Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Viking Home of the Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis chessmen, the subject of my book, Ivory Vikings, were found on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland in the early 1800s. The story of their finding is a bit muddled--maybe on purpose--and there are at least two plausible find spots.

Researching the question, I stayed at a guesthouse near the most likely spot, at Baile-na-Cille in Uig. "Baile-na-Cille" is Gaelic for "place of the church." "Uig" comes from the Norse word "vík," the root of "Viking," and the area does indeed have a Viking history.

One rainy day in June, Kevin Murphy, the assistant archaeologist at Museum Nan Eilean in Stornoway, met me there to give me a tour of the nearby Viking Age sites--or at least those that archaeologists have happened upon. Finding ancient sites is difficult here: the landscape can change dramatically in a very short time.

Baile-na-cille, Isle of Lewis
"From late autumn right through to March," Kevin explained, "you can have huge winds here. The whole area can look different after a few months. The whole west side of the Hebrides is like this. You could have three to four meters of sand covering a village and nobody would know about it." Mixed with the sand is pumice from volcanic eruptions in Iceland, the nearest land due west.

We drove a mile or so north to an arc of golden beach called “Borg Beach,” from the Norse for fort. Here, for example, Kevin said, "You’ve got a massive build-up of sand." He gestured toward one of the headlands. "That whole area of green behind the haze is all habitation of some description. It’s a bit conjectural. Nobody’s looked into it. Over there," he said, turning, "that telephone pole is stuck in an Iron Age wheelhouse."

Borg, Isle of Lewis
In the garden of the school behind us, in 1915, the skeleton of a woman was discovered. She had been buried in a typical Viking Age apron gown, with two large oval brooches fastening the straps. "This skeleton was eroding out of the hill, about here, give or take," Kevin said. "The interesting part is that the skeleton gives the impression that it’s early Norse."

Mary Macleod Rivett, another archaeologist working in the Hebrides, Kevin said, "met an old woman who had been at that school then. When Mary was talking to this old lady, she said, 'Oh, there was another one as well, with a helmet and a spear.' What happened to it? 'They put it in someone's shed and it fell to pieces.'"

We drove on to Reef, the site of another ancient graveyard. "What you’re seeing as a dump is an Iron Age burial. It's been completely excavated. Viking Age graves were found here too. This was just a green hillside. The sheep rubbed, the grass eroded, there was this 'blow out'"--a wind storm that scoured sand away until people started seeing skeletons poking out of the dune. "The wind can be really powerful in the winter," Kevin said. "If it's in the right direction, it just starts taking things out. In aerial photos from the 1940s, this is just a grassy hill."

Reef, Isle of Lewis
From the headland on which the graves were found, the golden sand beach stretches out for miles. A river bisects it, flowing from a shallow lake thick with grass and reeds. "The loch looks like a grassy field," said Kevin, "but if you stepped into it you’d be swimming." Between the loch and the beach are ranks of sand dunes riddled with rabbit warrens. As they dig their maze-like runs, the rabbits often turn up ancient artifacts. "Some years you don't get anything," Kevin said. "Some years the rabbits are very busy and you get boat rivets. They could easily be Viking. I think these lochs were probably used as a safe place to pull your boats in for the winter."

Archaeologist Kevin Murphy
At the end of the beach is a pre-Viking drystone tower or broch. "It’s only ankle high now, but you're standing on the top. There’s 20 to 30 feet of sediment covering it." To the Vikings it would have been a distinctive landmark. "Along the back of that hill, there’s been Viking Age artifacts found. You can see walls and mounds and all kinds of interesting things. Check Google Earth--you can see them that way. There's all those humps and bumps! This place really stands out for Norse. This is the spot."

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):

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