Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Uig Chessmen

In 1831, "a number of figures carved in ivory, apparently chessmen" appeared for sale in Edinburgh. Ten were quietly bought by an antiquarian and now reside in the National Museum of Scotland, along with an eleventh that surfaced a little later. The other 48 face pieces, some pawns and plain discs (possibly counters for a game like backgammon), and an ivory buckle were sold to the British Museum, where these "Lewis chessmen" are among the most popular objects on display.

Carved of walrus tusk, several of the Lewis chessmen look like Viking berserks, biting their shields. Based on such details of design and dress, the chessmen are thought to have been made in Scandinavia around the year 1200. In my book-in-progress, The Ivory Vikings (to be published in the U.S. and the U.K. in May 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan), I examine the controversial theory presented by Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson (here: http://www.leit.is/lewis/) that the chessmen were created in Iceland by a woman named Margret.

But where they were made is not the only controversy surrounding the chessmen. They're called the Lewis chessmen, for everyone agrees they were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. But when I went to Lewis two weeks ago, I heard several different stories of how--and where--they were discovered.

They were “buried fifteen feet under a bank of sand” on Uig Strand, somewhere near here:

They were found six to eight miles away at the “House of the Black Women,” thought to be an ancient nunnery, somewhere near here:

There was a shipwreck—and a murder. They were dug up by a cow, or a cow fell into a hole, or a wild storm scoured the dunes and exposed a strange underground room out of which a bevy of elf faces peered.

Once found, the chessmen were taken to the minister at Baile-na-Cille. He kept them here at the manse, before sending them on to Edinburgh to be sold:

In Ardroil, at the head of Uig Bay, the locals have erected a wooden chessman to mark the spot where the chessmen were found:

In Mealasta, site of the "House of the Black Women," archaeologists have dated a grain of barley to about the year 1200, when the chessmen were likely made:

The stories will never permit us to choose between Ardroil and Mealasta. All the accounts do, however, link the chessmen with Uig. The name--pronounced OO-ick--comes from the Old Norse word for bay, vík, from which we get our word Vikings.

"Uig" in the 1830s referred to the parish, not just to the bay, an area of over 200 square miles. Dave Roberts, a former schoolteacher who lives on a croft here, explained to me that adventurers who came no further than the Standing Stones at Callanish would say they’d been to Uig. And they had, indeed, crossed into the parish. But to reach Uig Strand took a fifteen-mile ferry ride down Loch Roag, then a four-mile walk along the boggy banks above Valtos Glen.

At low tide, the find spot at Ardroil would be a half-hour from there across the sands. The House of the Black Women would be a half-day’s hike over rather challenging terrain.

So where did the Lewis chessmen come from? We can all agree they came from Uig. Maybe we should start calling them the Uig chessmen.

No comments:

Post a Comment