Last week the Chessmen were featured on the BBC as part of the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, a superbly imaginative series of short and engaging lectures from Neil Macgregor. Of the Chessman he says:
[Bobby] Fischer declared “chess is war on a board”, and at that moment in history it certainly seemed like it. But then it always has. If all games are to some degree a surrogate for violence and war, no game so closely compares to a set-piece battle as chess. Two opposing armies line up to march across the board, foot-soldier pawns in front, officers behind. Every chess-set shows a society at war. Whether that society is Indian, Middle Eastern or European, the way the pieces are named and shaped tells us a great deal about how that society functions. So, if we want to visualise European society around the year 1200, we could hardly do better than look at how they played chess. And no chess pieces offer richer insights than the 78 mixed pieces found on the Hebridean island of Lewis in 1831, and known ever since as the Lewis Chessmen.
You can listen to it and download the MP3 (right click and save link as) and the transcript here:
The rest of the series is worth a listen too, of course; the Vale of York Hoard was particularly good.