Tiffany Jenkins: Check the history before making demands

AT THE heart of a battle over culture, ownership and identity are 93 kings and queens, bishops and pawns, intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales' teeth.

The "Lewis Chessmen" were discovered on Lewis less than 200 years ago. They are thought to have been crafted in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and were probably buried for safekeeping by a merchant on his way to Ireland, although new research ventures they may have been owned by a Lewis nobleman.

The chessmen were exhibited at the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Scotland in 1831 and sold soon after by an Edinburgh dealer to the British Museum for 80 guineas. This means that the majority of what is considered to be Scotland's most renowned archaeological find is in London. The National Museum in Edinburgh has only 11 pieces. Not a single one is in Lewis.

A loan agreement has just been reached, which means 20 of the 93 pieces will appear next year in an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, before travelling to Aberdeen Art Gallery, Shetland Museum and Archives, and the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway.

Rather than be grateful for this loan, many are whingeing that the chessmen should not just be on tour, but that they should be permanently kept in Lewis. Indeed, the Scottish National Party has argued for some time that the entire set belongs in Scotland.

They are quite wrong. While the road tour is a great way to show off the kings and queens, it is right that they return to London afterwards. The best place for the Lewis Chessman is in the British Museum.

Over the past few decades the idea that cultural artefacts should return to where they were originally made or found has been gaining currency, as different groups have sought to reclaim ancient objects from museums.

Later this month, Egyptian archaeologists will travel to Paris to collect five ancient fresco fragments taken from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, held by the Louvre. They are also demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone – an ancient Egyptian artefact instrumental in advancing our understanding of hieroglyphics, held too in the British Museum, which is also the focus of claims from Greece for the Parthenon Marbles.

These campaigns promote divisive identity politics. The common complaint, such as in the case of the Parthenon Marbles, better known as the Elgin Marbles, is that certain people have a special relationship to particular objects owing to their ethnic identity.

But the Parthenon was created 2,500 years ago in classical Athens. Since then it has been "owned" by the Ottoman Empire and the Christian church, and used as a mosque. The significance of the marbles has changed dramatically over time; their meanings are complex and they cannot be considered simply Greek.

No culture has ever been static. Ancient Romans were influenced by Greek culture. The Greeks colonised southern Italy and Sicily and were influenced by them. Egyptians may have created the Rosetta Stone but it was found by French soldiers and deciphered by the French and British.

Similarly, the chessmen were created in Scandinavia, in about 1150-1200. They were probably on the way to Ireland when they were hidden and lost in Lewis. During this period the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway. So they weren't, when buried, even in Scotland.

Rather than belong to Scotland, these objects are the property of mankind. Rather than belong to one nationality, they illustrate relationships between peoples, showing the cultural and political connections between Britain and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.

The idea that certain objects belong to one ethnic group is destructive, and obscures the universal nature of mankind, the fact that we can abstract ourselves from our particular circumstances and appreciate the creation of all human civilisations.

Being white, middle-class and female, living in the present day, I have little knowledge of the Middle Ages, but I can look into the eyes of these kings and queens and be transported to another time and place.

The Lewis Chessman should be in the British Museum, which has made them an essential part of its collection, to view for free, since the 19th century. Each year six million people from all over the world visit them. Where else could so many people see them?

This fantastic institution shows the history of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history to the present day. It is right that the chess pieces are on display as part of that.

They are on show in a brand new gallery – The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe – devoted to a collection of medieval material. Few chess pieces survive from the Middle Ages and as these are unparalleled in their quality and design, it is right that they sit here, alongside other spellbinding objects, such as the celebrated Royal Gold Cup, made in Paris under the patronage of the Prince Jean duc de Berry, a notable art lover.

In the Gallery of Medieval Europe the chessmen are placed in their historical context, together with great art and archaeology, covering the period 1050-1500, alongside the magnificent tiled pavement from Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, and next to monastic sculpture from Lewes Priory in East Sussex, in a museum that shows the greatest collection of artefacts from the whole of mankind.

In this collection the Lewis Chessmen are an important symbol of European civilisation and human creation. At the British Museum the Lewis Chessmen are on show at the centre of the world. And that is where they belong.