Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

by Nancy Marie Brown

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“A fascinating tale of discovery and mystery.” —The Minneapolis Star Tribune

In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. The Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.

Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466879133
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 48,606
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

NANCY MARIE BROWN is the author of highly praised books of nonfiction, including Song of the Vikings. She is fluent in Icelandic, and spends her summers in Iceland. She has deep ties to the Scandinavian cultural institutions in the U.S. Brown lives in East Burke, VT.
NANCY MARIE BROWN is the author of highly praised books of nonfiction, including Song of the Vikings. She is fluent in Icelandic and spends her summers in Iceland. She has deep ties to the Scandinavian cultural institutions in the U.S. Brown lives in East Burke, Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Ivory Vikings

The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them

By Nancy Marie Brown

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Nancy Marie Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7913-3


The Rooks

On the four corners of the chessboard stand the rooks. Ours are not towers. Castles did not come into fashion as rooks until the 1500s. Since the word rook, from Arabic rukh, means "chariot," you might expect our rooks to look like the four-horse chariots of another medieval ivory chess set, long identified as Charlemagne's own, though now thought to come from Norman Italy in the late eleventh century. Along with its chariot-rooks, this chess set has elephants instead of bishops and a vizier, not a queen: Chess originally, or as far back as history lets us see, was an image of the Indian army.

From India, this war game traveled through Persia to Baghdad, by then the capital of the Islamic empire. Islam prohibits the carving of idols; chess men became chess pieces: beautiful smooth lumps of stone or bone or ivory, with the merest points and projections to indicate which pieces were which. Abstract chess pieces arrived in Christian Spain by at least the year 1008, when a count near Barcelona bequeathed a rock-crystal set to a local church. One made of whale bone, with little faces peering out from polygonal sides, was found at the English manor of Witchampton in Dorset in 1927. It has been dated (through a number of assumptions) to the late eleventh century and is thought to be Norse. Two unfinished pieces, one with two nubs denoting elephant tusks, were found beside rough sections of deer antler during excavations at Northampton, England, in 2014; the archaeologists named the site a carver's workshop and dated it to the late twelfth century.

Our twelve Lewis rooks, nine carved of walrus ivory and three of whale's tooth, are not lumps. Neither are they towers or charioteers: They are warriors. Four, as Frederic Madden of the British Museum pointed out in 1832, are rather peculiar: They're biting their shields. The army these chessmen represent is clearly a Norse one — a late Norse one, with queens, Christian bishops, and Viking berserks for rooks.

Berserks — meaning "bear-shirts" or "bare-shirts" — were the god Odin's warriors. Foot soldiers in the forefront of battle, they "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. That is called going berserk," explained the thirteenth-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson.

Sometimes the "bear-shirts" wore shirts of wolf skin instead. Harald Fair-Hair, king of Norway in the late ninth century, had a bodyguard of these "wolf-skins"; sang a skald who lived in Harald's time:

The berserks howled,
battle was on their minds,
the wolf-skins growled
and shook their spears.

In another stanza, a valkyrie, or battle goddess, asks a raven about Harald's berserks. The raven replies:

"Wolf-skinned are they called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields."

Harald's Lay is the earliest known mention of berserks. Here they do not bite shields but hack through and bloody them. Yet by Snorri's day, when berserks next appear in literature, shield-biting defines them.

Over the next hundred years, they become stock characters — and ultimately buffoons, as in the Saga of Grettir the Strong. One of the last Family Sagas, written in the 1300s, Grettir's is almost an anti-saga, in which the values of the Viking Age are indicted. Grettir takes no guff from berserks. This one was on horseback: "He began to howl loudly and bit the rim of his shield and pushed the shield all the way into his mouth and snapped at the corner of the shield and carried on furiously." Grettir ran at him and kicked the shield. It "shot up into the berserk's mouth and ripped apart his jaws and his jawbone flopped down on his chest." End of berserk.

