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British Museum // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

12 Berserk Facts About the Lewis Chessmen

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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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Antarctic Heritage Trust
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History
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]

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