Lewis Chessmen

Lewis Chessmen

Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass have played more chess in the course of their adventures than we probably want to give them credit for. They each know their share of grandmasters and opening moves and might even run circles around some of their fans as far as game play goes. While the game is usually the chief concern, there hadn’t been much thought about the game pieces until the death of the professor’s brother.

Perry Childermass dabbled in sorcery, had an oddly-embellished estate in Maine, and left a legacy of $10 Million (of which Professor received only a piddly percentage). More so, he was a pacifist with a hare-brained scheme to frighten the people of the world into peace by using magic to bring about comets. To pull off such a feat he needed some magical devices of his own and hinted to their existence to his brother in his death-bed letter: “...pallid dwarves on a board that's not true?”

These pallid, or pale, dwarves are the Lewis Chessmen, chess pieces from the 12th Century found off the Isle of Lewis (pronounced Lews) of Scotland's Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides). Lewis is a fairly flat island with sandy beaches, a rugged coastline and a landscape consisting of stone circles, cairns, and brooches. It was here on April 11, 1831 that high tide exposed a treasure trove of 78 chessmen (8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns). Carved from walrus ivory sometime between 1150-1170, the chessmen represent the most complete collection of ancient chessmen in existence today.

Several pieces have wormlike channels in their surface that are may be tracks from burrowing organisms or acid-etching from contact with plant roots. In 1832 some of the pieces were reported to have evidence of red pigment, suggesting that one side of the sets may have been dyed red. A modern examination by the British Museum also discovered green flecks on 4 of the pieces. These seemed to fluoresce under X-ray, suggesting the possibility of a lead-based pigment. But these flecks appear on smooth portions where they would be most likely to wear-off, (or get rubbed-on from contact with other artifacts) and not in carved details where pigment should have been protected from wear. The Museum report was unable to confirm whether the red tint to some pieces was an artificial application, or staining due to contact with plant, or mineral deposits while they were buried. In general, the report accepted the possibilty of the early report of red pigment, but after decades of fading, handling, and contact with other museum artifacts, the truth remains subject to opinion. "Consequently," the museum's website notes, "the chessboard may have been red and white, as opposed to the modern convention of black and white."

While the Perry Childermass uses the chessmen as a device for bringing about world peace, in real-life the diminutive kings and pawns were probably used much like we use our modern pieces. Replicas have been made of them but the originals are much a much more impressive site. Housed in the museum's Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, here, too, there is a legend about the pieces. It is said that the guards who take the watch-dogs around at night through the museum cannot get them to pass the Celtic chessmen. The dogs bristle and drag back on their haunches.

Stuff that in your derby, Dr. Murgatroyd Freel.