Lewis Group
Lewis Group

The Lewis Chesspieces

The Lewis Chess pieces are the largest and finest group of chess figures known in Europe, dating from around 1150. They were discovered on the Isle of Lewis, in the northernmost Outer Hebrides, in the spring of 1831 after the sea eroded a sandbank on the shore of Uig Bay.

The collection consisted of 78 pieces in all, carved in walrus ivory and whale’s teeth, in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders (rooks or castles), and pawns in the shape of obelisks. The chess pieces vary in size and detail, with no two pieces being alike. The largest of them measures 10.2 cm in height.

Various stories have evolved to explain how they came to be buried in the sand in such a remote place. One theory is that they were carved in Iceland and carried to Lewis by a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems possible since there are enough pieces for four distinct sets, all in excellent, even unused condition.

These fine pieces are unique in the annals of medieval art, and nothing quite like them has been found before or since. There are no counterparts for the simply adorned, compact and expressive figures with their strong, forceful faces. Experts are unanimous in praising them as the most beautiful collection of ancient chessmen in existence. The British Museum now houses 67 of the pieces, while the rest are in the Edinburgh National Museum.