The Battle-Weary Magic of the Long-Lost Lewis Chessman

How the medieval chess piece reminds us of a time before modern maps

Warder from the Lewis Chess Set, 13th century. Courtesy: Sotheby’s

Last week, one of the five long-lost Lewis Chessmen was rediscovered, after a curious relative of an Edinburgh antiques dealer brought a family heirloom in for assessment at Sotheby’s auction house. The object, a nine-centimetre-tall warder – or rook, in modern-day chess terms – is thought to be one of a set of medieval chess pieces, 93 of which were discovered in 1831 on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Cached in a stone kist, perhaps by a shipwrecked merchant who had hoped to sell them in Ireland, the hoard had lain hidden among the white sand dunes for 500 years.

This newest addition to the troupe of pieces looks, understandably, somewhat battle-weary. Wearing a conical helmet and armed with an eroded sword, he is cross-hatched with scratches and missing an eye. Stylistically, the warder has more in common with Viking iconography than artefacts found in medieval Britain from the same period – a reminder that, when the chess piece was made, Lewis was part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles and officially under Norwegian rule. Poet Seamus Heaney, in his collection North (1975), describes this as the ‘forked root’ of Celtic history, one crossed with ‘older strains of Norse’. It’s curious: these small, almost comically dour, figures have the historical weight to redraw the lines of our modern maps.

Figgy Guyver is editorial assistant of frieze, based in London, UK. She is co-founder and editor of CUMULUS journal. Follow her on Twitter: @FiggyGuyver.

Latest Magazines

Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019

frieze magazine

September 2019