Lewis chess pieces in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh
The pawns, represented by a tombstone-type shape, range from 3.5 to 6 cm each, while the human-looking royals, bishops etc range from 7 to 10 cm each. This suggests that the 78 pieces may have come from more than one chess set, easily possible since chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe in the C12th.
The debate about who should own and display these precious medieval pieces started soon after the set was discovered. They were exhibited by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in the same year, 1831, but for some reason the chessmen were soon split up. Sir Charles Sharpe Kirkpatrick, 6th Baronet of Closeburn bought a minority of the pieces. Later the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland bought Kirkpatrick’s pieces, eventually donating them to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.
The treasure must have been expensive. The rather sleazy dealer called Mr Forrest wanted to cash in on the rest of the pieces that Kirkpatrick couldn’t afford and approached the British Museum in London who acquired them some months later. Thus the majority of the chess pieces are still owned and displayed by the English-based museum today. Over the last 20 years, the British Museum has lent some number of its chess pieces to major museums inside the country and internationally. Between 2003 and 2006, for example, seven pieces travelled to Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich, as part of the exhibition Buried Treasure: Finding Our Past.
Needless to say there are many Scottish historians and political writers who believe that the British Museum’s ownership of the chess pieces is ahistorical and perhaps illegitimate; that the entire collection should be displayed in a specially built museum in the Outer Hebrides at best, or on the Scottish mainland at least. In 2011, 30 chess pieces from the National Museums Scotland and the British Museum are touring Scotland in an exhibition called The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked. This exhibition says it is providing all the up to date research, delving into the mysteries of one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland!
A very nice book was written by James Robinson, The Lewis Chessmen, and published by the British Museum Press in 2004. Treasure: Finding our Past, by Richard Hobbs, was the book that accompanied the travelling exhibition. It too was published by The British Museum Press.