diamond geezer

 Monday, March 30, 2009

Last week the British Museum reopened a major refurbished gallery. Officially it's designated the Paul and Jane Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe AD 1050–1500, although it's snappier to call it Gallery 40. Top of the main stairs, straight across the landing, fork left. It's full of pre-renaissance artefacts from across the continent, including a beaker from Venice, a gold cup from Paris and tiles from Tring. There are quite a few monastic bits and pieces, including fine jewellery and intricately carved stonework. But the centrepiece of the room is a glass cabinet containing the famous Lewis chessmen.

the Lewis king and queenThe chess pieces are of Norwegian origin, probably 12th century, and are carved from chunks of walrus tusk. The major pieces have beautifully carved faces, almost cartoonish to modern eyes, including a gruff beardy king and a rather huffish queen. There are more than enough pieces for a complete set, so some are displayed on a red and white board and the rest are laid out around the display case either singly or in groups. They make a most impressive strategic army, and are a reminder of the excellence of European craftsmanship almost a millennium ago.

As for the Lewis connection, the 93 chessmen were supposedly discovered inside a sand dune on the beach at Uig sometime around 1831. Nobody's quite sure precisely where, nor how they came to be in this remote Hebridean location, nor indeed whether any Viking overlords ever played chess with them. Why, indeed, is there only one proper rook in the collection, and why were half of the pieces stained red rather than the more usual black? Whatever the uncertainties about their purpose, nobody doubts their authenticity.

the Lewis chessmenIt wasn't long before Victorian custodians split the collection. 82 of the Lewis chessmen are now in the possession of the British Museum, while the remaining 11 are held by the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Not surprisingly there is much debate about where they should best be displayed. As a British find they have every right to be in the British Museum, argue some, even though that's 500 miles from the point of discovery. As a Scottish find they should all be in Edinburgh, argue others, so send them back immediately. Some on the island of Lewis believe they should return home to the Hebrides instead, probably to the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, even though far fewer people would be able to see them there.

As for the people of Uig, they've only been allowed to see six of the pieces for a single day at the local community centre back at the turn of the century. Uig's such a remote spot that I didn't even get that far when I was exploring the island of Lewis three years ago. I regret not stopping by to see the glorious beach, plus the ten-foot-high replica chessman planted in the dunes to remind visitors of the area's great discovery. I got within ten miles, but the relentless drizzle and intervening single-track road diverted my exploration elsewhere instead.

Thanks to the British Museum's persistent possessiveness I can pop in and view the Uig ivory hoard in central Bloomsbury, a few miles from home, whenever I feel the urge. A considerable souvenir industry seems to have built up around the chessmen, flogging replicas (and keyrings) to visiting international tourists, so the British Museum would probably lose income were they ever to return the pieces to those who might deserve them more. To be honest, given their origin, the 93 chessmen probably ought to be sent back to Norway for permanent display in the country that created them. For the foreseeable future, however, it's stalemate.

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