The Lewis Chess Pieces: 2. Origins

The origins of the Lewis chess pieces are as shady as their discovery.

This is part two in a series on the Lewis Chess Pieces. Part 1 discusses their discovery. 

Let’s do a general fact check. The Lewis chess pieces form multiple gaming sets made from walrus ivory or whale teeth.1 So far, the ivory has not been tested on its origin. Therefore, scholars base their dating of c. 1150–1200 on the Romanesque style of the carvings.2

(Source: Flickr / Doc Searls).

Walrus ivory is traded all over mediaeval Europe, but only found in four major hunting grounds in Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia.3 This limits the origin of the material. The art style, however, is more difficult to pinpoint as Romanesque art spreads all throughout Europe.

So, the pieces could originate from anywhere. Who can make a claim? Who really cannot? And what else is new?

The Scottish Claim

Engraving of Dunfermline Abbey, Fife, by RW Billings (Source: Wikipedia).

The Scots boast the discovery of the chess pieces. Despite the shady tales, popular and academic opinion agree that they have been found on Lewis. And there is a lot to say for Lewis. The island was most definitely part of the Norse Kingdom of the Isles, and a strategic stopover for Vikings from Scandinavia on their way to Ireland or the British west coast.5 The pieces will probably have arrived via trade, for an exchange of gifts, or as a rich person’s possession. And then, somehow, they ended up in that underground cist.

Yet, despite efforts in the nineteenth century to compare the pieces to other Romanesque styles in Dunfermline, for example,4 it is unlikely the Lewis pieces originate from Scotland. As far as I know (and do correct me if I’m wrong), no mediaeval ivory workshops existed in Scotland, nor is the country known for its walrus populations.

Therefore, the Scottish claim is one of discovery, not of origin.

The Norwegian Claim

The longest-held, and perhaps strongest, is the Norwegian claim. The ivory could originate from Norway, but the real strength of the claim lies in the Romanesque style of the carvings. In Trondheim, mediaeval chess pieces and drawings have been found from the same time period that are strikingly similar to the Lewis set. We also know that Trondheim boasted workshops and skilled craftsmen who could have made these pieces.6

The Norwegian claim holds for decades. Until 2010, that is.

The Icelandic Claim

In 2010, two Icelanders stir things up. Gudmundur Thórarinsson and Einar Einarsson are significant figures in the international chess world. They post their theory on the Icelandic origin of the Lewis chessmen on a website. 7 This no longer exists, but the gist of their argument is still found online.

Sarcophagus of bishop Páll Jónsson (Source: Wikipedia / Ljuba brank)/

The surprising part of their claim is that the Icelandic woman Margret Adroit carved the gaming pieces. Margret is known from only one source, Páls saga biskups. The author of the text, probably the bishop’s son, describes her as a skilled and exceptional craftswoman who makes a beautiful bishop’s crozier out of walrus tusk.8

Of course, it cannot be concluded that Margret therefore also made the Lewis pieces. Little else is known about her. And this is not the only hole in their theory. The scholarly community is quick to (harshly) expose other weaknesses. For a full sequence of events, a brilliant outline is available in the New York Times of September 2010.9

After a while, though, the tone of the academic debate changes. New studies and excavations shed more light on the situation in Iceland. And in her book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown shows how Iceland under bishop Jónsson’s rule was wealthy enough to boost culture and arts, and produce luxury objects. She concludes that for all its problems the Icelandic theory is still a very real option. And even now, more and more chess pieces appear in archaeological excavations in Iceland, many similar in style to the Lewis’ set.10

A Last Note on the Icelandic Claim

What Thórarinsson and Einarsson do not discuss, is the origin of the ivory. Iceland also has a walrus population in the Middle Ages. There is evidence of a graveyard of walrus bones, place names in western Iceland still refer to walruses and old Icelandic laws call for limits walrus hunting.11

Even if the Icelandic origin of the ivory could be confirmed, this does not prove the pieces were carved here. Bishop Jónsson himself had close connections to Norway. He was related to the royal family and had strong ties with the archdiocese in Trondheim.12 His frequent travels to Norway will have influenced the exchange of art, craft and expertise. In turn, this could make it difficult for experts to establish if the pieces were carved in Iceland or Norway.

And for the rest of his theory, Thórarinsson presents a more nuanced explanation in 2011.13 This still does not make the theory true, but the idea has taken root that the Lewis chess pieces could originate from Iceland.

The Greenland Claim

In the past decade, a new claim emerged that the pieces might come from Greenland.

