Repatriating the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum

I sometimes think that one of the worst jobs in archaeology today would be  to work as a curator at the British Museum.  Yes,  there is the prestige of researching and mounting massive exhibitions that attract international attention.   But who would want to be on the receiving end of all the ire of foreign governments who want their treasures back,  from Iran demanding the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Greece pressuring for the return of the Parthenon marbles?  And I sure wouldn’t want Zawi Hawass lecturing me on the return of the Rosetta Stone.

Now a new front has opened up in the diplomatic war to pry loose national treasures from the British Museum showcases–and it’s not at all where you might think it would be.  Last week,  Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil called for a debate in the British House of Commons over the repatriation of the very famous Lewis Chessmen discovered in a sandbank on the Isle of  Lewis,  in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands sometime before 1831.

First a very short primer on the Lewis Chessmen,  which are my all time favorite artifacts from Medieval Europe.    A 12th century artist carved the exquisitely beautiful  chess pieces–93 in all–mostly from walrus ivory,  which could well have come from the Greenland colonies,  or possibly even from the Canadian Arctic.  (That’s another story  I’ll save for another day.)  No one knows for certain, however,  where the chessmen were carved,  although some scholars lean towards Trondheim in Norway,  since similar chess pieces were found there.   How these wonderful chessmen–one of the best preserved sets from the medieval world- came to lie in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis is unknown.

Shortly after they came to light in 1831, however,  the Hebridean finder decided to sell them.  A private  buyer purchased 11 of the pieces and the rest went to the British Museum, which displays several of these miniature artworks  in one of its galleries.

But now people in the Outer Hebrides want their famous chessmen back.  Indeed, their MP Angus MacNeil is working hard to repatriate them to the Museum nan Eilean in  Stornoway,  the major town of the Outer Hebrides.  And what has provoked this protest?   It appears that the  British Museum has stepped very clumsily on toes and local sensitivities in the Outer Hebrides.  Its curators have been working on a major travelling exhibit of the chesspieces to Scotland and according to a recent online article in The Press and Journal, advertising for the forthcoming exhibit attributes the chesspieces to Norwegian craftsmen,  completely ignoring the possibility that they were carved in the Outer Hebrides.

Is this just a tempest in a teapot?  I don’t think so.   The Lewis chesspieces are objects of of immense pride in the Outer Hebrides,  and someone at the British Museum should have known this.  I am becoming more and more sympathetic all the time to foreign governments and even local museums who want to repatriate their greatest treasures from the vaults and exhibition cases of the British Museum.  It think it’s patronizing in the extreme today to think that only the big national museums in developed countries know how to take care of the world’s most important cultural heritage.


  1. Tim

    This is an interesting story for so many different reasons – I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the trade in walrus ivory through the Greenland colonies in a future post. Something that I hadn’t realized or thought about until these pieces started making headlines again was how the black and white pieces were distinguished form each other. Apparently, when they were discovered half of them were stained red. If it was ochre, someone must have scrubbed the bejeezus out of them to get them clean. Too bad.

    As for who should curate the pieces, I think the two sides should select national champions and play a head to head game with them to decide where they go. I think everyone would love to see those pieces used in an actual chess match.

  2. Tim:

    I hadn’t heard about the red (ochre?) stain on some of the chessmen. That’s a very cool detail. Perhaps some traces are left on the pieces?

    And I imagine the Hebrideans would love a shot at a deciding chess match–perhaps their only real chance of repatriation in the current climate.

  3. Tim

    The stain is mentioned on the British Museum website:

    Other than mentioning the colour, it doesn’t say what it might have been, where it went or if any traces remain. I’d guess ochre and would be surprised if there wasn’t a trace left in some nook or cranny.

    1. Yes, ochre does seem like a good possibility. I wonder if an analysis of trace residues on the pieces would shed any light on their origin?

  4. I think the BM is in a cleft stick here. If they acknowledge the possibility that the chessmen were carved in the Hebrides, they’ll be called hypocrites for not giving them back. If they don’t mention it, they get this kind of coverage. What are their options?

    (Disclaimer: I work in a museum with stuff in it that Zahi Hawass wants back, so I probably have a biased view.)

  5. I agree that the BM is caught here between a rock and a hard place. But as much as I love gadding around its galleries and checking out stuff from all over the world, I’m beginning to think think these big national museums are dinosaurs, places where artifacts go to die, at least in one sense of word. I’d rather see the Lewis chessmen right where they were found, with locals telling me about them and what they mean to the community.

    And by the way, you and your colleagues have my sympathies about being on the receiving end of Hawass’s indignation.

    1. It’s paradoxical, in a way. Thousands more people have seen the chessmen at the British Museum than would ever have seen them in the Hebrides, partly because of the travelling distance and partly because of the myriad other objects that bring people into the BM. And of course that’s the only reason enough people know about them to underpin this kind of response to a call for repatriation. Contrariwise, there’s a little museum at a place called Gairloch on the West coast of Scotland which has a Pictish symbol stone, unlike a number of other places whose stones were hived off to the National Museum of Scotland in the last century, all with their own little repatriation debates. Getting to Gairloch is very difficult, a two-hour bus ride from the nearest rail station which is served four times a day each direction. It is unlikely that more than a few hundred living people have seen that stone and that number is never likely to increase much.

      So, who is the ‘community’ for these objects? The Lewis chessmen are icons known the world over. Gairloch’s stone, barely even a source of local pride. How many people who feel some connection to the chessmen (quite possibly with as strong a genealogical basis…) wouldn’t ever have seen them if they hadn’t wound up where they have? Which of these objects has `gone to die’ and which is living the high life?

      (I wouldn’t argue like this if there was good evidence that the chessmen were locally made. But as it stands the best case for repatriation would be one wanting to put them in the museum at Kaupang or Oslo!)

  6. […] there that commanded high prices in Europe:  walrus  ivory.    (As regular readers know,  I posted recently on one of the luxury products made from such ivory:  the wonderful Lewis […]

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