The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall + Caroline M. Wilkinson

National Museums Scotland 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a popular reworking of a scholarly article from Medieval Archaeology, providing an overview of the chessmen found on the Scottish island of Lewis in the early 19th century, with some hypotheses about their provenance and origins, supplemented with colour illustrations.

Caldwell et al. begin with an account of the finding of the hoard and an overview of its contents. This is illustrated with black and white photographs of almost all the non-pawn pieces, taking up seven pages with nine photographs on each, and a brief analysis of the different types — kings, queens, bishops, knights, warders — with larger colour illustrations. There are also some full page photographs scattered through the rest of the text.

They then present some background on Lewis and its place in the history of the Kingdom of the Isles, before offering the suggestion that the chessmen might have belonged to someone resident on the island and not necessarily to a shipwrecked merchant or other traveller, as previous analyses have tended to assume.

"Although the documentary sources are meagre, they do demonstrate that Lewis was home to some important individuals — men who might well have owned chessmen as prestigious and valuable as [these]"

The pieces can be divided into four sets fairly easily. The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked analyses the facial structures of the pieces, using that to divide them into five groups which largely cut across those sets. This "may be evidence that most of the chessmen were manufactured in the one workshop with four or more master craftsmen working on ivory chessmen at any one time". Such a workshop is likely to have been located in Trondheim or perhaps Bergen.

The work concludes with a brief look at contemporary Scandinavian board games other than chess, some of which may have used chess pieces. Among these was

"another game called hnefatafl, in which one player had a group of attackers arranged around the edge of the board and attempted to capture a centrally-placed king defended by his guards. The player with the king could win if he could get his king to one of the four corner squares."

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked covers a good variety of material and presents it in a lively and accessible fashion; it is also an attractive volume, a good quality hardcover with nice paper.

October 2010

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%T The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked
%A Caldwell, David H.
%A Hall, Mark A.
%A Wilkinson, Caroline M.
%I National Museums Scotland
%D 2010
%O hardcover, colour photographs
%G ISBN-13 9781905267460
%P 79pp