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British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

12 Berserk Facts About the Lewis Chessmen

British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Lewis Chessmen are the most important chess pieces in history. Ever since the ivory pieces were discovered sometime before 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, these kings, queens, knights, rooks, bishops, and pawns carved from walrus tusk and whale tooth have long fascinated us due to their exquisite craftsmanship, unusually evocative faces, and strikingly Norse character.

Today 82 of the 93 known pieces are in the British Museum, and the remaining 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Despite their fame, some key details about them remain unknown. Here are 12 facts we recently learned about the Viking ivory chessman. Most are found in Nancy Marie Brown’s new book Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, which draws upon Icelandic sagas, archaeology, history, and forensics to locate the chessman in a time in history when the Norse ruled the North Atlantic.   

1. NO ONE KNOWS EXACTLY WHERE, WHEN, OR HOW THEY WERE FOUND. 

They may have been unearthed from beneath 15 feet of sand at the head of Uig Bay. Or perhaps they were found in a sandbank by a dim-witted farmer who mistook them for elves and promptly fled, only returning to retrieve them at the urging of his braver wife. Or perhaps the survivors of a shipwreck buried treasure they salvaged from the wreck but never returned for it. Yet another theory places them in the ruins of the House of the Black Women, an abandoned nunnery. These various tales have one thing in common: they put the discovery of the chessmen in Uig. All we know for sure is that the chessmen had to have been found before April 11, 1831, when they were displayed in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland.

2. WE ALSO DON'T KNOW WHERE THEY WERE MADE OR BY WHOM, BUT SOME SUSPECT THE ARTISAN WAS A WOMAN. 

The most widely accepted theory puts their place of origin as Trondheim, Norway. Another has them carved at the see in Skaholt, Iceland, where, according to the Saga of Bishop Pall, Margret the Adroit, the high-status wife of a priest, “was the most skilled carver in all Iceland” and was regularly commissioned by the bishop Pall to craft walrus ivory gifts he sent to friends in high places overseas. In this theory, that could be how the chess pieces got to the Isle of Lewis, which was an important trading center at the time. Some archaeologists have floated the idea of excavating the see in Skalholt to look for Margret’s ivory workshop.     

3. OTHERS SAY UP TO FIVE ARTISANS CARVED THE PIECES. 

Kit via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Two museum artifact specialists have proposed that based on the varying quality of the chessmen, at least four carvers created them. And in 2009, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson, a specialist in facial reconstruction who has given flesh to the skulls of King Richard III, Mary Queen of Scots, and Johann Sebastian Bach, put that number at five based on her analysis of the varied faces on 59 chessmen. She sorted them into five groups based on common characteristics like “round open eyes” and “inferiorly placed nostrils.” (Perhaps we can combine these theories and speculate that Margret the Adroit had four assistants in her workshop.)    

4. BASED ON THE ROOKS' WEAPONRY AND THE BISHOPS' MITERS, THEY WERE LIKELY CARVED BETWEEN 1150 AND 1200.

There's no archaeological context for the pieces, so we can't date them precisely. But their duds give us reliable clues. The rooks are all warriors decked out in a fashion typical of the late-Norse period: long leather coats, kite-shaped Norman shields, expensive swords, and mostly pointy helmets (two look more like a bowler hat and a bucket, respectively). As for the bishops’ miters, or pointed hats—the way they’re peaked front and back identifies them as a style worn in the late 12th century.

5. FOUR OF THE ROOKS ARE BERSERKERS. 

British Museum //CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

How do we know? They’re biting their shields. Berserks (“bear shirts” or “bare shirts”), according to a 13th-century account by Icelandic writer Snorri Snurluson, “wore no armor and were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, were as strong as bears or bulls. They killed other men, but neither fire nor iron could kill them.” The battle frenzy depicted on the chess pieces marks the warrior rooks as being from the North. As Brown wryly notes: “No other culture claims shield-biters.”  

