The Lewis Chessmen
July 18, 2010 4:17 PM   Subscribe

The Lewis Chessmen are to tour Scotland. As part of the tour they will spend five months the islands where they were discovered. Digging the Dirt's review of the exhibition gives an idea of what you're missing, and the chess pieces are part of the BBC's History of the World in 100 objects. They're beautiful pieces from a beautiful place, but underneath this the chess pieces are at the centre of some political wrangling over object repatriation. In a more low-key version of the arguments over the Elgin marbles some are demanding that the British Museum should return the 82 pieces they own to Scotland.

SNP MSP Alasdair Allan:
"The Scottish Government is maintaining negotiations with the British Museum with the aim of ensuring that the chessmen return to Scotland permanently. I believe such a deal should include an exhibition of some of the pieces in Lewis. Historic artefacts always mean a hundred times more in context, and the Lewis Chessmen have always been a symbol for the islands."

Dr David Caldwell, exhibition curator:
"Once you start repatriating objects from museums, they're all the losers. I frankly think it's important that major museums, whether they're here or in North America or in Greece or wherever else, ought to be able to show to their people and their visitors human endeavour in different parts of the world. The British Museum is a major international museum and lots of people see them there, and that is the name of the game."
posted by Coobeastie (28 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is really neat. Thanks.

When I was a kid I heard the phrase "Elgin marbles" without capturing the full context, and for many years I believed the British museum had a collection of giant stone spheres that had been taken from Greece.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 4:39 PM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

This particular case is an interesting wrinkle on the usual museum repatriation wrangles. Scotland itself, as a major beneficiary of the British Empire, has a mass of foreign cultural treasures in its museums that likely far outweighs the value of Scottish artifacts held elsewhere, and Scotland is therefore likely to be an overall loser in any wholesale repatriation.
There is also a larger argument that institutions such as the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre etc are cultural treasures in their own right, by virtue of the number and quality of artifacts that they have gathered together and the opportunity it offers to understand pieces in the broader context of global human culture.
There will always be special pleading involved in any reasonably famous artifact that is even weakly linked to any extant ethnic group with a political agenda. Given that the Lewis pieces were found in Britain and sold by the finder rather than expropriated from abroad in the manner of the majority of the British Museum exhibits, I expect that they are pretty low on the list of political hot potatoes.
They are still cool though, thanks for the post.
posted by Jakey at 4:52 PM on July 18, 2010

i dont know where you stop with this - repatriate it to lewis ? to the sand dune it was buried in ? give it back to the norwegians ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:01 PM on July 18, 2010

"The Lewis Chessmen" would be a great name for a band, which is what I initially thought this post was about. Great story, though.
posted by Electrius at 5:30 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

"British" in my understanding includes Scotland, as well as England and Wales. The British Museum is well within scope.
posted by wilful at 5:33 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and the chesspieces were made when Scotland was part of the Kingdom of Norway, so if they want to get technical about it, the Norske Folkemuseum is calling...
posted by wilful at 5:37 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had a couple of resin copies of these when I was a child. A bishop, I think, and a couple of pawns. My younger brother stole them from me at some point, but, since he is the one with the Medieval History PhD, I can hardly complain.... I am glad to hear they are getting out and seeing a bit of the country.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 PM on July 18, 2010

Uig, the place they were found - well, where it's thought they were found, as there's some dispute over their provenance - is one of the most spectacular places in the Western Isles, which is to say one of the most awe-inspiring places in Britain. The beach is vast, with deep channels cut through it by the rivers which flow into the bay, and set in gorgeous rugged hills dotted with isolated buildings and ruined farms. has some background but doesn't give much of a sense of it, but the Google Maps imagery is worth some exploration.

Lewis and Harris are straightforward wonderful. Gaelic is still alive; kids use it while chattering on their mobile phones, mixing it up with English. Saturday nights in town are raucous; Sunday, the whole lot shuts down with an end-of-the-world finality. They've only just started to allow Sunday sailings for the ferries, after many disputatious arguments (local TV report. Apologies for the pre-roll advert). You'd have to be in a pretty bad way to spend any time anywhere on the islands and not feel conspicuously refreshed.

Uig is special on top of that, and will effortlessly absorb and repay as much time as you can give it. Short of actually walking on a Martian lakebed, I don't think I'm likely to get a stronger sense of being off-world. And unlike many breathtaking landscapes, of which Scotland has an embarrassment, you get a feeling of being a legitimate part of it, of entering into the spirit of the place and it into yours.

If you get the chance, go.
posted by Devonian at 6:49 PM on July 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm scanning the links, and seeing a lot of info, but where do they say what size they are, or show them in a reference context?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:46 PM on July 18, 2010

Amazingly, I don't believe there's ever been an organized archeological dig of the site where the pieces are said to have been found. The pieces make up four incomplete sets.
posted by IanMorr at 7:49 PM on July 18, 2010

I've always loved the expressions on their faces; pleased to see that was what Oliver Postgate spotted too and in retrospect you can see how he used the inspiration in his work.
posted by Abiezer at 8:22 PM on July 18, 2010

Why are their eyes like that?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:49 PM on July 18, 2010

There is also a larger argument that institutions such as the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre etc are cultural treasures in their own right...

This argument would be more interesting if the Germans had carted off the entire Louvre with everything in it (nothing heroically hidden) and had no intentions of ever giving it back. I wonder if the same people would espouse the same arguments?

