Video: the enduring mystery of the Lewis chessmen

Countless tides have rolled over the enchanting Lewis chessmen as they lay hidden under the sands of Uig Beach.

A grand total of 93 artifacts, intricately carved from walrus ivory, lay undisturbed on the remote Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis.

The spectacular archaeological find is widely noted as one of the greatest landmark historical discoveries in recent times. Local man Malcolm Macleod from the nearby village of Pennydonald unearthed the treasure trove from a sand dune on Uig Beach in 1831.

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Peter Ross: Dug up on a beach 180 years ago, Lewis Chessmen still have a bewitch...

The one and only time the collection was whole, Macleod displayed the 93 antiquities in his byre. The 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen and one belt buckle were mostly carved from walrus ivory, but some were fashioned from whale teeth. Eventually, they passed along a string of buyers before the British Museum and Royal Museum of Scotland (now National Museums Scotland) put them on display.

The collection of chess figures is likely comprised of four sets, lovingly etched queens and kings atop their thrones, bishops professing peace and knights atop their steeds. Curiously, the rooks we’re familiar with - turrets and towers - are replaced with quivering berzerkers, gnawing their shields with anticipation of the fight. Who knows why, they don’t even move diagonally.

Historians believe the collection dates back to the late 12th or early 13th Century, hidden undiscovered beneath the sands of Uig beach for more than half a millennium.

Islanders quickly quashed rumours that the honour of unearthing such a treasure actually belongs to a roaming cow who had found its way onto the beach. The discovery is attributed to Macleod, but National Museums Scotland entertains many theories of the collection’s origin:

“Were they stolen from a passing ship? Were they hidden by a travelling merchant? Could the hoard be the prized possession of a local prince, nobleman or senior churchman? Were they made by different craftsmen in the same workshop? Were some of the pieces for hnefatafl, a popular chess like game and others for chess?”

“Although many questions remain unanswered,” the museum write on the website, “there continues to be fascination with this remarkable group of iconic objects, 180 years after their discovery on Lewis.”

Lyndsay McGill, Curator Medieval of the Early Modern Collections at National Museums Scotland, says: “The Lewis Chessmen are probably the most well-known archaeological find from Scotland and continue to enchant and beguile us.

“They fascinate visitors and art historians alike, and there is still mystery and debate surrounding them, from where they were found to who made them and why they were on Lewis.”