Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Iceland's Medieval Art

The Lewis chessmen are among the most popular exhibits in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. Found on the Isle of Lewis in the early 1800s, these walrus-ivory figurines have been called the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. 

Who carved them? Where? In my book Ivory Vikings, I evaluate the theory that they were made for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Iceland in about the year 1200 by a woman artist named Margret the Adroit.

According to the Saga of Bishop Pall, the bishop was in the habit of sending expensive gifts to his friends in Norway, Denmark, Greenland, and the Orkney Islands. He surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the best ivory carver in Iceland.

Until recently, scholars thought the Lewis chessmen must have been carved in a town like Trondheim, Norway. Iceland was too poor and backwards, they thought, to produce such sophisticated works of art.

They didn't know about Bishop Pall and his artists.

Why not? The Saga of Bishop Pall has never been translated into English. Besides, many scholars consider the Icelandic sagas to be fiction. Some of the sagas are. The word "saga" comes from the Icelandic verb segja, "to say," and it doesn't imply either fact or fiction.

The Saga of Bishop Pall, however, is as factual as any medieval chronicle. It falls into the category of Contemporary Sagas. These sagas were composed within a generation of the actions they describe. Their authors were often eyewitnesses to the events. 

The Saga of Bishop Pall is also backed up by archaeology. According to the saga, when Pall died in 1211, he was buried in a stone sarcophagus. This sarcophagus is the only one mentioned in Icelandic records. The country has no tradition of stone sculpture, and even Icelanders did not believe the saga account of Bishop Pall's sarcophagus--until they found it.

Bishop Pall's sarcophagus. From

In the mid-1950s, before the new church was built at Skalholt, archaeologists were called in to excavate. They were uncovering the floorplan of the huge cross-shaped medieval basilica, the largest wooden church in Scandinavia at the time, when one of the workers struck stone. "Of all the things that came to light during the excavations at Skalholt," said archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn (who later became president of Iceland), "the grave of Pall Jonsson is the most important and meaningful. It is not certain that another such sign and wonder of the Icelandic sagas could ever be unearthed."

You can now see the sarcophagus in the basement of Skalholt Cathedral. Carved out of one large stone, of the soft reddish volcanic tuff found on the hill across the river from Skalholt, it is simple and elegant, its rounded lines ornamented only by two cylindrical knobs projecting from the broader end. The lid has been cracked by fire, perhaps by an inferno in 1309 that destroyed the cathedral, but otherwise the coffin shows little damage.

When it was opened, the researchers found a bishop's crozier carved from walrus ivory resting on the shoulder of the skeleton.

Bishop Pall. From
In 2012, any question that the skeleton was not that of Pall Jonsson was put to rest by carbon dating, which dated a bone sample to between 1165 and 1220. Pall lived from 1155 to 1211.

Bishop Pall's crozier.
Margret the Adroit would have remained a colorful detail in a little-read saga if the Icelanders had not decided to build that new, modern cathedral at Skalholt--and called first for an archaeological excavation. The existence of Pall's sarcophagus vouches for the overall truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall. The ivory crozier found inside it calls to mind the one Margret carved out of walrus tusk, the saga says, "so skillfully that no one in Iceland had seen such artistry before."

Bishop Pall's crozier is now on display in the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. We don't know if Margret made it, but if the one she carved was comparable, she was clearly a talented artist. And the description of Pall in his saga proves that this lover of fine things has the means, the motivation, and the taste to commission the Lewis chessmen.

(This story was first published on the "Stuck in Iceland" blog,

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Lewis Chessmen and Popular Culture

You may not think you know the Lewis chessmen, but I bet you recognize their faces. 

In Scotland researching my book Ivory Vikings, I met Stephanie Carter, an American who is doing her dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on "the social aspects" surrounding the chessmen. "I'm looking at how people connect with objects," she explained. She couldn't have chosen a better set of objects. Everyone "connects" with the Lewis chessmen in some way. Mostly, they adore them.

"I don’t know if it’s just because I’m researching them, but I see them everywhere," Stephanie said. "They’re on a pedestal like the Mona Lisa, in terms of visibility. If I say the name, 'Lewis chessmen,' people might not recognize them. But if I say, 'the chessmen with the faces on them,' people know what I mean."

