The Lewis Chessmen come to Shetland

by Deborah Leggate -

The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked is the most comprehensive exhibition on the Lewis chessmen for over a decade, featuring chessmen drawn from the collections of National Museums Scotland and the British Museum.  Shetland Museum and Archives are very proud to be part of the exhibition tour and to be able to offer people in Shetland the once in a lifetime opportunity to see these unique items in Shetland.  This is only possible due to the ongoing strategic partnership between managing organisation, Shetland Amenity Trust and National Museums Scotland.

The touring exhibition looks at the mystery and intrigue surrounding the chessmen, explores the stories surrounding their discovery and shows how the characters reflected society at the time they were made. It draws upon new research by National Museums Scotland on their craftsmanship, origins and historical context to provide visitors with a new and vibrant perspective.

Dr Gordon Rintoul, Director, National Museums Scotland, said:

“We are delighted to be touring the Lewis Chessmen to Shetland Museum and Archives following a highly successful exhibition run in Aberdeen. These iconic objects have a special place in the public imagination, and we are pleased that our partnership with the British Museum has enabled this significant tour. We are grateful for support from the Scottish Government.”

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, said:

"This tour provides a wonderful opportunity for these extraordinary objects, which are of European and worldwide significance, to be seen by audiences across Scotland. The British Museum has a long standing relationship with National Museums Scotland and is very pleased to continue this partnership, and we are grateful to the Scottish government for their support which has enabled the tour to become a reality."

The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked looks at the myths and stories surrounding the chessmen, including the background and context of their discovery. By the time they were lost on Lewis, the island had moved well beyond the era of Viking raids and had been Scandinavian for many centuries. The Western Isles had become a separate Kingdom of the Isles, ruled by Norse kings based on the Isle of Man.

The exhibition examines the craft tradition in Trondheim, Norway, where the chessmen were likely to have been made, analysing the faces of the chessmen to compare how they were carved. It will also look at society in 12thcentury Lewis, and take a guess at the important people to whom the chessmen may have belonged.

Visitors can find out about the playing of ancient board games – listed in the 12thcentury as "one of the nine key attributes of a noble", including chess, tables (a predecessor of backgammon), andhnefetafl. Finally, the exhibition looks at the popular appeal of the chessmen, who have featured in books, films and television programmes from The Saga of Noggin the Nog to Harry Potter.

As well as the chessmen, other items on show include a Viking hoard and personal items including a necklace of glass beads and a reindeer antler comb; and later objects showing Scandinavian influence including a spoon from Iona and a spur from Skye.

The Lewis Chessmen were discovered on the western shore of the Isle of Lewis in 1831, as part of a hoard of walrus ivory. The hoard includes assembled pieces made of walrus ivory from at least four chess-sets, probably made in Norway in the late 12th or early 13th century. As the largest and finest group of early chessmen to survive, they are one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland and are of major international importance. Few chessmen survive at all from the Middle Ages, and these are unparalleled in their high-quality, humour and intricacy of design.

The majority of chess pieces were acquired by the British Museum in 1831, in order to preserve the hoard as intact as possible in a public collection. They have been on permanent display ever since. Eleven pieces remained in Scotland and have been on display for many years – the last ten in a prime position in the National Museum of Scotland.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked, by David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall and Caroline M. Wilkinson, priced £6.99. This publication will be available in the Shetland Museum and Archives gift shop along with a range of other Lewis Chessmen replicas and memorabilia.  The Hnefatafl board game produced by local Young Enterprise group "Revive" will also be available for sale.

Shetland Museum and Archives have arranged a number of events and additional activities to take place alongside the Lewis Chessmen Exhibition.  These events include children and family craft workshops during the weekend of 19th/20th February. 

Hnefatafl drop in sessions will be held during the weekend of 5/6th February where anyone can come along to learn about the ancient Viking game and how to play it. Members of the Hnefatafl club and the Young Enterprise group "Revive" will teach, and play the game with anyone who would like to come along. 

Dr Irving Finkel will visit Shetland Museum and Archives on Thursday 17thFebruary to deliver a lecture entitled "The Best Chessmen in All the World”. Dr Finkel is the Assistant Keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum and has an interest in the history of board games throughout the world, especially the preservation of traditional board games in many non-western societies.  Dr Finkel has also written a book for children on this subject entitled "The Lewis Chessmen: and What Happened to Them."

Children from Charleston Primary School in Aberdeen have written and performed a radio drama in response to their visit to the Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked at Aberdeen Art Gallery.  These imaginative and animated stories will be made available through a listening post set up in the gallery during the exhibition.