In 1831, ninety-three walrus ivory chess pieces were found in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Called ‘The Lewis Chessmen’, they have been dated to the 12th century, when Scotland (and the whole of the British Isles) were in the last phases of the centuries long phenomenon of piratical raids and colonizing expeditions from Scandinavia – The Viking Age. The Isle of Lewis lied at the geographical heart of this diaspora, which included Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys. Since their discovery, there have been questions about the who, what, why and where. Where were they carved – Iceland? Norway? Scotland? Why were they buried? Whom would have owned them? Ivory Vikings presents possible answers and new theories based on current research in medieval history, art and literature.
A little while ago, our Teen Services staff member introduced his regular Teen Time attendees to chess. Now, almost daily, we have a group of teens whom pull out the chess boards and play (and coach each other) for a few hours. Some younger ‘tweens have even gotten in on the act and we have had simultaneous games going on in different rooms of the library.
I thought about how quickly and with how much enthusiasm the kids took to the game when I came across this title. Learning the rules of the game and strategy are only one part of chess’ appeal. The other is how much a part of history it really is. Boards and pieces have always reflected the place and time of their creation, so they can be, and often are, a reflection of people’s perceptions of power and status – what kings, queens, bishops, and castles looked like. They can also tell us a lot about who traveled, when and how far. Traders, merchants, monks, and soldiers could transport a game made in one country to another, or make pieces out of bought, or traded for, exotic materials . Ivory Vikings attempts to tell the story behind the origins of, and offers new interpretations for, probably the most famous set of chess pieces in the world – the ‘Lewis Chessmen’.
I hope our newly minted chess masters will come to appreciate the history of the game as well, and whether you’re a chess player or not, Ivory Vikings is an adventure of parts mystery, history lesson, art class and travelogue which is well worth undertaking.