Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Were the Lewis Chessmen Made in Trondheim?

Google "Lewis chessmen" and--unless you come up with my book Ivory Vikings--you'll probably learn that they were made in Trondheim, Norway between 1150 and 1200. How do we know that? Actually, we don't.

Although the "Trondheim theory" of the origins of the Lewis chessmen is often presented as fact, art historians have been debating whether they were made in Iceland or Norway or Scotland or England or somewhere else ever since the chessmen were first studied at the British Museum in 1832. As one expert concluded in 1909, "Artistic influences were constantly interchanged, and common features of ornament are found on both shores of the North Sea, with the result that it is often difficult to say to which side a given object belongs."

When Icelandic art historian Bera Nordal studied the motifs on the Lewis chessmen in 1992, she compared them to stone carvings and wooden stave churches in Norway, to other walrus-ivory objects in the British Museum and the Danish National Museum, and to a little-known collection of Romanesque wood carvings in the National Museum of Iceland. She reached "no conclusive answers as to whether the Lewis chessmen originated in Norway or Iceland" or somewhere else.

Nordal's work on the Icelandic wood carvings is missing from most discussions of the Lewis chessmen. She wrote in Icelandic and published in an obscure journal.

Instead, experts cite a short report from two years earlier by a pair of archaeologists working in Trondheim, Chris McLees and Oeystein Ekroll, who published in English in the prestigious journal Medieval Archaeology. For many, McLees and Ekroll clinched the Trondheim theory. Their report discusses "a small sculpture of a Madonna with the Christ child, beautifully carved in ivory," that was found on the ancient site of Saint Olav's Church in Trondheim in the 1880s--and subsequently lost. All that remains are three sketches.

Rifling old files for information on Saint Olav's church, which was demolished in 1702, archaeologist Ian Reed stumbled upon the sketches and a few details from the finder's report. He shared this information with McLees and Ekroll. To them the sculpture was no Madonna but a Lewis chess queen. As sketched, the figure wears a veil but no crown. Only her head and one arm remained to be drawn, but the right hand was all that the researchers needed: She holds her hand to her cheek.

Touring modern-day Trondheim, especially with the authors of this report--as I did to research Ivory Vikings--it's not hard to find motifs like those on the Lewis thrones in Nidaros Cathedral, on stones displayed in the Bishop's Palace Museum, on the wall of a small church down a side street, and in the ruins of Saint Olav's Church (preserved inside the new library).

But the Trondheim theory is not watertight. To support their theory, McLees and Ekroll list in their paper "the characteristic 'Trondheim Group' of stave-church portals; the local strain of ornamental stone carving in the district's Romanesque stone churches...; and, if the inferences implicit in the motifs common to a number of carved ivories, including a possible crozier head found on the nearby island of Munkholmen, can be trusted, the range of skills and motifs shared by local sculptors also extended to the intricate carving of walrus ivory." The number of qualifiers in that last clause flags a problem the researchers readily acknowledge: Few of the artworks compared to the chessmen can be scientificially dated. Except for the stone carvings, none is indisputably a product of Trondheim.

An ivory chess piece, after all, would fit in an artist's pocket. The entire Lewis hoard could easily be transported by a carver coming from, say, Lund (then in Denmark, now in Sweden)--where another broken piece of a Lewis chessman, this time the front feet of a knight's horse, was found in the 1980s.

Or the chessmen could have been made in Iceland, as I argue, by an ivory carver named Margret the Adroit, who was hired to make luxury items for the bishop of Skalholt to send to his friends abroad.

I won't run through all the holes I poked in the Trondheim theory of the origin of the Lewis chessmen. You can read that for yourself (Chapter 4 of Ivory Vikings). It was, I think, the hardest part of the book to write--demolishing the theory of two clever and competent researchers whom I liked very much and who had been very generous with their time and expertise. I rewrote that section several times, trying to be fair. It's a good theory, I wanted to stress. It's just not the only one. And it's definitely not fact.

So I felt like I had aced an exam when I received, a few days ago, a letter from Chris McLees in Trondheim thanking me for sending him a copy of Ivory Vikings. "It was fun to see the story of the discovery of our Trondheim chess queen woven into the narrative as you did," he wrote. He hadn't finished the book, but "What I have read has greatly impressed me," he said.

"I reserve final judgment on your theory"--that the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland, he added, "but I heartily agree that it is compelling. I'll get back to you on that after a closer reading."

I couldn't have asked for more.

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):

1 comment:

  1. I am writing a historical novel based on the Lewis Chessmen and you "Ivory Kings" is an important resource for me. I bought a replica chess set for my 21st birthday 40 years ago and an article in the Economist about your book sparked my interest enough to start writing. It is told through the POV of 5 women and I am picking up your suggestion that they were carved in Iceland by a woman. The great thing about there being so many gaps in the story e.g. how they got to Scotland, who received the payment for them and of course what happened to the missing pieces are all invitation to creativity. If you would like to read more you could visit my website I'd love to have your comments.