Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Meeting the Lewis Chessmen--In Person

"If you knew what they were valued at ..."

During a research trip to Edinburgh for my book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, I had hoped to meet James Robinson, who wrote an excellent guidebook on the Lewis chessmen for the British Museum. Robinson is now a curator at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), where 11 of the chessmen reside. I received no answer to my initial query, so I planned my research trip to Edinburgh without him.

A week before I left for Scotland, I tried again. Robinson immediately responded, apologizing that my email had been buried under a deluge of others while he'd been traveling. He would be away again while I was visiting Edinburgh, so we could not meet, but "I will forward your message to request access to the pieces for you," he said.

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that I might "request access," that is, to see and handle the chessmen outside of their display case. And yet, because of Robinson's generous reading of my letter, that is exactly what happened. My request made its way to curator George Dalgleish, who asked which ones I wanted to see. He passed that information on to curator Jackie Moran, who cheerfully wrote to tell me that "I will get the chessmen off display at 08:00, as long as I can get the gallery lights switched on."

By 08:30 I was set up in Jackie's office at the NMS, with my computer, my notes, my camera, a borrowed magnifying glass, and the four chessmen I had chosen in a padded carrying case on the table in front of me. Jackie spread tissue on the tabletop and handed me a set of bright purple latex gloves, then returned to her own work at the desk behind me, leaving me face to face with these exquisite little 800-year-old works of art: a warder-rook, biting his shield like a Viking berserk; a bishop, raising his hand in blessing; and a king and queen pair.

The most interesting to me was the queen, whom I had thought at first had been broken and repaired. Now I could tell, studying her up close, that the patch had been applied (with four tiny ivory pegs) before the artist had finished her carving, in order to cover over a weak spot in the original walrus tusk. The workmanship was so fine and the materials so poor, compared to the other pieces, that I really had to wonder what was going through the artist's mind to have even tried to make a chess piece out of this defective lump of tusk.

Seated on her richly decorated throne, she has terrible posture. Her spine is hunched, her head juts forward; she looks old and almost all done in. Her hair is braided and looped up under a veil that is clipped in back. She wears a pleated skirt, a short gown, a robe with embroidered or fur-trimmed edges, a jewel at her throat, her wrists ringed with bangles. She is brooding, her jaw clenched. She claps her right hand to her cheek, cradles her elbow with the left.

Such love went into the making of that queen, I thought, marveling over her tiny fingers. Her left thumb curves back like mine does.

I was concentrating so hard on this little queen in my hand, turning her to take photos from all angles, that at one point my camera slipped out of my grasp. Thunk. I heard Jackie gasp. "It was the camera," I mumbled, and kept on with my work.

It wasn't until the next day, as I was having tea with former NMS curator David Caldwell in the museum cafe, that I realized how shocked Jackie must have been to have heard that thunk—and how completely the beauty of these pieces had made me forget everything but the desire to understand them. Said David, “If you knew what they were valued at, you wouldn’t want to pick one up.”

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):