“The Enigma of the Hoard”

Continuing in the Tralfamadorian spirit referenced in my last post, I ask my readers to leap back with me exactly 100 more years (from the time of the publication of A Rose For Emily) to the year 1831. It was in this year that Malcolm MacLeod found a hidden trove of artifacts that have become known as the Lewis Chessmen, after the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides where they were unearthed near the bay of Uig (pictured today below).

A small volume has been written about these chessmen, “The Lewis Chessmen and the Enigma of the Hoard” by Neil Stratford. As my regular readers also know, I have become somewhat of a fan of Sir Walter Scott in the past couple years, so this made the opening of this book even more tantalizing to me:

“On 17 October 1831, Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, made the following entry in his journal: ‘Sir Walter Scott came at two o’clock and stayed about an hour with me. I had the pleasure of looking over with him a set of very curious and ancient chessmen brought to the Museum this morning for sale, by a dealer from Edinburgh named Forrest. They were discovered in a sand-bank on the west coast of Scotland, and are the most curious specimens of art I ever remember to have seen.’ “
They are now on display in The British Museum in London, which my parents visited during their globetrotting years. Yes, my parents visited The London Museum “and all I got was this wonderful book” about the Lewis Chessmen, which for some reason just fascinated my Mom, who doesn’t even play chess. As art, they are quite beautiful. Experts theorize they came from 12th century Norway, possibly Trondheim.  The “magic” of the chessmen, I think, is the mystery of how they came to be buried. Who buried them and why? It is unlikely we will ever know, and perhaps it’s better that way. If we knew they were a gift of the “Seventh Earl of Chesstown” to “The Duke of Wherever” they would certainly lose their charm, don’t you think? One expert opined that they were “likely…the stock of a merchant, lost in circumstances which we shall never know.”

Also, the Wikipedia article about the Lewis Chessmen is actually pretty good if you want to google it. As a former “serious” tournament chess player, I can’t imagine playing a game with them though, as their shapes are too dissimilar from those with which I have played thousands of games. I would, however, love to have them on a shelf or mantle so that I could gaze appreciatively at them from time to time.

Note: I think the meaning of “hoard” has somewhat changed across the centuries.  There used to be an implication of “hidden-ness” to it, whereas now it seems to be most commonly used as a term for amassing a large quantity of something and keeping it from others.  Have you visited The British Museum?  Have you seen the Lewis Chessmen?


  1. Alex said,

    April 19, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Fascinating! It reminded me of a book I;ve bought very recently called The Hare with Amber Eyes. It’s a non-fiction book about a man who inherited several wood and ivory pieces and tries to find our more about them and his own family.


    • Jay said,

      April 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm

      I will have to look into that one. These pieces were supposedly made from the ivory of walrus tusks.

      It really makes you wonder if they were ever used and by whom, and in what circumstances. I can almost pictures a couple of battle-weary Vikings settling down to a game after a particularly exhausting season of raids… 🙂


  2. anatheimp said,

    April 20, 2011 at 4:17 am

    Yes, it’s not far from my family home. 🙂


    • Jay said,

      April 20, 2011 at 6:30 am

      …and I forgot, I did also get a Rosetta Stone paperweight out of my parents’ visit. 🙂


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