Scottish nationalists are fiercely proud of their little chessmen with faces and deplore the fact that most of them are in the British Museum in London (48 face pieces), not the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh (11 face pieces). Leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Scottish Democratic Alliance issued a policy paper titled "The Future Governance of Scotland." In a list of five points for which "there is need for an agreed exit strategy from the U.K.," number 3 read: "Negotiation on division of the U.K. assets (oil, financial, military, Lewis chessmen, etc.)."

In a 2011 video on the chessmen in their "In Focus" series, members of the production company Archaeosoup note, "The political significance of the Lewis chessmen is largely due to their iconic status and fame. They pop up everywhere, from the cover of Agatha Christie novels to being the favorite pieces used by wizards studying at Hogwarts." [ Watch here: ]

For Harry and Ron's game of wizard chess, the producers of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone borrowed a vintage red-and-white Lewis chessmen replica set from Irving Finkel, the assistant keeper of the British Museum's Middle East department and a boardgame expert. 

Finkel credits a boyhood visit to the chessmen, and a meeting with their curator, for his choice of career. He has written a children's book, The Lewis Chessmen and What Happened to Them, and gives lectures on "The Best Chessmen in All the World." He instructed a BBC reporter in 2003, "When you look at them, kneel down or crouch in such a way that you can look through the glass straight into their faces and look them in the eye. You will see human beings across the passage of time. They have a remarkable quality. They speak to you." 

In the 1950s, the chessmen did indeed speak to the English animators Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. Long before wizard chess, British children knew the chessmen as "Nogs": The animated television series "Noggin the Nog" ran from the late 1950s into the 1990s and inspired twelve books. "In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…" So began each episode. Noggin, the hero, is the Lewis warder looking askance: He's a hesitant fellow, not terribly Viking-like. As Postgate writes in his autobiography, Seeing Things, when he and Firmin saw the Lewis chessmen, "What had impressed us was that, far from being fierce and warlike, it was clear that these were essentially kindly, non-belligerent characters, who were thoroughly dismayed by the prospect of contest."

Another author to whom the chessmen spoke was Francesca Simon. Famous for her Horrid Henry series, which sold over 15 million copies in the U.K., Simon, too, turned to the chessmen for inspiration. In the trailer for her 2011 book, The Sleeping Army, she says, "I have been fascinated by the Lewis chessmen since I first saw them in the '70s," when she studied Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. She frequented the British Museum, hunkering down as Finkel suggested to gaze at the figures eye to eye. "I think what always interested me about them was their little glum faces. They have these down-turned mouths. And I always used to wonder, why are they so unhappy?" [ Watch here: ]

Scottish folk singer Dougie MacLean--who keeps a cottage just up the coast from where the chessmen were found--also finds them dismayed or sad, witnesses to some atrocity. In his 1999 song "Marching Mystery," he sings: "Out of an age when time was young ... / They come with tales too dark to speak." [ Hear the rest here: ]

In the Disney-Pixar film Brave, from 2012, those dark tales are brought to life in a lesson the queen gives young Merida--the feisty, red-haired princess who must learn to balance her own dreams with the good of the kingdom. Using the Lewis chessmen as props, the queen tells of ancient "war and chaos and ruin," the chess kings coming to life to reenact horrible battles. Wrote reviewer Helen Fields on her blog The Last Word on Nothing, "It’s no accident that those thousand-year-old chessmen found their way into a movie; people from Pixar visited the National Museum of Scotland to photograph the chessmen and other objects. Since the movie is set in medieval Scotland, this makes a lot of sense."

The tour company "Adventures by Disney" even offers a Brave tour of Scotland. According to the website, you can "walk amongst lush landscapes where ancient stone castles rise from the mist, heralding a proud heritage that served as the inspiration and backdrop for the Disney-Pixar animated film Brave." When I checked the itinerary a couple of years ago, the tour went to the National Museum of Scotland on Day Two to see the Lewis chessmen.

