Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Nancy Marie Brown
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In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.
Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
to hold the holy bones of saints. The ornately carved plates called paxes, kissed by each worshipper at the end of mass while the priest intoned Pax tecum, “Peace be with you.” Beakers with feet. Oval pyxides for ladies’ trinkets—or to store the unconsecrated host. Bishops’ croziers. Sword hilts, inkwells, snuff horns, dress pins, belt buckles, buttons, book-binding boards, royal seals, and, of course, game pieces, including dice, checkers, and chessmen, were all made of walrus tusk. A walrus
stomach burst.” How much of this is true is anyone’s guess. Adam of Bremen, writing in 1076, mentions English bishops in Norway around the year 1000 but dismisses the king as Olaf “Crow-Leg”—or, as one translator construes it, “Crack-a-Bone”—for his reliance on soothsayers. Nor was the faith King Olaf proclaimed in 1000 much like that held by Hrafn in 1200. Christ in the Viking Age was always shown triumphant: not as the suffering and dying savior, but as the victorious harrower of Hell. He
game. The degree of imbalance,” he adds, “can be adjusted by changing the rules.” If you play by the rule that the king wins by reaching any square on the board’s perimeter, then no matter how you set up the pieces initially (within reason), the king’s side has the advantage. If you limit his winning squares to the four corners of the board, the attackers do. To even the odds and make the game more challenging requires rules that we do not know. Dice may be involved. Some experts suggest the king
Uig, an educated man, made in a year. In his journal, the Reverend MacLeod brags of raising just �16 one year for the school: “Considering the circumstances of the people, I bear testimony that their liberality and zeal in this case have cause to provoke very many to similar duties. It was most delightful to see the hoary head, and the young scholar of eight or nine years, joining in this contribution.” If the �30 landed in the pocket of Calum nan Sprot, the money was not idle long. Two Knights
keeper of antiquities, led the negotiations. “There are not in the museum any objects so interesting to a native antiquary as the objects now offered to the trustees,” he said. The “native antiquary” he had most in mind may have been Madden. During those three months, the chessmen must have been rarely out of Madden’s sight, for by January 1832 he had completed his research. His nearly hundred-page “Historical remarks on the introduction of the game of chess into Europe, and on the ancient