New Theory: The Lewis Chess Pieces Stem from Iceland Skip to content

New Theory: The Lewis Chess Pieces Stem from Iceland

The discovery of a chess piece at Siglunes reported yesterday has strengthened engineer and chess enthusiast Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson in his belief in his new theory that a remarkable set of chess pieces, the Lewis Chessmen, is of Icelandic origin.

The Lewis Chessmen are a group of 78 chess pieces from the 12th century most of which are carved in walrus ivory, discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

Until recently, the best guess among scholars and historians was that the chessmen probably originated in Trondheim, Norway. But in 2010, Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson put forward a compelling new theory about the enigma of the origin of these unique chess pieces.

Pieces from the Lewis set

Thórarinsson is best know as chairman of the Icelandic Chess Federation during the Fischer Spassky Match of the Century for the World Championship in Chess, held in Reykjavík in 1972. He was later member of Althingi, Iceland’s parliament. Thórarinsson is an impressive speaker and is well known for his supreme knowledge of Shakespeare’s works, parts of which he knows by heart.

His tantalizing hypothesis — based on circumstantial evidence — is that the Lewis Chessmen might have been handcrafted in Iceland at the old workshop at Skálholt under the guidance of Bishop Páll Jónsson and his team of Margrét the Adroit, Thorsteinn the Schrinesmith and other craftsmen. (The ruins of the old workshop and its scrap heap is still lying there untouched, awaiting excavation).

Skálholt in southern Iceland, about an hours drive from Reykjavík, was the seat of the bishops from 1056 to 1801.

Skálholt. Photo: Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

On Friday, August 19th, 2011, Skálholt will host a SYMPOSIUM on the possible origins of the mystical and most precious artifacts, the Lewis Chessmen, which date from the late 12th century. The Lewis Chessmen are the world’s oldest chess pieces that bear the features of modern chessmen.

The proposed Agenda for the Lewis Chessmen Symposium at Skálholt includes 6-7 short lectures (15-20 min. each) delivered by 2-3 esteemed scholars from overseas, e.g. David H. Caldwell from the National Museum of Scotland and James Robinson of the British Museum. Both of them have recently authored books on the enigma of the Lewis Chessmen. Next on the agenda will be Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson who will summarize and expound upon his new theory. Following Thórarinsson, several Icelandic scholars and professors will speak about Bishop Páll and the theme of the conference. The agenda will be further augmented by an open session. The Symposium will be held in English and is open to all.

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