These iconic pieces also feature prominently in a 2013 mystery, The Chessmen, third in a series set on Lewis by the British author and television producer Peter May. While filming a Gaelic-language television series, Machair, on the shores of Uig Bay, May grew to know and love the area. A main character in The Chessmen, Whistler Macaskill, was inspired by those huge wooden effigies now posted at the airport, the distillery, the historical society, and the findspot at Ardroil. 

Whistler carves similar statues out of driftwood to sell to tourists. He's on the side of the Scottish Democratic Alliance (more or less), remarking to his friend, the policeman Fin Macleod, "They should be in Uig year round. A special exhibition. Not stuck in museums in Edinburgh and London. Then maybe folk would come to see them and we could generate some income here." 

Yet even Fin--and his creator, Peter May--thinks the Lewis chessmen were made in Norway (as I do not; I argue in Ivory Vikings that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland). Writes May:

"Remember, Fin, how they taught us at school that when Malcolm Macleod found the wee warriors hidden in that cove just down there at the head of Uig beach, he thought they were sprites or elves and was scared shitless. Scared enough to take them to the minister at Baile na Cille. Imagine how scared he'd have been of these big bastards!" And he hefted a bishop up on to the table.
Fin stepped in to take a closer look. Whistler, apparently, had unexpected talents. It was a beautifully sculpted figure, a minutely accurate replica, down to the smallest detail. The folds in the bishop's cloak, the fine lines combed through the hair beneath his mitre. The originals were between three and four inches tall. These were anything from two and a half to three feet. No doubt Whistler could have found employment in the Viking workshops in Trondheim where the actual pieces were thought to have been carved out of walrus ivory and whales' teeth in the twelfth century ...

Of course, Whistler gets killed soon after this. The Chessmen is a murder mystery, after all.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Briefly Noted," The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Go Berserk in 5 Easy Lessons

1. Take off your shirt.
"Berserk" comes from an Old Norse word meaning "bare-shirt" or, maybe, "bear-shirt." Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelander who is our main source of Viking lore, isn't clear. (Maybe on purpose; for more on Snorri, read my biography of him, Song of the Vikings).

In his Edda, Snorri defines berserks as warriors dedicated to the Norse god Odin. Immune to fire and iron, berserks "wore no armor." They were mad as dogs and strong as bears, he says, but cites a 9th-century poem that dresses them in wolf skins:

The berserks howled,
battle was on their minds,
the wolf-skins growled
and shook their spears.

Whatever it really means, berserk is the name that has stuck.

2. Brew your own beer.
Berserks could work themselves into a battle frenzy. Ancient texts say they did so by drinking bear's blood or by means of ritual dancing. Modern scholars used to favor magic mushrooms--especially the poisonous fly agaric. But the latest theory is beer.

Don't be misled by the various modern brews called Berserk Beer, like this one.

According to the brewery, it's "A real India pale ale based on 150 year old recipes. Light in colour but strong in flavour. Malty with an intense hop to match..." Not a real berserk beer.

Gruit, or beer made without hops, was current in the Viking Age. To keep it fresh, brewers added various herbs. Some were psychotropic. Beer made with sweet gale or bog myrtle, for example, has been described as a "stupefying narcotic." It speeds up the effect of alcohol on the brain, but also makes the heart function more efficiently and the blood to flow faster.

Unfortunately, it leaves a "whopping headache," says Stephen Law, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.  That's real berserk beer.

Find recipes at

3. Bite your shield, not your tongue.
That 9th-century poem is the earliest reference to berserks, though classical sources describe warrior cults in early Germanic societies. In the poem, the berserks "bear bloody shields" and hack through the shields of their enemies, but the act that has come to define "going berserk" is not bearing or hacking, but biting the shield.

Take a look at the shield-biting rooks from the famous Lewis chess sets in the British Museum. That's the expression to practice in front of your mirror.

Keep in mind that shield-biting is an activity not without some danger. The Saga of Grettir the Strong, written in Iceland in the 1300s, is almost an anti-saga, in which the values of the Viking Age are indicted. Grettir takes no guff from berserks. This one was on horseback: "He began to howl loudly and bit the rim of his shield and pushed the shield all the way into his mouth and snapped at the corner of the shield and carried on furiously." Grettir ran at him and kicked the shield. It "shot up into the berserk's mouth and ripped apart his jaws and his jawbone flopped down on his chest." End of berserk.