6. BISHOPS MAY HAVE MADE THEIR DEBUT ON THE BOARD WITH THE LEWIS CHESSMEN. 

British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The 16 bishops in this set are unarmed, richly clothed, and well fed. How did these chubby men of the cloth get onto the battlefield of the board? As the oldest extant chess set that clearly includes bishops, the Lewis set could mark their debut. Perhaps their inclusion was ordered by Pall, bishop of Skalholt, and commissioner of Margret the Adroit’s famed ivory works. (See #2.)

7. THE KNIGHTS' HORSES HAVE COMICALLY—BUT ACCURATELY—STUBBY LEGS. 

The tall steeds we picture knights in the Middle Ages mounted on weren't actually very common in the 12th century; from Italy to England, most people rode stocky breeds, with the rider's legs dangling well below the horse's belly. The Lewis knights' horses are no different. Even today, Icelandic horses, purebred since the 12th century—the time of the Lewis chessmen—are strong and agile, but they are also pony sized. Brown writes, "A popular cartoon, printed on postcards, shows an Icelandic rider wearing roller skates."

8. THE QUEENS ALL HOLD ONE HAND AGAINST A CHEEK—A GESTURE YET TO BE UNDERSTOOD.

At the time, the queen was the weakest piece on the board, moving only one space per turn; it wouldn’t be until the late 15th century that the queen began to emerge as the most powerful piece in the game. Does that lowly status account for the intense emotion on the queens’ faces, and the position of their hands? All eight queens are crowned, seated on thrones, bedecked in elaborate gowns, and hold their right hand to their cheek. The emotion behind this distinctive pose has been variously read as grief, despair, patience, calculation, disapproval, or surprise, among others. Despite these wildly different interpretations, Brown writes, “everyone can agree that the Lewis queens do not look pleased. Though not warrior women, they are women at war.”  

9. WE MAY BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY TWO OF THE KINGS.

Like the queens, the eight kings sit on thrones, and their faces are equally grim (except for the two young ones, who are a bit eager). They have swords across their laps and all but one sport long hair twisted into locks. If the pieces do indeed date to the late 12th century, we may be able to identify two of them: Magnus V, crowned in Norway in 1164, and Sverrir (1184–1202), who followed him.

Magnus V—not to be confused with Magnus the Bare-Legs or Magnus the Blind—became king at just eight years old, but his father Erling Skew-Neck really ruled Norway until he died in 1179, by which time Magnus was a handsome man fond of drink and women. Sverrir, on the other hand, was stout and broad, and “looked most kingly when he was sitting down,” Brown writes. 

When Magnus died in 1184, Sverrir took the throne, but clashes with the archbishop led to his excommunication, and he soon had an armed rebellion on his hands. Eventually the rebels were trapped at Viken and reduced to eating their walrus-hide ropes, and Sverrir gave them quarter. A kind of peace ensued, but Sverrir died months later of illness, still excommunicated. The year was 1202. According to the Saga of King Sverrir, the king griped towards the end, “Being a king has brought me war and trouble and hard work."

10. HARRY AND RON PLAY WIZARD CHESS WITH THE LEWIS CHESSMEN IN HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE.

11. AS SCOTLAND CONSIDERED INDEPENDENCE, THE LEWIS CHESSMEN WERE CONSIDERED A NATIONAL ASSET ALONGSIDE OIL AND THE MILITARY. 

There have been calls to “repatriate” the Lewis chessmen from the British Museum for several years. This push dovetailed with the movement towards Scottish independence in 2012, when the pro-independence, center-right Scottish Democratic Alliance party published a white paper titled “The Future Governance of Scotland” that included five key aspects of the “exit strategy from the U.K.” Number 3 on the list: “Negotiation on division of the U.K. assets (oil, financial, military, Lewis chessmen, etc.).” In 2014 Scotland voted against independence.    

12. SIX CHESSMEN WILL RETURN "HOME" NEXT YEAR TO A CASTLE ON THE ISLE OF LEWIS.

The 19th-century Lewis Castle is slated to be the home of six chessmen on permanent loan from the British Museum. The castle was supposed to open to the public this month, but concerns about security measures and environmental conditions in the exhibition room at the castle have delayed their return until next year. 

Banner image credit: Allesandro Grusu via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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Crossrail
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground
Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

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