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.