4. Laugh in the face of death.
Your fate is already set, the Vikings believed. (For a simple explanation of the Viking belief system, see Karl Siegfried's Norse Mythology blog, especially here.) The norns know when and how you will die—you can't change the cloth they weave.

Plus, the only way to reach Valhalla and a glorious afterlife is to die fighting. Die of old age and you'll never feast in Odin's hall. No beautiful Valkyries will serve you mead. Instead you'll spend eternity in damp, dark, dreary Hel, where the plates are named "hunger" and the beds "sickness." Why not laugh in battle?

And they did. A monk who witnessed the Viking siege of Paris in 885 described it as "a frenzy beyond compare." (Yes, this is the battle reenacted in the History Channel's Vikings TV series. How accurate is the show? See here, or here for a historian's view.) According to the monk's Latin hexameter verse, the Vikings "ransacked and despoiled, massacred, and burned and ravaged," he wrote. "All bare-armed and bare-backed … with mocking laughter they banged their shields loud with open hands; their throats swelled and strained as they shouted out odious cries." They had gone berserk.

5. Give up chess.
One early Icelandic saga, the Saga of the Heath-Killings, includes a chess-playing berserk who woos a girl over the game while her father pretends it is just not happening. (Berserks were not good sons-in-law.) Chess and romance were well linked by the time this saga was written, in about 1200. But whether or not chess was known in the north in the Viking Age is still up for debate.

In any case, its tactics are all wrong. Chess is a symmetrical game, with the two sides even and facing each other. Battle in the Viking Age usually wasn't symmetrical. To learn battle strategy, the better game for a berserk to play is hnefatafl. (For the rules, look here).

In this asymmetrical game a single hnefi (the word means "fist") and his band of berserks fight against a leaderless horde of enemies that outnumbers them two to one. It's a very Viking scenario. The hnefi wins, not by strength, but by strategy, sacrificing some of his berserks so that he can reach the rim of the board—and victory.

"Go Berserk in 5 Easy Lessons" first appeared on The History Reader Blog. The information is drawn from my book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

The New Yorker (November 2): (scroll down)

The Economist (August 29):

Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What Drew the Vikings to Iceland and Greenland? Was it Walrus?

In the first chapter of Ivory Vikings, "The Berserks," I argue that walrus tusks--or "fish teeth," as the Vikings called them--made the perfect cargo for a Viking ship: They were light, long-lasting, and highly prized.

Viking raids were bankrolled with fish teeth. Viking trade routes were built on them. Viking explorers sailed west out of sight of land in search of shiny, white walrus tusks. From the 8th to the 14th century--well after the end of the Viking Age--walrus ivory was the most sought after commodity of the North. It was Arctic gold.

You can read part of that chapter, an excerpt on the Vikings in Greenland and North America, on the website, here.

Before coming to my conclusions, I had tried to find every book or paper written about the medieval ivory trade, many of them by Thomas McGovern of CUNY and his colleagues. I had interviewed Jette Arneborg at the University of Copenhagen and Orri Vesteinsson at the Archaeological Institute of Iceland (whom I knew from my research for a previous book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman), as well as historian Helgi Thorlaksson of the University of Iceland; all three are experts on archaeological finds of walrus bones and teeth in Greenland and Iceland and on the Icelandic place names that refer to walrus.  

If I'd waited a year, someone else would have done all that research for me. Because someone else was on the trail of the Viking walrus hunters at the same time as I was. And they've reached some of the same conclusions.

Illustration by Jón Baldur Hliðberg
A few weeks ago a longtime reader of this blog sent me a paper published in April in World Archaeology titled, "Was It Walrus?" Two of the authors were Arneborg and McGovern.

The paper contains a beautiful review of all the available data on walrus hunting in Iceland and Greenland, from archaeology, place names, and the Icelandic sagas, and outlines the arguments for and against the idea that walrus triggered the Vikings' westward expansion.