Our Lewis rooks are not yet buffoons, but neither are they Odin's warriors. Instead of animal skins, they wear long leather coats or gambesons; on three the coats are cross-hatched, as if depicting chain mail. All carry kite-shaped Norman shields — not the round shields we envision ranked along the gunwales of a Viking ship. None of our rooks has a spear to shake: They're armed with rather more expensive swords, another sign that these are late-Norse warriors, not Viking Age berserks. All but one have helmets; the odd one wears a chain-mail coif. Nine helmets are pointy caps, most with earflaps; they might or might not have noseguards. Two are quite different: One looks like a bowler hat, the other, a bucket. Some rooks are mustached and bearded, some clean-shaven. Their hair is cropped at the shoulders. Most glare straight ahead, one looks askance. They are stalwart, gruff, bold-looking bluffers, not terribly fierce, except for those four who are biting their shields. Beware: They are going berserk.

That one little detail, the berserk battle frenzy, marks these ivory warriors as men of the North: No other culture claims shield-biters. That and the material most are made of. "Fish teeth," the sagas call it. We call it walrus tusk.


In the farthest north, at the edge of the Ocean Called Dark, lie long sloping beaches where walruses haul themselves out of the sea in the thousands. The story of the Lewis chessmen originates here, where these elephantine relatives of fur seals congregate to this day, heaping themselves upon each other, tumbled so tight that some snooze sitting up, grunting and sighing, while others, roaring their annoyance, lash out at their neighbors to gain more space. Some laze on their backs, their long tusks pricking the sky. Up to twelve feet long and ten in circumference, each walrus weighs a ton or more. Their hides are, in places, three inches thick, wrinkled and scarred and infested with ticks; beneath is a four-inch layer of fat. Their color varies from almost white, when they first wriggle out of the icy sea, to a warm cinnamon brown, to pinkish if they overheat. Their heads are small, with wide, whiskered lips and tiny eyes; both male and female are tusked. All in all, they're silly-looking beasts, a favorite of cartoonists, who dress them in top hats.

They feed, for the most part, on clams. In 2001, for the first time, scientists filmed them eating in the wild: The beasts dived down to the seafloor and stood on their heads, "with their tusks resting like a sledge on the bottom." Waving one flipper over the sand, or squirting water jets from their lips, or grubbing with their whiskery vibrissae in the sediment, they uncovered clams' siphons, then sucked out the soft parts, leaving the clamshells, for the most part, behind. While bivalves make up most of their diet, walruses also eat worms, snails, soft-shell crabs, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and slow-moving fish. Some acquire a taste for seal, or small whales. Others eat seabirds or scavenge dead carcasses.

They are "filled with malice and curiosity," say twentieth-century walrus hunters, and highly dangerous at sea or on land, being prone to attack unprovoked. Startle them on their sunning grounds and they will stampede, humping panic-stricken into the sea to bob and duck and peer, blowing spray and sniffing the wind for an enemy to attack. In the sea their bulk is no handicap. They are streamlined killing machines. They will grab a seal and squeeze it to death. "After that they rip off the blubber fat and then eat the lot, skin and all," a hunter wrote in 1958. "I heard of a herd of walrus chasing a bear on to a rotten ice-floe. They then attacked the ice with their tusks, smashing it to pieces so that the bear fell into the water. The rest was a gory turmoil."

Said an eyewitness from 1914, "Our fragile craft would not have lasted a second if they had come for us."

And they are known to go for boats: "Up they came again immediately around the boat," wrote the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the late 1800s. "They stood up in the water, bellowed and roared till the air trembled, threw themselves forward toward us, then rose up again, and new bellowings filled the air.... Any moment we might expect to have a walrus tusk or two through the boat, or to be heaved up and capsized."

One hunter's brother in the 1950s was taken right out of the boat: "He was standing in the prow of his boat, harpoon at the ready, when a great brute leapt out of the sea, struck at him viciously, and carried him off to sea. They never saw any more of him."

