Comann Eachdraichd Uig

New Theories on the Uig Chessmen

An article published in Mediaeval Archaeology this week raises some questions about the origins of the Uig Chessmen.  From the BBC today:

New research has cast doubt on traditional theories about the historic Lewis Chessmen. The 93 pieces – currently split between museums in Edinburgh and London – were discovered on Lewis in 1831.

But the research suggests they may have been used in both chess and Hnefatafl – a similar game that was popular in medieval Scandinavia. It also casts doubt on the traditional theory that the ivory pieces were lost or buried by a merchant.

The research was led by Dr David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland, who believes the Lewis chessmen were more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking person who lived on Lewis.  Read on »

The paper questions the findspot – long established here to have been in the dunes on the edge of Traigh Uig – and inevitably the legends that have come to be associated with the find; and also the identity of Malcolm Sprot, of whom there is “no record” after 1831.  (We know his family was evicted from Pennydonald and he died shortly thereafter; his relations are still in Uig.)

The piece also suggests the chessmen may have been used for Hnefatafl, a mediaeval table game which it says has not survived into modern times… not strictly true, as we sell Hnefatafl sets at Uig Museum (£22 including P&P – just ask.)

I can imagine some Uigeachs disagreeing violently with the conclusions in the paper, but it does offer some discussable theories and a very detailed bibliography.  A copy is available to peruse in the Museum.

And we get a wee mention in the footnotes.

Meanwhile, the Radio Café (BBC) today was all about the chessmen, with the authors of this paper including a facial-reconstruction expert; listen again on iPlayer, until 17 November.