The authors conclude, as I did, that "The new excavations and zooarchaeological work appear to support the notion of an initial settlement of at least parts of Iceland driven and 'financed' by walrus hunting and connections to Viking Age exchange networks." Soon, however, the Icelandic walrus herds were hunted to extinction. "In contrast, in Greenland current evidence suggests that walrus hunting may have always played a central role in economy and society."

See Karin M. Frei, Ashley N. Coutu, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Christian K. Madsen, Jette Arneborg, Robert Frei, Gardar Guðmundsson, Søren M. Sindbæk (corresponding author at, James Woollett, Steven Hartman, Megan Hicks, and Thomas H. McGovern. “Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland.” World Archaeology, published online 20 April 2015 at

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29).

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29).

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Lewis Chessmen and the Icelandic Horse

The Knight is the last piece I place on the imaginary chessboard in Ivory Vikings, my biography of the Lewis chessmen--though it could have been the first.

When the Lewis chessmen came to the Cloisters Museum in New York for the "Game of Kings" exhibition in 2011, curator Barbara Drake Boehm wrote a blog post comparing the knights' horses to Icelandic horses. (Read it here.)

That blog post was one of the things that initially caught my interest and made me want to learn about the Lewis chessmen. I own Icelandic horses and have written a book about them, A Good Horse Has No Color. I'm also active in the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress (, through which I know the people Barbara spoke to and who took the photos of Icelandic horses that she used on her blog.

"Long forelocks falling over the eyes, groomed manes, tails that reach to the ground, and a short, stocky frame distinguish the horses ridden by the Knights of the Lewis Chessmen," Barbara wrote. "They seem to resemble today's Icelandic horses. I spoke to Heleen Heyning, a breeder of Icelandic horses at West Winds Farm in upstate New York. She immediately saw the resemblance between the Lewis horses and her own. She noted that Icelandic horses were known across Scandinavia in the Viking era and are thought to have been introduced to Iceland about the year [870]. For the last thousand years--that is, since before the Lewis Chessmen were carved--there has been no crossbreeding of Icelandic horses. Therefore, the resemblance we see is not accidental."

Barbara and Heleen are right. The chessmen's horses do resemble Icelandics. Here is a photo of my husband on one of our own Icelandic horses, looking very much like a Lewis knight.

But the similarity to Icelandic horses is not proof that the chessmen were carved in Iceland. Most horses in Northern Europe at that time were just as small--as we can see by comparing a Lewis knight with other 11th and 12th century images of people on horseback. In each case, the rider's feet dangle down, way down, below the horse's belly.

This horse from the Hunterian Psalter, an English manuscript dated before 1170 and now in the collection of Glasgow University, seems to me to be a perfect match for a Lewis knight's horse. (For more images from this beautiful manuscript, see

But horses of similar size can be found in art from Norway (the Baldisholl Tapestry), France (the Bayeux Tapestry), Iceland (the Valthjolfsstadur Door), and many other places.

That the chessmen's mounts look like "stocky, docile ponies," according to other experts, is proof that their carver had a sense of humor. But this, too, is a misunderstanding, I think. "Stocky" and "docile" are not genetically linked--as anyone knows who's ridden an Icelandic horse. These are strong, powerful animals, capable of carrying a large man all day over difficult terrain. (If you would like to try it, join me next summer on a tour in Iceland: See for the riding tours and riding-optional tours I lead.)

Plus, the chessmen's stockiness is functional. A chess knight must be easy to grasp, well-weighted and stable, with few protruberances to snap off when the piece is dropped, thrown, or the board overturned in a pique (which happens with some frequency in medieval narratives). Artistic license also applies: If the horses' bodies are disproportionately small compared to their heads, so too are the tiny feet of the knights. A chess-carver working in walrus ivory, as well, must make a rectangular form (the horse) from an oval-shaped material (the section of tusk) to fit a square space (on the chessboard).

The carver's sense of humor does peek through, however, in the horses' expressions. There's a touch of whimsy to them, as they peer from beneath their long, shaggy forelocks. Some even seem to be looking askance, as if to say, What are we in for now? Their manes, on the other hand, are neatly roached or braided. Their tack is quite exact. The arch in their necks and lack of tension on their reins show they are well trained; the prick of their ears show they are alert. This artist was well-acquainted with horses and their moods.

