In 1831 ninety-three chess pieces were found on the Scottish Isle of Lewis. The pieces were made in Norway. What were these Viking chess pieces doing in Scotland?

‘Vikings’ is a collective term for the Danish, Norwegians and Swedes and means warriors of the sea. The Vikings are still known for being brutal warriors that regularly came to raid the European mainland in the first century A.D. They did more than that though: they were responsible for a large part of the trading in Europe. Also they would go and explore new territory and establish settlements. The Norwegians made it all the way to Canada and the Scottish Isle of Lewis was part of their territory at the time the chess pieces were left there.

hnefatafl spel

The Hnefatafl game

Hnefatafl, board game of Vikings
In the eleventh century the Vikings made their acquaintance with chess through the elite of the European mainland, where the chess game had gained a lot of popularity. The Vikings took the game home with them and soon it banned their own strategic board game, hnefatafl, which translates to king board. It was the game of the elite. Two players battled each other with unequally made up teams. One player would be the king that was in hiding in his castle situated on the center of the board. He was protected by a group of knights and had to try and escape from his castle that was under siege. The player would win if the king reached one of four castles located in the corners of the board.

The second player would move the attacking pieces, which were positioned at the castles in the corners of the board. They had to capture the king by closing him in on four sides. Although they outnumbered the king and his men, it was strategically difficult to capture the king because this piece had a lot more freedom of movement than the rest. The powerful king was greater than all the other pieces in every sense of the word.

Chess beats hnefatafl
Soon after the Vikings learned of this new chess game, they started to forget about hnefatafl. The design of the hnefatafl pieces however, managed to resist the hands of time. This was because the Vikings made their game pieces in the same style and of the same material as chess pieces. The detailed chess pieces were made of ivory walrus tusks or whalebone and were distributed through trade.

And so it was that in 1831 the ninety-three Norwegian chess pieces from the twelfth century were found on the Scottish Isle of Lewis. The findings constitute four incomplete chess games and were most likely owned by a trader. But no one knows why he hid the pieces. Most of the discovered pieces were sold in the same year they were found to the British Museum and they are still on display there.

Lewis chess set

Lewis chess set

Replicas to play with
The Chessmen Museum has some beautiful replicas of the Lewis chess set on display. The visitor will notice that many pieces have funny facial expressions or do silly things, like a warrior biting his shield. This shouldn’t be considered as funny though, it is an intimidating and terrifying act. Of all the Vikings the Norwegian warriors were feared the most. They tried to convey their intimidating wild looks to the board game. An intimidating start is half the battle…

By Marjolein Overmeer