In terms of ivory, a recent genetic study from 2018 shows that most mediaeval walrus ivory objects came from Greenland.14 Therefore, this might be true the ivory of the Lewis chess pieces, too. But were they carved there? Carved ivory objects have been found in Greenland and there might have been workshops as well.15 So, the Greenlanders were perfectly able to export both the raw and the final luxury products.


Lewis Chess pieces (Source: Flickr / Paul Hudson).

What to conclude? Here’s a little quiz. Do the Lewis chessmen:

1 – originate from Greenland and carved in Greenland, Iceland or Norway;

2 – originate from Iceland and carved in Iceland or Norway;

3 – originate from Norway and carved in Norway.

Your guess is as good as mine. With the new research on walrus genetics available, perhaps scholars will renew their efforts to determine the origins of the chess pieces. However, curators have so far held off a sampling of the chess pieces.16 Perhaps this might change considering the new research.

Nail biting exciting!


  1. Jim Tate, I. Reiche, F. Pinzari, J. Clark et D. Caldwell, ‘History and Surface Condition of the Lewis Chessmen in the Collection of the National Museums Scotland (Hebrides, late 12th–early 13th centuries)’, In: ArcheoSciences, Volume 35 (2011). Published [online] 30 April 2013. Last Accessed 26 September 2018. DOI: 10.4000/archeosciences.3342.  ↩
  2. P. E. Lasko, ‘A Romanesque Ivory Carving,’ In: The British Museum Quarterly Volume 23.1 (1960), pp. 14 [pp. 12–18].  ↩
  3. Elizabeth Pierce, ‘Walrus Hunting and the Ivory Trade in Early Iceland.’ In: Archaeologia Islandica Volume 7 (2007), pp. 56–57, 59–60 [pp. 55–63].  ↩
  4. Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2015), pp. 222.  ↩
  5. David H Caldwell, Mark A Hall & Caroline M. Wilkinson, ‘The Lewis Hoard of Gaming Pieces: A Re–examination of their Context, Meanings, Discovery and Manufacture,’ Medieval Archaeology Volume 53.1 (2009), pp. 165 [pp. 155–203]. DOI: 10.1179/007660909X12457506806243.  ↩
  6. Caldwell et al. (2009), pp. 164–165.  ↩
  7. The website was  ↩
  8. Nancy Marie Brown (2015), pp. 146.
    For a beautiful image of the crozier, see the Iceland Monitor, 21 September 2015.  ↩
  9. A brilliant outline of this story in the New York Times, September 2010: Dylan Loeb McClain, ‘Reopening History of Storied Norse Chessmen,’ The New York Times, September 8, 2010 ↩
  10. Nancy Marie Brown, (2015), pp. 232–233.  ↩
  11. Elizabeth Pierce (2007), pp. 56–57.  ↩
  12. Nancy Marie Brown, (2015), pp. 17–18.
    Origines Islandicae: Volume 1. Edited and translated by Gudbrand Vigfusson and F. York Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), pp. 502–507 [pp. 502–534].  ↩
  13. Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson, ‘“On the origins of the Lewis Chessmen”: Answering the criticism from Morten Lilleören.’ Published 31 March 2011. Last Accessed 27 September 2018.
    Morten Lilleören’s response to Thórarinsson original theory can be found on ↩
  14. Bastiaan Star, James H. Barrett, Agata T. Gondek, Sanne Boessenkool, ‘Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland.’ In: Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Volume 285.1884 (2018), pp. 6 [pp. 1–9]. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0978.
    Karin Frei, Ashley Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Christian Madsen, Jette Arneborg, Robert Frei, Gardar Gudmundsson, Søren Sindbæk, James Woollett, Steven Hartman, Megan Hicks, and Thomas McGovern, ‘Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland.’ In: World Archaeology Volume 47.3 (2015), pp. 20 [pp. 1–28]. DOI 10.1080/00438243.2015.1025912.  ↩
  15. Nancy Marie Brown, (2015), pp. 164.
    Else Roesdahl, ‘Fine Belt–Buckles of Walrus Ivory – also Made in Greenland.’ In: Nordic Middle Ages – Artefacts, Landscapes and Society: Essays in Honour of Ingvild Øye on her 70th Birthday Edited by Irene Baug, Janicke Larsen and Sigrid Samset Mygland. (Bergen: University of Bergen, 2015), pp. 267 [pp. 267–273].  ↩
  16. Nancy Marie Brown, (2015), pp. 7–8.  ↩

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