Monday, 28 June 2010

Let's dig for the missing Lewis chessmen

Back in London town this morning the ever intriguing Lewis chessmen featured on the History of the World in one hundred objects on Radio Four.

I love the series anyway but having the chess pieces mulled over by Neil MacGregor was a treat. It will be on the BBC's play it again device and on Radio 4 at 7.45pm.

When the series started I guessed there would be another of these predictable calls for the 67 pieces to be repatriated from the British Museum to the Isle of Lewis. Step forward Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, who organised a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

I wrote that asking for 12th century chess pieces, one of the iconic collections in the British Museum, was woefully under-ambitious aim. Far better to ask for the whole British museum to move to the Western Isles.

Museum franchising (the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Tate in St Ives and now the Victoria and Albert for Dundee) is the next big thing in terms of cultural tourism. Having a branch of the British Museum in Stornoway would make the place a tourism magnet.

I'm pleased to hear the Western Isles Museum Service has taken up the suggestion and that my idea was discussed at meeting between MacGregor and MacNeil at the British Museum recently.

But, back to the programme. What was even more intriguing than the history of the 78 pieces held between Edinburgh and London is that the pieces are far from making a complete set. The 78 chess pieces are enough for at least four incomplete sets.

Tantalizingly the minimum missing pieces are a knight, four warders (the shield biters) and 45 pawns, which are quite plain.

There could be more out there, either waiting to come to light in some private or forgotten collection, or still buried in the sands of Uig.

I'm not sure if there ever has been an exhaustive archaeological exploration of the sand banks where the pieces are said to have been found in 1831.

Maybe someone can correct me on that, but an organised dig for the missing chessmen would do for the Hebrides what Howard Carter did for Egyptian tourism with the opening the tomb of Tutankhamen. Anyone got a bucket and spade?

UPDATE: Sarah has posted some helpful information below, emphasising, as I should have myself, that any investigation of the sands ought to be authorised and authoritative. Amateur Indiana Jones need not apply is the bones of her post.

1 comment:

  1. 1. No, there has never been a dig in the Bealach Ban. But with cows, sheep, storms, rabbit excavations and random treasure hunters, nothing has ever come to light (as far as we know).

    2. If there's any truth to the story about them being found in a kist, it's unlikely that mass digging is going to find any more. The odd pawn may have escaped but they were a set (probably in a bag, with the buckle that was found?). There are bumps in the machair there that are asking for investigation, however.

    3. We don't want any diggers (human or mechanical) letting rip in the dunes. Careful what you suggest. They are precious in themselves.

    4. If anyone is looking for a likely spot to dig, how about the burial grounds at Traigh na Beirghe which turn up a Bronze Age or Viking skeleton or two every year, which is eroding visibly, and which will certainly give returns, where as carving up the dunes at the Traigh Mhor is a bit populist!

    In other words, yes to more archaeological work and more interest in our Vikings, but no to chasing after chessmen.

    (ps not all the warders are berserkers)