Found on Lewis in 1831, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most well-known archaeological find from Scotland.

Lewis chessmen fact file

Made from: walrus ivory
Made in: probably Trondheim, Norway
Date made: late 12th and early 13th century
Discovered in: 1831
Did you know? Up to four chessmen could be carved from one walrus tusk.

The Lewis chessmen

Where were the chessmen discovered?

The precise findspot seems to have been a beach at Uig in Lewis, where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber. 

What was found?

The 93 gaming pieces known to us today include 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men and a buckle to secure a bag.

The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

The hoard is likely to be made up of four chess sets. Eleven of the chessmen are owned by National Museums Scotland and the remaining 82 reside at the British Museum.

Bishop, kings and queen

Where do they come from?

The Lewis Chessmen have fascinated visitors and art historians alike. Believed to be Scandinavian in origin, it is possible they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland.

They were probably made in Trondheim in Norway during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, when the area in which the chessmen were buried was part of the Kingdom of Norway, not Scotland. It seems likely they were buried for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland.

Lewis chessmen king and bishop

Fact or fiction?

There are several different and colourful theories about how the hoard came to be hidden at Uig on Lewis. 

  • Were they stolen from a passing ship?
  • Were they hidden by a travelling merchant?
  • Could the hoard be the prized possession of a local prince, nobleman or senior churchman?
  • Were they made by different craftsmen in the same workshop?
  • Were some of the pieces for hnefatafl, a popular chess like game and others for chess?

 Uig beach. Photo © Ross Scott Photography

Above: Uig. Photo © Ross Scott Photography

Although many questions remain unanswered, there continues to be fascination with this remarkable group of iconic objects, 180 years after their discovery on Lewis.

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