Harry Potter fans may recall the wizard's chess set brought to life with a red queen in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The queen came from what is perhaps the world's most mysterious and imaginatively-crafted chess set -- 73 carved pieces probably dating to the 1200's. The famous Chess men (and women) comprise the world's oldest complete chess set (or parts of several sets). The treasure trove was discovered 15 feet deep in the sand in Lewis in Scotland's northern Outer Hebrides in the late 19th century. Scandinavian outposts were known to be there as early as the 1200's when the pieces were probably crafted. That chess was played in the Middle Ages with such extraordinary works of art tantalizes the imagination. Who were these people whose likenesses have been so whimsically and realistically depicted that they come alive for us today? Who played the game? These kings and queens, bishops with miters on their heads, knights mounted on rather small horses and holding spears and shields, rooks with shields and a wild expression, and pawns in the shape of obelisks -- all so very human. Some of the pieces contain red stains, suggesting perhaps that the sets had some colorings unlike modern black and white pieces.
"This is the first forensic account of modern research into the Chessmen," according to Ancientchess.com. The "unmasked" in the book's title refers to new controversies about their origin and about who might have owned - and lost - them - and about the trade and state of society where they were crafted.
The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked contains tantalizing information for the archeologist, the amateur sleuth and the storyteller. Malcolm MacLeod discovered the world's most remarkable and famous chess pieces in a sand dunebank in the Mains of Uig in Scotland's Outer Hebrides in the 19th century. But the area is known for its storytelling -- so how did they get there? One tale is about a sailor who buried a treasured bundle and was murdered for it. Another concerns a vaulted room buried in sand that was near a nunnery, a nunnery never found but a medieval house was, along with a slate inscribed with a Viking pattern in a burial ground.
"Archeological evidence suggests that the main center of occupation in Lewis by early Scandinavian settlers was in the parish of Uig," and the relatives of King Olaf, Bishop Rognvald, Tormod, the Norweigan army are possible characters in this intriguing plot, as are stone tables-men, 13th century dog collars and images of Christ fashioned as late as the 12th and 13th centuries. Authors Caldwell, Hall and Wilkinson have done their homework, bringing to light the smallest details, comparing, for instance, styles of dress worn by the magnificent Chessmen, ie., the costume of a bishop before 1150 would have included a mitre with the peak inside; after that it was outside.
This compact -- 7" x 10" hardcover book, 79 pp. -- shows each of the Chessmen in perfect detail and also has a section of thumbnails with their dimensions, an aid to the scholar. Humorous and so human -- a bishop holding his hand to his head in thought, an imperious Queen considering a move, a grim-faced warder, a buck-toothed knight grasping his shield -- it is hard to believe that these carvings were produced those centuries ago.