Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings

The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

Book - 2015
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Baker & Taylor
Draws on medieval Icelandic sagas, modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games to discuss the Lewis chessman.

McMillan Palgrave

In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.

Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.


A richly imagined journey to the Viking world that created the Lewis chessmen-"the most important chess pieces in history." -New York Times

Publisher: New York : St. Martin's Press, c2015
ISBN: 9781137279378
Branch Call Number: 736.62 BRO
Characteristics: 280 p. :,ill., maps ;,25 cm.

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DorisWaggoner
Mar 11, 2016

Since their discovery in the 1830s on the Isle of Lewis, the 92 small ivory pieces called the Lewis chessmen have been justly famous. But who made them, when, where, and why? Brown, a historian of the Vikings, reads Old Norse and Icelandic. Most experts consider them to have been carved in Trondheim. Brown spends some time explaining the sagas, and how to tell which are more historical than others (the more dragons, the less historical). Among the more historical, she finds an untranslated Icelandic saga and comes to another possible conclusion. In this saga, Bishop Pall commissions Iceland's best ivory carver, Margaret the Adroit, to make a bishop's crozier he gives as a gift to a Norwegian colleague. Comparing this crozier to the chess pieces, made during the same 1150-1200 time period, Brown concludes that there's a good possibility that Margaret the Adroit carved the Lewis pieces as well, as a gift for a Norwegian king or kings. The distance between the places involved wouldn't have mattered, as the ships and seamanship turned the North Atlantic of the time into a "sea road" all nationalities traveled. All their cultures were based on reciprocal gift-giving, bishops giving symbols of their office, kings giving the game of kings. Brown segues between the history of the time of the chessmen, and the current time, and the mysteries surrounding them. A little repetitive, but a wonderful read. No knowledge of chess required.

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