How a Million-Dollar Viking Chess Piece Was Found in a Kitchen Drawer

The little figurine from the famous Lewis hoard tells a story that stretches from a medieval longboat to a modern auction

How a Million-Dollar Viking Chess Piece Was Found in a Kitchen Drawer
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Have you ever thought about what’s in your kitchen drawer? You know, the one with the spare shoelaces, unraveling ball of string and half a candle for the next blackout? Or have you thought, perhaps, about what’s on that dusty shelf of memorabilia, about that dull little object sitting behind the plastic Pinocchio from your trip of a lifetime to Italy?

There is a family in Scotland (who have decided to remain anonymous) who did just this. Among the detritus of their life, they discovered gold. It took the form of a small figurine, about 3.5 inches long, broken and patinated by time to a blackish-brown hue. This object came into the family’s hands in 1964, when it was purchased by their grandfather, an antique dealer, for $6. He bought it as a curiosity to add to his private collection. Recording it in his ledger as “Antique Walrus Tusk Warrior Chessman,” the dealer never in his lifetime established the link between this piece and what is known in the chess world as the Lewis hoard.

The solitary warder (known also as a rook) sat in the family’s kitchen drawer and was brought out occasionally to be admired, then returned to the drawer. The dealer’s daughter was enchanted by the piece, which became hers when the antiquarian died. The warder’s sword, gambeson (or chainmail garment) and shoulder-height shield underscored the piece’s military purpose on the chessboard, but there was also an elfin quality to the figure that was more enigmatic.

“My mother was very fond of the chessman,” her son explained to Sotheby’s when the warder was taken into the auction house to be valued. “She admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance.”

Sotheby’s expert assessor, Alexander Kader, was instantly alert to the warder’s potential value but had to contain his excitement for the six months it took to authenticate its provenance. Tests would confirm that the warder belonged to the ancient hoard of medieval chess pieces found in the Bay of Uig, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

By the mid-1960s, the Lewis chess pieces were already star billing at the British Museum, which housed 82 of the original 93 pieces in the find, and at the National Museum of Scotland, which owned the remaining 11. They had been written about and illustrated in books; had influenced the drawing of Noggin the Nog, a fictional Norse character in a popular BBC cartoon series that ran from 1959 to 1965 and again in 1982; and would inspire the plot of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” published in 2001. The chess pieces were icons of European culture for over half a century while the warder rolled around in its drawer.

This is testimony to the power of the mundane to mask the simply unimaginable, for on July 2, 2019, the Scottish family’s knickknack sold at the Sotheby’s “Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art” auction for the astonishing sum of $927,423. A spokesperson for the family said the money from the sale would transform their lives.

But the story of the antique dealer’s warder is only the most recent chapter in the hoard’s history of discoveries. Its most notable uncovering occurred in April 1831, when the original find was unearthed, reputedly by a cow. Malcolm Macleod, a poor peasant farmer working the barren hills of Penny Donald around the Bay of Uig, was moving his herd to fresh pastures when a section of bank that bordered the beach was disturbed by a feeding cow. A sizable tussock of sandy grass fell away, revealing, according to the story, a mysterious ceramic container.

Curious to see what was inside, Macleod lifted the earthenware lid. There, staring at him, was what the deeply superstitious herder believed to be a terrifying army of elfin sprites. Malcolm fled home in fright, convinced that he had uncovered a nest of magical beings — the sort that cast spells and created havoc for humans in Celtic folklore. The herder’s wife, less steeped in local legend, sent her reluctant husband back to retrieve the contents of the chamber, which is recorded as being an oven-like structure with an unknown dark substance similar to ash on its floor.

The vessel that carried the hoard has not survived, but the 93 artifacts it reputedly carried have. The container’s contents have always seemed a little incongruous. As well as four partial chess sets, there were 14 flat, circular counters that might be used in a game of draughts (or checkers), and a random belt buckle. All but one or two of the objects are made of walrus ivory. The exceptions were fashioned out of narwhal, or whale “tusk.” There are only 19 pawns of the 64 that would originally have completed the sets, and of the figure pieces, there are five missing — a knight and four warders. The antique dealer’s warder is likely to be one of the missing four that became inexplicably separated from the group.

Whether it was Macleod or his resolute wife who saw the true value of the discovery, we will never know, but value it had, because the couple sold the pieces to a man named Captain Ryrie for 30 pounds, or approximately 5,000 pounds (about $6,000) in today’s money. This was a relative fortune for the subsistence herder. Malcolm swore on his honor that these were all the pieces he had found, but in retrospect this was probably untrue, because it was arguably at this point that at least 11 pieces were separated from the group.