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak at these events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, Ludlow, VT at 7:00 p.m. Sponsored by The Book Nook. See

October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m. See

October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT at noon. See

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What is the Lewis Chess Queen Thinking? (Reprise)

As I was writing Ivory Vikings, my new book about the Lewis chessmen, I commented on this blog (here) that "One reason they are so popular is the expressiveness of their faces--and how hard those expressions are to interpret. The queens, particularly, mesmerize me. All have one hand pressed to their cheeks."

I pointed you, my readers, to the 360-degree interactive video from the British Museum in which you can turn the chess queen all the way around as if holding her in your hand. (See it again here)

The caption calls her expression sad or gloomy. When I used a photograph of a different one of the eight Lewis queens as an illustration in my earlier book, Song of the Vikings, I called her expression "aghast."

So I asked you to tell me, "What is the queen thinking?" Your answers were very creative--and some of them were very helpful--but they were also widely varied.

You described her as concerned, surprised, taken aback, wretched, perplexed, pensive—or perhaps suffering a toothache. "Do I really have fifteen kids who fight all the time?" said one of you; another described her state-of-mind as "weary of war and fools."

Icelandic author Fridrik Erlingsson responded most fully: "I think the expression on the Queen's face is an intimidating one; an expression of cold calculation, focus and determination: She is planning the next move!"

As I conclude in Ivory Vikings, no one agrees on what emotion the artist or artists intended to present. Here's what I found out when researching the gesture:

Actors in classical Roman theater, I learned, held a hand to the cheek to express grief, and Anglo-Saxon artists picked up on this gesture. In eleventh-century manuscripts from Canterbury, Adam and Eve cast out from Eden, a psalmist whose "spirit has failed," and a female personification of Unrighteousness all lament their fates with their hands on their cheeks. Yet there's a subtle difference between these images and the Lewis queens: In the Canterbury manuscripts, the hands are cupped and the fingers spread almost like claws. They hide the eye, sometimes even the nose and mouth. And rather than glaring at the observer, as the Lewis queens do, these grievers are hunched and cowed.

A twelfth-century life of Saint Alexis, made for the hermitess Christina of Markyate, depicts the saint's virgin bride standing stoically at the door, a hand to her cheek, as Alexis abandons her to become a holy beggar. Following Christian law, she would not be able to remarry while he lived. (See  it here) Still, her grief is hardly commensurate with that of the Virgin Mary who, in some twelfth-century Crucifixion scenes, likewise holds her hand to her cheek.

Comparing these contemporaneous images to the Lewis queens, James Robinson in a 2004 British Museum booklet explained that "There is an element of despair or grieving, but the emotional focus is really on contemplation." According to Neil Stratford in an earlier museum publication, "the queens adopt the traditional pose of composure and patience."

In a children’s book by British Museum curator Irving Finkel, they are "careworn and anxious," "disapproving," "imperious," and "not amused." Author Rosemary Sutcliff, in her children's book Chess-Dream in a Garden, imagines the queen feeling hurt and angry, having been accused, unfairly, of smiling "too sweetly" on one of the knights. A columnist for The Guardian found them "looking so wise (or so bored)." A New York Times reporter compared the gesture to Homer Simpson's "D'oh!"

Often your interpretation depends on which of the eight queens you look at--and how you turn her to the light. To poet Robert Peake, "She is worry cut from walrus tusk / … One hand on her face in disbelief." (Read more at To singer Dougie MacLean, "She holds her weary head."

Francesca Simon visited the British Museum's collection to publicize her book, The Sleeping Army, in which the Lewis chessmen wake to take a little girl on an adventure. In a 2011 video (see it on YouTube here), she said, "What I wasn't expecting was that they would seem so alive. ... The more you look at them the more you see, like the fact that the queen is always looking a little bit to the side. It's very difficult to get her to look at you. ... She's probably the most beautiful of all the pieces. She's got this wonderful expressive face and these kind of odd staring eyes, and to me what they always looked like was not only unhappy but almost shell-shocked, as if something pretty terrible has happened."

I think I'll stick with "aghast."