Even if you are not hunting them, they might be hunting you; wrote the same author:

A Dane I knew came across some walruses one autumn in Germania Harbour. They caught sight of him and disappeared. Cursing his luck, our friend started to walk on, when to his surprise and horror there was a rending crack under his very feet, and a huge tusky head broke through the ice and stared at him. For a moment he stood rooted to the spot, then made off as fast as his feet could carry him towards the safety of the shore. As he ran, his footsteps were dogged, and even anticipated, by more resounding ice-cracks as a succession of hairy heads raised themselves from the depths to stare at him.

The Dane gained the land, but even a beached walrus can move fast and kill efficiently. "An eyewitness says that he once saw a polar bear stalk a young walrus and imprudently spring within reach of the maternal guardian," reports the hunter from 1914. "One drop of her mighty head buried the long tusks in his body and a few more blows ended the combat before his teeth or claws could seriously damage her thick hide." In his Description of the Northern Peoples of 1555, the Swedish antiquarian Olaus Magnus remarked of the walrus, "If it glimpses a man on the seashore and can catch him, it jumps on him swiftly, rends him with its teeth, and kills him in an instant."

Viking walrus hunters had no harpoons. In the absence of any historical sources, we can only guess how they hunted these dangerous beasts. Most likely not at sea, as dead walruses sink. If wounded on the ice, a dying beast will, with one twist, reach the water — and sink. On land the odds are highest of recovering the kill. Hunters in 1775 used lances and big dogs — both of which the Vikings possessed — and waited for a dark night and a wind from the sea. Then, with the help of their fearless elkhounds, sixteen men "cut" a herd of seven or eight thousand walruses, pushing into its midst, driving some of the beasts into the sea and the others farther inland, up the slope of the beach until "the darkness of the night deprives them of every direction to the water, so that they stray about and are killed at leisure, those that are nearest the shore being the first victims." Once the walruses' escape to sea is blocked by a wall of carcasses, the hunters can take their time spearing the ones trapped on land. The best attack is a blow to the back of the head, just behind the tiny earhole — then the lance will pierce the brain and the walrus will drop down dead. Otherwise the writhing, bellowing, thick-skinned monster is very difficult to dispatch. It can suffer any number of jabs to the body and still fight back. This group bagged fifteen hundred. A hunt recorded in 1603 killed between seven hundred and a thousand walruses in under seven hours. An observer in 1858 noted that "when drenched with blood and exhausted," one group of hunters returned to their ship, had their dinner, resharpened their lances, and went back to the killing fields refreshed; their final tally was nine hundred dead walruses. "In all my sporting life," he says, "I never saw anything to equal the wild excitement of these hunts." The men had gone berserk.

Our word walrus comes from the Old Norse for whale, hvalr, and horse, hross. In the Icelandic sagas, the walrus is called a small whale, but it's hard to see what's horselike about this sea mammal; it weighs twice as much as a Viking Age steed. The "whale-horse" was renamed "toothwalker," Odobenus, by taxonomists in the 1700s who thought walruses used their ten- to thirty-inch-long tusks like ice axes to haul their ungainly forms up onto beaches or ice floes to breed and bask. Later naturalists described walrus tusks as overlarge oyster knives, used in cracking open the animals' dinners. Now we see them as swords and shields, the creatures' tools of attack and defense, rank and status.

The Vikings likely did not care why walruses had tusks, only that they did. Light and long-lasting, the teeth of these small whales — or big fish, for so they classified all whales — made the perfect cargo for a Viking ship. Viking raids were bankrolled with fish teeth. Viking trade routes were built on them. Viking explorers sailed west out of sight of land in search of shiny, white walrus tusks. From the eighth to the fourteenth century — well after the end of the Viking Age — walrus ivory was the most sought after commodity of the North. It was Arctic gold.


The value of the tusks must have come as a surprise to men who had long hunted walruses in Arctic Norway. They were chiefly after the beasts' thick skin. Black and tough, one hide weighs from one to five hundred pounds. Split, cured, and twisted into rope, walrus hide made the best ships' rigging; one bull supplied enough cordage for two to three large trading knarrs. It was the strongest rope known for its weight: A strand half an inch thick could lift a ton. Sixty men could tug on a sail-rope without snapping it. Anchor cables were preferentially made of walrus hide. An Icelandic poem from the tenth century expresses dismay when one broke: One sailor jumps into the sea to salvage the anchor while the rest argue over who hadn't oiled the cord. Other medieval seamen were saved from starvation by their walrus-hide rigging; dismasted in a storm, they lived for eighteen days on ropes smeared with butter. A twelfth-century group, besieged in an island fortress, had nothing but ropes "to eat for their Christmas feast, but there wasn't even half enough."

