces made from whale teeth. The 78 Chess pieces might have belonged to at least five different Chess Sets. Most of the pieces are sculptured to represent human figures, except for the Pawn pieces, which are simply smaller, geometric shapes. The Knight pieces are mounted on horses and are shown holding spears and shields. The rooks pieces depict standing warders carrying shields and swords. Four of the rooks are shown as wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with battle fury. The chess pieces were designed to displayed strength and ferocity except for the Queens which all have their heads resting on their hand, to reflect contemplation and wisdom.

The chessmen were discovered in 1831 in a sandbank at the head of Camas Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Named after the bay where they were found, the Lewis Chessmen constitute very rare surviving medieval chess pieces. When found, the hoard contained 93 artefacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 table-men and one belt buckle. Some pieces bore traces of red stain, indicating that red and white were used to distinguish the two sides.

History of Chess

Chess originated in Eastern India, c. 280–550, and then spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road and was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia. The oldest archaeological chess artefacts, ivory pieces, were excavated in Uzbekistan and date to about 760. The earliest known chess manual was in Arabic and dates to 840–850. The game reached Western Europe and Russia in the 9th century, and by the year 1000, it had spread throughout Europe. Around 1200, the rules started to be modified in southern Europe, and around 1475, the rules were adopted and standardised in Italy and Spain, and these new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe.

Reflections

  • What does the design of the various pieces tell us about their ideal role in medieval society?
  • What do the design and allowed moves of the various chess pieces tell us about the role of these multiple classes in medieval society?
  • Chess was standardised about one thousand years ago to reflect medieval power structures. What do these pieces tell us about  Medieval power structures?
  • In the modern world, what would replace these medieval power structures? Banks? Senators? Atomic weapons?  CEOs?
  • Have Computer Games replaced the game of Chess?

Explore

Lewis Chessmen or Uig Chessmen

  • Title:                Lewis Chessmen or Uig chessmen
  • Created:          12th century
  • Discovered:     1831 – Uig, Lewis, Scotland
  • Materials:        Walrus ivory and whales’ teeth
  • Dimensions:    Pawns range: 3.5 to 5.8 cm,  Other: 7 to 10.2 cm
  • Museum:         The British Museum

Quotes about Chess

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“I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
– Marcel Duchamp

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“Chess makes men wiser and clear-sighted.”
– Vladimir Putin

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“Chess helps you to concentrate, improve your logic. It teaches you to play by the rules and to take responsibility for your actions, how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.”
– Garry Kasparov

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“Every chess master was once a beginner.”
– Irving Chernev

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“Chess is the gymnasium of the mind.”
– Blaise Pascal

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“Chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.”
– Albert Einstein

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“The most powerful weapon in Chess is to have the next move.”
– David Bronstein

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“Even a poor plan is better than no plan at all.”
– Mikhail Chigorin

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“Why must I lose to this idiot?”
– Aron Nimzovich

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“It is not enough to be a good player… you must also play well”
– Siegbert Tarrasch

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“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps.
Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it.
But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether
it’s really a good idea and whether there are other better ideas.”
– Stanley Kubrick

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“Chess is the struggle against the error.”
– Johannes Zukertort

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“I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”
– Bobby Fischer

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“One bad move nullifies forty good ones.”
– Bernhard Horwitz

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“Chess is a war over the board.
The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.”

– Bobby Fischer

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Photo Credit: 1)JOM

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