I agree that it's good to have big central museums too, but I think there's a difference between, "Okay this belongs to your cultural heritage but I am going to show it here for you with some kind of contract recognizing that ultimately it belongs to you," and "QQ ur shits mine wut u gonna do". Sometimes underneath all these lofty arguments, the lurking sentiment is more the latter.
posted by fleacircus at 8:58 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

"The Lewis Chessmen" would be a great name for a band, which is what I initially thought this post was about.

Literally came in here to post both of these sentiments.

If you're interested in playing a game with the Lewis chessman, it appears pricey-but-not-outrageously-expensive replicas can be ordered, apparently thanks to their "cameo" in a Harry Potter film.
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:02 PM on July 18, 2010

Oh and the chesspieces were made when Scotland was part of the Kingdom of Norway

You probably mean "The Outer Hebrides were part of the Kingdom of Norway". This is important as it's central to the dispute. However, if the pieces were to be returned to Lewis, they'd be going to Scotland.

The dimensions are from 7 to 10.2 cm for major pieces and 3.5 to 5.8 cm for Pawns.

Rather than chess pieces, they may have been made for playing hnefatafl. (A suggestion made in "Discovery and Myths" from the first link).

The Victorian idea of a museum should go the same way as that of the zoo. Just as modern zoos are concentrating on conservation (including captive breeding for release etc) and education, modern museums should concentrate more on hosting travelling exhibits and showcasing local history. The British Museum could give back all its stolen and dubiously acquired loot and still be a world leader just by providing an outstanding venue, staffed and run by leading experts, for travelling exhibits.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:07 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well said Devonian. Uig is one of the most beautiful places in the world and Traigh Uig where the pieces were found is just jawdropping.

The reality of the situation is that there really is very little call in Scotland for the repatriation of the pieces from the general public and even less still for their return to Lewis. Most of this is simply another divisive, press grabbing issue championed by the SNP.

The Uig Historical Society "Comann Eachdraidh Uig" [new site up in a day or two] which operates a registered museum near the find site featuring detailed information about the chessmen and Norse occupation in Lewis, has indicated publicly that it has no intention of pursuing any claim to the ownership of the pieces and does not support demands for them to be sent to Edinburgh. Despite the museum's remoteness and size they professionally recognise the importance of the pieces, their historical significance and why they should continue to be held in places like the British museum. That said, the island would very much welcome short-term loans of the pieces, more so when a new 21st century museum is built as part of a proposed Lews Castle restoration.

Leodhasaich (Gaelic for Lewis folk) share a great affection and attachment to the pieces, the story of their discovery is part of the island's oral history, something that stands stronger than written evidence when the discovery location was questioned recently after records indicated they may have been found at nearby Mangersta. But having our remote island known internationally in association with the artifacts may be reward enough.
posted by R.Stornoway at 1:51 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by fire&wings at 1:57 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

IanMorr: The exact location of the find is not known and Traigh Uig is such a huge bay it would be needle in a haystack stuff. Lewis is also one of these island where you dig a hole and inevitably find something for historical interest. There are a great number of sites still awaiting exploration but due to funding and resources they remain untouched.
posted by R.Stornoway at 1:59 AM on July 19, 2010

Is it just my take, or does the beserker have more than a little air of a Norwegian village simpleton?

Every chess set needs a beserker. I'm surprised the sport's marketing men haven't gone back to the game's roots in a bid to sex it up.

Your Sicilian Defence is no match for my drug-fuelled raging knight!
posted by MuffinMan at 2:38 AM on July 19, 2010

Obligatory Berserker link.

Those chess pieces are really cool and I had not heard of them before. Thanks for posting this.
posted by TedW at 2:45 AM on July 19, 2010

I see a certain difference between the chessmen and the marbles in terms of context. I don't see that the chessmen are going to make more sense put back into the context of Lewis than they do in the British Museum. It's not as if they were specifically Lewisian or there were other artefacts there that they are linked with. In fact you could argue that they make more sense grouped with some of the other artefacts in the British Museum.

In the case of the Elgin marbles, on the other hand, it seems rather harder to deny that the most appropriate context is the building they were actually taken from.
posted by Phanx at 3:38 AM on July 19, 2010

I bought the replica set from the British Museum and so I don't need to wait for their Scottish tour, they're on my mantelpiece.

does this make me a special ray of sunshine?
posted by infini at 4:00 AM on July 19, 2010

more relevantly (is that a word?)

US returns treasures to the Cambodian National Museum
posted by infini at 4:10 AM on July 19, 2010

I'm scanning the links, and seeing a lot of info, but where do they say what size they are, or show them in a reference context?

my bad photo of them on display at the Museum. They're between 3 to 4 inches in height and warmly rotund. I have the set of four shown in the first link, the most famous imagery including the chap with his palm on face ;p
posted by infini at 4:15 AM on July 19, 2010

Phanx: Lewis would provide a fine context for the chessmen given the island's long history of Norwegian rule and settlement. The place is filled with evidence of their influence from the very placenames (indeed Lewis is derived from Norse) to mills, house sites at Bostadh and Gearraidh Sgor and other uncovered viking artifacts. By these very virtues the pieces can be said to be "Lewisian".
posted by R.Stornoway at 5:01 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's some truth in that, I grant you, R. Stornoway - and the mill is excellent.
posted by Phanx at 6:50 AM on July 19, 2010

I bought the replica set from the British Museum and so I don't need to wait for their Scottish tour, they're on my mantelpiece.

Can I just note my admiration at listing the set at 99 pounds in their "100 to 500 pounds" category? There's refreshing honesty for you.

In Canada or the U.S., it'd be $119.95, pre-tax, in a "$1 and up!" bin, with a $20 mail-in rebate...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:30 AM on July 19, 2010

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