A passion for chess pieces

Mark Hall worked with National Museums Scotland on The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked exhibition. Here he talks about his lifelong fascination with the Lewis pieces.

It has been one of my almost constant delights over the past five years to get to know the Lewis chessmen better through my joint research of them with David Caldwell of National Museums Scotland. One of the great strengths of the Perth Museum collections is the finds from the numerous excavations of medieval sites on which the town is built. These finds include a splendid group of gaming objects, including a fourteenth century jet chess bishop from the Meal Vennel excavations.

Jet chess bishop from Perth Museum & Art Gallery
Jet chess bishop from Perth Museum & Art Gallery.

My interest in such objects and their use in Perth lead me to a closer look at chess in medieval Scotland, and so inevitably to the Lewis pieces. In reality, the Lewis pieces have been of almost life-long fascination to me: seeing them as a teenager was perhaps the highlight of my first trip to the British Museum and seeing them again many years later, joined by their fellows from the National Museum of Scotland for a special exhibition on Lewis, re-fired my enthusiasm.

The Lewis chess pieces owned by National Museums Scotland
The Lewis chess pieces owned by National Museums Scotland.

They are magnificent pieces that reveal something of the social complexity of play and feel imbued with a deep humanity. No matter how briefly gazed upon, they transport me immediately across time and space to a somewhat draughty and warmly-lit hall on Lewis, where they accumulated in part at least as gifts and perhaps in part as booty, and where they were used as the earnest playthings of adults, the less serious playthings of children and as talismanic watchers of the room(s) they furnished.

The King flanked by two beserkers
Three chessmen from the the National Museum of Scotland.
Kings and a bishop
The Lewis chess bishop and King and two Queens.

The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked by David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall and Caroline M. Wilkinson is available to buy in the National Museums Scotland online shop.

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