The Mystery of the Little Norwegian Chessmen
A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases strange and charming chess pieces from the Middle Ages.
My grandfather carved a wooden chessboard in the 1940s and taught my father to play chess on it in the 1960s. He gave him the board as a gift in 1978, and wrote a note on the back of it: “Something to remember me by …” About 20 years later, my father taught me to play on the same thick board.
Many chess sets are similarly steeped in stories. But few can top the mystery that shrouds the Lewis Chessmen, which are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Cloisters branch. Around 900 years ago, someone left 93 intricately carved ivory chess pieces in the sand of a bay on Scotland's Isle of Lewis. Sometime before 1831, a local man unearthed them. Why they were left there has never been determined.
"Everything about this chess set is pretty intriguing," says Barbara Boehm, the curator at the Cloisters branch, where 34 of the pieces went on display this month.
On April 11, 1831, the Scottish Antiquaries Society in Edinburgh revealed the pieces to the public, fueling wide speculation about their roots.
"There was some suggestion at the time that these pieces were gnomes or fairies," Boehm tells me conspiratorially. Since the chessmen were buried along with a belt buckle and backgammon pieces, Boehm thinks it’s more likely the horde belonged to a merchant.
This is not by any means one of the first chess sets; chess likely began many centuries before in India. However, the Lewis pieces are some of the first to resemble the modern set. Before the game spread to Europe, an elephant, for example, occupied the bishop position. Check out the slideshow above for a tour of the Cloisters’ most beautiful chess pieces and the stories they tell. The first five are from the Lewis Chessmen collection.