The Queen’s Gambit is one of Netflix’s most watched shows ever, with over 62 million people having watched fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s rise to international stardom. The upshot of the show’s success? Just 10 days after its release, eBay announced a 273 percent rise in searches for chess sets.
And yet, while chess is certainly having a moment, it’s a board game that’s centuries old, believed to have started in India in the AD 600s. Of course, at the British Museum, we’re lucky enough to have an important part of chess history in the collection – the Lewis Chessmen.
If you’re newly fascinated with all things chess, let us further enchant you with seven facts about these miniature masterpieces.
1. They’re named after the Isle of Lewis
The chess pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, but it’s not certain where they were from or how they got to the island. However, a popular theory is that they were made in Trondheim in western Norway around 1150–1200. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, Trondheim was a centre for walrus ivory carving in the Middle Ages; secondly, a fragment of a queen piece in a similar style was found in a local church; and finally, the decoration on the Chessmen’s thrones resemble carvings in medieval Norwegian churches.
So who would have been playing chess in the Middle Ages?
From 7th-century India, the game passed to the Middle East and then to Europe where the style of the pieces became more figurative and reflected positions in royal courts, such as kings, queens, bishops and knights. Chess was popular with the nobility and although some members of the church disapproved of the game it came to be associated with courtliness and chivalry.
2. Their owners remain a mystery
They might have belonged to a trader who was travelling from Norway to Ireland to sell them, who stopped at Lewis on route. This is possible as the hoard contains nearly enough pieces for four distinct sets (there are 78 known pieces in the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland) and they don’t show signs of use.
Another theory is that they were intended for local nobility on the island. However, no one can be sure when or why they were deposited. Various stories – involving everything from a grazing cow revealing the hoard to a sailor, to even murder – have evolved to explain why they were buried and how they were discovered. All that’s certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
3. They’re made of walrus ivory and sperm whale tooth
Walrus ivory was widely used in northern Europe for luxury carvings – the narrow tusk was suitable for making gaming pieces. The hoard they are part of includes other objects made of walrus ivory, an ornate belt buckle and 14 blank discs, which would have been later carved with decoration and used as gaming pieces. The tusks used for the Lewis Chessmen may have come from Greenland, which had a good trading relationship with Norway in the Middle Ages.
4. They’re very well-travelled
The Lewis Chessmen (and women) are some of the most well-travelled objects in the British Museum collection.
Since 1995, various pieces have been shown in over 20 exhibitions around the world, so hundreds of thousands of people – possibly millions – have been able to see them. Their characterful expressions are instantly appealing, from the queens’ worried manner to warriors biting their shields!
5. They have a long history in the Museum
Starting life in the (former) Department of Antiquities in 1831, the Lewis Chessmen were some of the first objects from medieval Europe in the Museum which, at the time, was more interested in objects from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. During the 1800s they were displayed with other ivory objects – a photo of the ‘Medieval Room’ from 1875 (below) shows a corner of a case where you can spot some of them. They are standing in a long line across the middle of the case, which looks like it contains ivory mirror cases. They can now be found in the Medieval Europe 1050–1500 gallery – usually with visitors peering in to see their expressions!
6. They’re Hollywood famous
We can’t talk about the Lewis Chessmen without mentioning a certain boy wizard. In 2001 the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re American), used a replica of the Lewis chess set – owned by British Museum curator Irving Finkel – that Ron and Harry have to overcome near the film’s climax. You can buy a replica of this set in the Museum shop – and hear Irving’s take on ‘the film that shall not be named’ below.
7. They’ve taken on a life of their own
Today the Lewis Chessmen have been replicated and reimagined in many different ways. As well as their Harry Potter cameo, they’ve also appeared in the manga graphic novel Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure and as a giant Lego sculpture made up of over 90,000 bricks, created at the National Museum of Scotland. Curator Naomi Speakman has even been sent photos of them recreated in cake by members of the public! And new 3D scans of some of the chessmen let visitors move the pieces around and enjoy them in a whole new way.
And there you have it. A tale of chess history we think would bewitch Beth Harmon herself!