On April 11, 1831, the 82 pieces Ryrie had purchased went on show at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh. They had passed from Ryrie to the antiquities dealer, whose last name was Forrest. His hope was that the chess pieces would find a home in the National Museum in Edinburgh, but no backer was found. So Forrest took the ivories south to London, where he negotiated with Frederic Madden at the British Museum. Madden’s desire was always to keep the treasure together. Little did he know that this hope was already an impossibility.

Madden, assistant keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, did much of the seminal research on the Lewis chess pieces. He was intrigued by the mystery surrounding their burial in a sandbank at Uig (which means “solitary place” in Gaelic), but he was also a lover of chess.

Over its long history, the board game has crossed continents and connected cultures around the world. It began in India before 500 CE and spread through Persia and from the Islamic territories into Spain, France, Scandinavia and the British Isles. (An alternative route went through China.) Chess pieces, boards and illuminated instruction books, plus aristocratic and courtly mores associated with playing chess, all moved with the game.

The functions of this pleasurable pursuit also diversified over time. Records exist of chess being used by wealthy fathers to select eligible suitors for their daughters. It was played as part of the courtship ritual, and, in the eighth century, as Arab historian al-Musudi suggests, to gamble. Al-Musudi recorded instances of Indians playing chess and becoming so caught up in the game and its high stakes that, when they lost all of their money and possessions, they would wager their limbs. To facilitate this enormous sacrifice, a small copper vessel filled with a reddish ointment was boiled over a wood fire nearby. Al-Musudi observed: “If the man who wagered one of his fingers loses, he cuts off the finger with a dagger, and then plunges his hand in the ointment and cauterizes the wound. … Sometimes a man who continues to lose will cut off in succession all his fingers, his hand, his fore-arm, his elbow, and other parts of his body.” Chess was dangerously addictive, as was the gambling culture that accompanied it, and it spread rapidly across the globe.

As chess moved through the Islamic territories, its pieces became abstract in design because of religious prohibitions about representing the human form. But in Europe it was only after they were anthropomorphized that the game became popular. The playing of chess was widespread in Scandinavia, and it may have been from here that it moved to the British Isles.

Madden, who knew this chess history, was compelled to work out where and when the pieces were made. This was his responsibility as assistant keeper of manuscripts, but also a passion. The evidence he had was both stylistic and forensic.

The pieces were unquestionably Romanesque — a style that began around 1000 CE and was at its height in Europe from 1075 to 1125. Madden narrowed down the time frame of execution when he noted that the bishop’s miters (caps) were worn with the peaks at the front and back instead of at the sides, which suggested they were carved after the middle of the 12th century. The historic mid-century change in the way bishops wore their miters meant the pieces could not have been carved any earlier.

Their origin was evident in the iconography of the pieces. The crowns, armor and garments worn by the figure pieces; the symbolism and early heraldry of the shields; the kings’ braided hairstyles; the knights mounted on Icelandic ponies; and the thrones of seated royalty and bishops covered in swirling mythological animals, which were chewing and clawing each other — all suggested that the origin of the pieces was Viking and that they were likely carved in Trondheim, in Norway, in one of the carving workshops linked to the town’s great cathedral.

Ivory was white gold. Studios working in this material produced treasures for the church. In the medieval period when Christianity was establishing itself in Scandinavia, these production houses of ostentatious sacred wealth produced anything from elaborately decorated combs to the covers of Bibles, pyxes (or boxes to hold the consecrated host), reliquaries, portable altars, crucifixes and crosiers. It is possible that they also produced the occasional illicit chess set to trade, or for the frivolous diversion of a marauding bishop.

The Viking sagas mostly recorded the exploits of great warriors, clergy, earls and kings, but there were stories that also celebrated the artistry of carvers, illuminators and goldsmiths. One such record was an Icelandic story entitled “The Saga of Bishop Pall.” This mid-13th-century saga tells — remarkably — of a woman carver, Margret the Adroit, who at the time was the most skilled carver in Iceland. The legend explains that “Bishop Pall sent many gifts to his friends abroad, both gyrfalcons and other treasures” and that Margret “made everything the bishop wanted.” It has been suggested that Margret the Adroit may have executed at least one of the Lewis chess sets, for the four chess sets were not carved by a single maker. In fact, there are a number of different stylistic approaches discernible, ranging from functional and simple to sophisticated and exquisite. The practitioners that made them would have worked from copybooks that provided patterns to work by, but the levels of proficiency in their execution were vastly different. If Margret the Adroit did carve a set, it is likely to be one of the more magnificent ones.

Forensically, several clues could be observed that helped explain what might have happened to them after they left the workshop in Trondheim. For instance, Madden, using his magnifying glass, could still see tiny grains of sand in the carved lines of the figures. This spoke of the beach location where they were found, but also of the fact that they had not been weathered by the battering of wind and waves. Although they were found close to the pounding sea, they had been protected from it by the sealed ceramic chamber that had kept them secure.