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or meet me at these upcoming events:

October 13, 2015: Fletcher Memorial Library, 88 Main Street,  Ludlow, VT, at 7 pm. Sponsored by The Book Nook, Ludlow, VT.

October 15, 2015: Kroch Library 2B48, home of the Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at 4:30 pm. See Book Talk: Ivory Vikings for more details.

October 17, 2015: the Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center Grange Hall, Winchester Center, CT, at noon. See for more details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Story of the Lewis Chessmen

One book leads to the next. It's a truism among writers, and particularly apt for explaining how my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, published by St Martin's press in September, came to be.

Ivory Vikings is a biography of the Lewis chessmen, the famous walrus-ivory chessmen found on the Isle of Lewis in far western Scotland in 1831. While gathering illustrations for my previous book about medieval Iceland, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I was surprised to learn that these chessmen, long considered icons of the Viking Age, had actually been carved over a hundred years later, between 1150 and 1250, during the lifetime of Snorri Sturluson.

According to one theory I read, they may even have been carved by a woman in Iceland whom Snorri knew, Margaret the Adroit, who worked for Bishop Pall of Skalholt, Snorri's foster brother.

In Song of the Vikings, I argued that Snorri was responsible for most of what we know about Norse mythology. I argued that he invented the genre of "saga," which his countrymen in the 13th and 14th centuries developed into the masterpieces of world literature they are now universally acknowledged to be. I included an image of one of the Lewis queens in that book, referring to the theory of their Icelandic origin in a caption. But there was no room in Song of the Vikings to develop the idea that medieval Icelanders may also have been exceptional visual artists as well as world-class writers.

That idea nagged at the back of my mind. I wondered why I'd never heard anything like it before. Was the author of this Iceland theory of the Lewis chessmen a crackpot? I did some basic research and learned that the theory was, in fact, a very old one: Frederic Madden of the British Museum, who was the first person to write about the Lewis chessmen, the year after their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, concluded that they had been made in Iceland in the 12th century.

And yet, when Icelandic civil engineer and chess aficionado Gudmundur Thorarinsson reintroduced the Iceland theory, he was ridiculed. Alexander Woolf, a professor of medieval studies from the University of St Andrews, was particularly dismissive. Responding to a reporter from the New York Times, he said that Iceland was too poor and backward a place to produce such stunning works of art. "A hell of a lot of walrus ivory went into making those chessmen, and Iceland was a bit of a scrappy place full of farmers," he said, adding, "You don't get the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Iowa."

(Woolf has since retracted his statement. The reporter had caught him off guard. Since meeting Gudmundur and visiting Skalholt in Iceland, Woolf has become a supporter of the Iceland theory.)

Woolf’s comment stung me. Having just spent several years researching and writing about the Iceland of that period, I knew he was wrong. Iceland in the late 12th and early 13th century was at the peak of its Golden Age: rich, independent, and in a frenzy of artistic creation.

Margret the Adroit by Svala Soleyg
The man Gudmundur believed had commissioned the Lewis chessmen, Bishop Pall of Skalholt, was not only the foster brother of Snorri Sturluson, he was the great-grandson of King Magnus Bare-Legs of Norway (1093-1103), who conquered northern Scotland and the islands and took his nickname from his fondness for wearing kilts. Magnus's line ruled the Norwegian empire without interruption from 1103 to 1264, when northern Scotland and the islands were ceded to the Scottish crown. During that century and a half, King Magnus's Icelandic kinsmen routinely visited Norway, where they were recognized as royalty. Many were knighted; Snorri Sturluson became the first Icelandic baron of Norway; his son-in-law became the first Icelandic earl of Norway.

Bishop Pall himself was a well-educated, well-traveled nobleman--hardly a "scrappy farmer." As a youth he became a retainer of Earl Harald, who ruled the Orkney islands and Caithness in northern Scotland. Later, Pall traveled to England to attend school at a cathedral university, probably Lincoln, where his uncle and predecessor at the see of Skalholt, Bishop Thorlak, had studied. Pall returned to Iceland and became a wealthy chieftain, marrying and having several children. He was famous for the breadth of his book-learning and his excellent Latin, the extravagance of his banquets, the beauty of his singing voice, and his love of fine things. He was known to have in his employ several artists, including Margaret the Adroit, known as the best ivory carver in Iceland.