Walrus-hide rope was also used in the Middle Ages for hoisting heavy objects over pulleys, hanging the great bells in church steeples, and lashing together siege engines and catapults. In a late Icelandic romance, a hero abducts a golden-haired princess from her father's castle "by tying a walrus-hide rope around the tower she lives in, uprooting it, and hauling it on board his ship."

The Inuit, at least in more modern times, used walrus skin to make boats and raincoats and to roof their houses. Walrus hide was once in great demand by knife makers and silversmiths for polishing fine blades. A London company in the early twentieth century thought young walrus skins made the most elegant satchels: "When properly tanned, the leather is remarkably pliable, and the grain rich and velvety." Older skins became drive belts, carriage traces, the tips of billiard cues — or glue. All of these uses (except the cue tips) had their medieval parallels.

But the considerable value of a walrus's hide in the Viking Age was nothing compared to that of its tusks.

Ivory art had been prized since antiquity. Pliny, writing in Rome in the first century after Christ, noted that from elephant tusks "we obtain the most costly materials for forming the statues of the gods." Early Christians, though shunning monumental sculpture, made ivory covers for Bibles and ivory boxes for unconsecrated hosts, even an ivory throne for the archbishop of Ravenna.

But ivory carvings later than that throne, circa 550 to about 800, whether sacred or everyday, are missing from museum collections in Western Europe. "This is odd," says a 1982Introduction to Medieval Ivory Carvings. That hundreds of years' worth of ivory artwork is missing can only mean it was never created, for ivory, unlike antler and bone, is not fragile. If kept dry, ivory carvings last forever. And, unlike metalwork, ivory carvings cannot be melted down — though the ivory can be reused. In Carolingian France in the early 800s, some old ivory plaques, bearing the names and likenesses of Roman consuls, were scraped smooth and recarved with biblical scenes, proving the material was still prized and exceedingly scarce. Elsewhere, carvers made do with elk antler and whalebone, until the Vikings began bringing "fish teeth" to European markets. By the end of the Viking Age in 1066, ivory was once again the emblem of luxury. Except now it came from walruses, not elephants.

The popularity of walrus ivory peaked in the twelfth century. Creamy white, smooth, and as responsive to the carver's tools as elephant tusks, though considerably smaller, the teeth of the walrus were tougher than elk antler and took a higher polish than whalebone — or even elephant ivory itself. Experts can tell the ivories apart by feel: Walrus is "smoother and shinier" than elephant ivory and "more pleasant to the touch." Crucifixes were carved of walrus ivory, as were statues of the Virgin Mary. Reliquaries and shrines to hold the holy bones of saints. The ornately carved plates called paxes, kissed by each worshipper at the end of mass while the priest intoned Pax tecum, "Peace be with you." Beakers with feet. Oval pyxides for ladies' trinkets — or to store the unconsecrated host. Bishops' croziers. Sword hilts, inkwells, snuff horns, dress pins, belt buckles, buttons, book-binding boards, royal seals, and, of course, game pieces, including dice, checkers, and chessmen, were all made of walrus tusk. A walrus skull, with tusks intact, was a royal gift: In the fourteenth-century Icelandic Saga of Ref the Sly, a Greenlander gives the king of Norway "a walrus head with all its teeth; it was inlaid with gold all over." A simpler skull, carved with medieval runes but lacking the goldwork, is now in a museum in Le Mans, France.


Excerpted from Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown. Copyright © 2015 Nancy Marie Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Missing Pieces

One: The Rooks

Two: The Bishops

Three: The Queens

Four: The Kings

Five: The Knights

Acknowledgments: The Pawns

Illustration Credits



Further Reading


Customer Reviews