At least, that is what a discovery on a Scottish beach two hundred years ago may indeed suggest.

Somewhat infuriating for modern historians and lovers of history, it is not just the early medieval accounts that are dubious and untrustworthy. 

If we cast our mind back to 1831 CE, it appears that records and historical accounts are no less trustworthy than those compiled a millennium before. 

The case of the Lewis chessmen highlights this point. If we are to believe those Victorian accounts, the chessmen were uncovered in the Bay of Uig, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland, sometime in the late 1820s. 

However, the National Museum of Scotland, which holds most of these chess pieces, disputes this account and places the likely discovery some 10 km (about 6.21 mi) / 6 miles down the coast at Mealista. 

Nonetheless, in 1831 (everyone can agree on that), a hoard of chess pieces was uncovered, which would change how modern historians view Viking societies.

Exactly how and when they were unearthed and discovered remains a mystery - as well as exactly who made the find – but they first entered prominence when they were displayed, in Edinburgh, in 1831 CE. 

On display were 78 playing chess pieces, along with fifteen other non-playing pieces, all carved of walrus tusk ivory. The exhibition of these chess pieces caused a sensation not only for the public but also for the historical and academic community.

The Lewis chessmen hoard

It may seem a bit odd that 93 chess pieces could capture the imagination of both the public and the scholarly world. 

Yet the Lewis chessmen have done just that since they first went on display almost two centuries ago. 

Despite their mysterious discovery, the Lewis chessmen are one of the most important archaeological discoveries showing the blending of Christian and pagan influences.

The modern chess player would be familiar with most of the Lewis chessmen hoard. There are kings and queens seated on thrones, bishops dressed in liturgical vestments and holding a miter, knights mounted on their stirupped steeds, and pawns, which are little more than slab-like carvings. 

However, tucked among the 93 pieces is what the 19th-century historian of the hoard, Sir Frederic Madden, labeled "warders." These are believed to be a piece that is in between a pawn and a knight. These are long-haired warriors with swords and, in the case of four of them, are seen biting their shields.

Since their discovery, there has been much speculation about exactly what time period the Lewis chess pieces were carved. Photo: IanRedding / Shutterstock

The warders and the blending of influences

These "warders" have been the focus of much of the academic and historical research and study of the hoard. 

Madden, who was not only the Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum but also a keen historian of Norse sagas, was the first to suggest that these "warders" were indeed the ferocious Viking-era berserkers – warriors that fought in a rage and (possibly) drug-induced trance that often bit their shields and foamed at the mouth. 

What makes these "warders" interesting is they are an example of older pagan Viking society along with Christian bishops, kings, and queens. 

This blending of medieval European Christianity, along with older pagan and Viking influences, has fascinated scholars and the public since their discovery.

The warders are not the only Viking influence inherent in the hoard. On the back of the thrones of the kings and queens, there is a distinctive Viking element, similar to some of the six known styles of Viking art

These elaborate decorative carvings show not only a delicately skilled hand but also a deep knowledge of artistic styles.

Has modern science helped cast light on the mysteries of the hoard?

Modern science has dramatically helped archaeological finds and excavations, especially in the case of the Lewis chessmen hoard. 

Since their discovery, there has been much speculation about exactly what time period the pieces were carved. 

A broad range of time periods has been suggested ranging from anywhere between the 9th to the 13th centuries CE, from the very beginnings of the process of the Christianization of Scandinavia to the height of the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Recent radiocarbon dating has finally answered this question. With 95% confidence, an annoyingly broad range of dates was given, with the pieces believed to have been carved anywhere between 1283 and 1434 CE. 

However, this analysis was only undertaken on one piece, one of the warders. If radiocarbon analysis of more pieces is allowed, this may well change the time period. 

Nonetheless, the presence of berserkers – only found in Viking societies – as well as similar carvings found in Trondheim, Norway, points to that location as the likely source of manufacture. 

Furthermore, Trondheim was the capital of the Kingdom of Norway from the early medieval to the early modern period - and an episcopal seat.

Where can you find them today?

Unfortunately, the Lewis chessmen hoard has been divided amongst the National Museums Scotland, in Edinburgh, and the British Museum, further south, in London. 

Two more pieces, uncovered in 1964 and 2019 CE, attributed to the original hoard are now in private hands.

For more on the Lewis chessmen hoard, visit the National Museums Scotland's website here.

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