The Lewis chessmen are the most famous chess pieces in the world. They are considered masterpieces of Romanesque art, among the most important archaeological finds from Scotland and the most popular exhibits at the British Museum. If there was a chance they could indeed have been made by a woman in Iceland around the year 1200, that was a story I needed to tell.

(This story is based on an interview with the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, published on September 4; an English version was published on on September 13.)

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or check out these reviews:

"Bones of Contention," The Economist (August 29):

"Review: Ivory Vikings," Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 29):

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Iceland Theory of the Lewis Chessmen

Where were the famous Lewis chessmen carved? Art historians usually assume, in the absence of other evidence, that an object was made close to where it was found. But while these chessmen found on Lewis are universally known as "the Lewis chessmen," few experts today have championed the Isle of Lewis as the home of an ivory carver of such sophistication. They consider medieval Lewis too "marginal" and "out of the way" to produce great art.

As I explain in my book Ivory Vikings, the same prejudice applies to medieval Iceland.

Frederic Madden of the British Museum published the first scholarly account of the chessmen in 1832. At the end of this nearly 100-page treatise he confidently concludes that they were made in Iceland.

This theory was accepted until 1874, when the Norwegian chess historian Antonius Van der Linde belittled Madden's suggestion that Iceland could produce anything approaching the sophistication of the Lewis chessmen. Icelanders, he scoffed, were too backward to even play chess.

Since then, although chess historians like Willard Fiske and H.J.R. Murray thought the chessmen came from Iceland, art historians have favored the Norway (or Trondheim) theory. This theory was strengthened between 1965 and 1999 by a series of studies of Romanesque sculpture by Norwegian art historians and archaeologists. But mostly the Norway theory has been strengthened by repetition—what one scholar has called "the snowball effect."

In 2010 David Caldwell of the National Museum of Scotland and his colleagues wrote that "the limited evidence favors Trondheim." Their main argument was that "most scholars would at present expect to locate the manufacture of such pieces in a town or large trading center. The craftsmen who made such prestigious items were, perhaps, more likely to thrive in such a setting."

When civil engineer and chess aficionado Gudmundur Thorarinsson posted his discussion of the Iceland theory on the internet, he was attacked. Said one critic, "The content is literally filled with faults and oversights. … This whole argument seems far-fetched."

Yet as I traced Gudmundur's path through libraries, cathedrals, and museums, from Reykjavik to Skalholt, from Edinburgh to Trondheim, Lund, and Lewis, I found very few "faults and oversights." Fewer, in fact, than I found exploring the Norwegian theory, which seems mostly to be based on that grand medieval concept of authority.

Building on Madden and Murray, Gudmundur added the insights of scholars who wrote in Icelandic and whose voices had not entered the international debate on the origins of the Lewis chessmen, such as art historian Bera Nordal, archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn and his colleagues, and historians Helgi Gudmundsson and Helgi Thorlaksson.

Before Gudmundur wrote his paper, no one discussing the Lewis chessmen connected them with the extraordinarily rich 12th-century bishopric at Skalholt, its wooden church larger than any in Norway. No one mentioned the art-loving Bishop Pall Jonsson, who surrounded himself with the finest artists in the land, four of whom are named in his saga: Amundi the Smith, Atli the Scribe, Thorstein the Shrine-Smith, and Margret the Adroit, who was the most skillful ivory carver in Iceland.

Did Margret the Adroit carve the Lewis chessmen under a commission from Bishop Pall? Unless proof of an ivory workshop is found at Skalholt, we cannot say yes or no. But "the limited evidence," I believe, places Iceland on equal footing with Trondheim as the site of their creation. Someone else will need to argue the case for Lewis.

(This story is based on an interview with the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið, published on September 4.)

Read more about Ivory Vikings on my website,, or hear me speak about the book at these events:

September 19: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont at 7:00 p.m.

September 21: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York at 6:30 p.m.

October 15: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m.

October 17: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT, time to be announced.