Chess Pieces - Where did they originate?

Walrus Ivory Chessmen - Discovered on Isle of Lewis

Chess Games

Chess is not, admittedly, a contact sport in the normal sense of the expression, but that does not mean it ain't necessarily so.

Indeed, chess is very tactile. Whether it's an everyday set or a chess set for special occasions, the feel of the chess pieces is all important. Their smoothness and weight are central to our playing enjoyment. The last thing any chess player wants is pieces that are awkward to handle or have uneven edges. This is one distraction from the chain of thought that can be easily avoided before the clocks start.

And so it was for all these reasons that the world's most famous chess pieces - the Lewis chessmen - look the way they do.

The walrus ivory chessmen were discovered when sand dunes in the Uig district of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland were eroded by spring storms in 1831. A local resident searching for a stray cow noticed what looked like an underground store and decided to investigate. Inside the stone-lined chamber he found what proved to be a hoard of 87 Viking chess pieces dating back to the 1170s. At first, though, the amazed finder thought he had discovered a troop of gnomes and elves and ran to fetch the neighborhood clergyman who recognized the treasure trove as chess pieces.

Today, the priceless Lewis chessmen are internationally recognized as the finest example of Norse chess craftsmanship and are housed jointly in the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The oldest authenticated European chess set in existence, the Lewis chessmen are said to be Icelandic in origin. Experts believe the chessmen were taken to the Isle of Lewis, 35 miles off the north-west coast of mainland Scotland, by Viking settlers. Among the pieces are the earliest known representations of an ecclesiastical bishop.

What all chess players recognize in them is the sheer design quality of the Lewis chessmen; the silky domed appearance of the pieces that one surmises would be a joy to handle. While the squat figures of the medieval Viking chessmen may not appeal to everyone, what is plain to see is that even 800 years ago chess players valued well-crafted and pleasingly tactile pieces with which to join battle. And the same still holds true today.

Although the Lewis chessmen are arguably the most famous, they are by some margin not the earliest known. The oldest European chess pieces positively identified date back to 760 AD and were found in Uzbekistan, an East European country that was formerly part of the USSR. However, if an Albanian archaeological find in 2002 is verified as a chess piece, it will shift the European origins of chess back to before 465 AD.

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