Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Lewis Chess Queen

What is she thinking? Let me know at and I'll put the best responses in my next book. If you give me your real name, I'll also include you in the acknowledgments.

As I announced in January, my new book-in-progress is a biography of a set of objects, the Lewis chessmen. These seventy-eight walrus-ivory figures, each under four inches tall, are the most famous chessmen in the world. Found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the Lewis chessmen are the most valuable archaeological treasure ever found in Scotland. At the British Museum in London, where most of the chessmen reside, they are one of the most popular exhibits. Several of them feature prominently in the current Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the museum--even though scholars agree they were made well after the Viking Age (between 1150 and 1200).

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. There's a beautiful 360-degree interactive video from the British Museum in which you can turn one of the Lewis queens all the way around as if holding her in your hand. [Click here to access the video.]

The caption says, "This chess queen resting her face on her hand in an expression of gloom was probably left on Lewis by a merchant sailing to Dublin, a Viking colony. Why's she so sad? Is she contemplating the vast Atlantic?"

I never thought this queen's expression was sad or gloomy.

I asked a friend of mine to look at the British Museum video. She commented, "I'm not sure I think the expression on the queen's face is sadness. Both the king and queen seem pensive, as if the weight of their responsibilities is paramount."

Sad, gloomy, pensive…

There are eight Lewis queens extant. When I used a photograph of this one as an illustration in Song of the Vikings, I called her expression "aghast."

What do you think?

The Ivory Vikings will be published in New York and London by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2015. My writing deadline is September 2014--which gives me six months. Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), are going to be very busy with this new project, so they may not be visiting this blog as frequently as in the past. They'll stop in now and then, however--always on a Wednesday--at


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Especially the second photo: "*That's* your move? You've got to be kidding me!"

  3. She's thinking, "did I set my DVR to record " Vikings?"

  4. It's not the heat that gets you, it's the humility...

  5. Once a queen, always a queen, but once a knight is enough!

  6. Oh not again here we go with all that male machismo, sword fighting. pillaging, winning the Queen. can't a lady just have some peace and quiet.

  7. Late entry but, just read.
    How many fools must I suffer through the feast?
    sandy tabin