In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-two game pieces carved of ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen—the Lewis chessmen—the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moonfaced and mild. The knights are doughty if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies.
The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps—simple octagons—and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, like checkers. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.
Who carved them? Where? How did they arrive in that sandbank— or, as another account says, that underground cist—on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland? No one knows for sure: History, too, has many pieces missing. To play the game, we fill the empty squares with pieces of our own imagination.