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Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen

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 smaller Pawn pieces which had 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.

The only exception was the Queens. The Queens all have their heads resting on their hands to reflect contemplation and wisdom.

Lewis Chessmen

The chessmen were discovered in 1831. They were found 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 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 table-men, and one belt buckle. Some pieces bore traces of a 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 artifacts, 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 standardized in Italy and Spain, and these new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe.

Lewis Chessmen

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, and  National Museums Scotland

Quotes about Chess


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


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


“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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“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 a good idea and whether there are other better ideas.”
– Stanley Kubrick


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


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


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

A Tour of the Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

Asian Collection

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

Information on The British Museum

The Lewis Chessmen

Chamber of Lewis Chessmen I Curator’s Corner

The Fantastic Tale of the Lewis Chessmen

The Isle of Lewis Chessmen


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

– Bobby Fischer


Photo Credit: 1)JOM; National Museums Scotland [see page for license]

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