Records indicate that when the container was opened the opposing sides were red and white, rather than black and white. Once exposed to the light, the red pieces rapidly faded, but Madden could still discern the presence of a red dye in the detailing of some of the pieces. He noted that their condition varied considerably. Some were far better preserved than others. This he believed was caused largely by their position in the chamber. Those close to the edge had been more affected by temperature change and damp, while those in the middle were better protected.

All of them, he noted, had tiny grooves cut randomly across their surface. He sought the opinion of the natural history section of the museum. Their verdict was that they were made by burrowing worms, or tiny termites. There was also damage done, they thought, by the fine roots of marram grasses that had wound their way through minute gaps and cracks that had opened up over time, damaging the outside of the pieces.

This evidence proved that the chess pieces had been in their chamber for a very long time, but who put them there in the first place? Had they been hidden soon after their making, or had there been a delay? These were mysteries not answerable by the objects themselves. Madden discovered from his enquiries that there were two main theories for how and when the ivories came to be buried on the Isle of Lewis. The more recent story involved the horrific exploits of a herder known as Red Gillie; the older traced a deeper, more distant history involving the Viking diaspora and their bloody seafaring empire.

The recent account, written down by the Rev. Col. A. J. MacKenzie, was a story he had heard told many times in the community house near the old sanctuary of Baile-na-Cille. It commenced with the struggle for control of the Isle of Lewis, which was fought over for years by the Macleods and the MacKenzies. At the beginning of the 17th century the war was finally won, and the chief of the MacKenzies divided the spoils of battle among his clan. One clan member was the fierce Calum Mor. He was given Baile-na-Cille and the bleak and bitter pasture of Ard Mhor. His farmland included the rugged hills that surrounded the Bay of Uig. It was a desolate expanse, poorly serviced by rough cart tracks; the territory was so remote that to tend his stock Calum Mor used hired hands.

The herder charged with caring for this distant corner was a man known as the Gille Ruadh, or Red Gillie. The land where he grazed his master’s cattle was strewn with rocks, across the hills and almost down to the beach. He moved the herd relentlessly in search of fresh grazing. It was a difficult existence. The story goes that the herder watched while a young cabin boy escaped in a rowboat from a ship anchored in the harbor with a precious cargo of ivories. Somehow the murderous herder intercepted the fleeing sailor, tricked the youth into trusting him, then killed the boy. To remove the evidence of his crime, he buried the chess pieces in the sands of the Bay of Uig, planning to come back one day and recover them.

Before he could exhume his treasure, Red Gillie was exiled to the mainland in disgrace, where he continued his criminal behavior. Ultimately, being found guilty of the rape and murder of a young woman, the herder was hanged. Maybe he had told one of the other prisoners, or perhaps his priest let slip his confession, no one knows, but his story escaped the cell and survived the gallows to live on in the imaginations of generations to come. Eventually, it took on the character of myth.

Madden’s other solution to the riddle of how the ivories were transported from their carving studio in Trondheim to their hiding place on the Isle of Lewis belongs to a more ancient history. The Vikings’ far-reaching maritime empire began around the year 800 and continued for more than two centuries. In fact, the stretch of Irish Sea that connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the North Channel was practically a transit corridor for Norse vessels, and the Hebrides, which include the Isle of Lewis, and Skye, on the west coast of Scotland, were the gateway to Europe.

These were savage seas, and Viking ships traveled close to the coast for fear of turbulent waters and lashing storms. But like the fragile bird that dances on the crocodile’s back and falters, vessels were often smashed to pieces on jagged rocks and perished. According to Madden’s investigations, one such knarr, or merchant ship, was carrying a consignment of chess sets made in Trondheim and destined for the palace of a king or bishop in Ireland. It seems that the Viking longboat transporting the treasure foundered in a storm on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, and the ship sank.

There is no record of the vessel or the number of deaths, but if this did in fact happen then someone capable of carrying the chess pieces up the beach in their bag and burying them must have survived the wreck. Maybe the person buried them in the hope that they would get back to this distant spot and recover them when they were better able to carry them away. Whatever the plan was, according to this theory the seafarer never returned and the chess pieces remained secreted away for nearly 700 years.

The story of the Lewis chess pieces will remain an enigma. Their iconography tells us much, but they continue to keep their secrets. There are still four figure pieces and 45 pawns unaccounted for. But this is just one of countless archaeological finds, with unexplained gaps and pieces missing. If there is a lesson to be learned from the antique dealer’s warder, then it is that there is treasure in the everyday, that history is all around us. It is handed down from one generation to the next so that it becomes part of our familiar world. And sometimes it just takes clearing out a kitchen drawer to find a fortune.

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