I have had many great guest authors who have contributed to Stuck in Iceland but Nancy Marie Brown is squarely in the celebrity category of my guest bloggers. She recently published a new book called Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them. In this article she elaborates on the theory of the origin of the famous Lewis chessmen and traces them to a mysterious lady and bishop who once sat at the bishopric of Skalholt in Iceland.
Win a copy of the book
My friends at St Martins Press and McMillan are helping me to celebrate the third anniversary of Stuck in Iceland. Two lucky contestants will win a copy of the book and all you have to do to have a change to win is to sign up for the Stuck in Iceland newsletter.
Update: 11th and 3rd of November: Ally Zedalis and Stephanie Ford from the the USA are the winners in the ´Ivory Vikings´ competition. Thanks for being on my mailing list guys and enjoy the book 🙂
The Lewis chessmen are among the most popular exhibits in the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Norse netsuke, each one is individual, each full of quirks. Found on the Isle of Lewis in the early 1800s, these walrus-ivory figurines are the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. One expert calls them “the most famous and important chess pieces in history.”
In the mid-1950s, before the new church was built at Skalholt, archaeologists were called in to excavate. They were uncovering the floorplan of the huge cross-shaped medieval basilica, the largest wooden church in Scandinavia at the time, when one of the workers struck stone. “Of all the things that came to light during the excavations at Skalholt,” said archaeologist Kristjan Eldjarn (who later became president of Iceland), “the grave of Pall Jonsson is the most important and meaningful. It is not certain that another such sign and wonder of the Icelandic sagas could ever be unearthed.”
You can now see the sarcophagus in the basement of Skalholt Cathedral. Carved out of one large stone, of the soft reddish volcanic tuff found on the hill across the river from Skalholt, it is simple and elegant, its rounded lines ornamented only by two cylindrical knobs projecting from the broader end. The lid has been cracked by fire, perhaps by an inferno in 1309 that destroyed the cathedral, but otherwise the coffin shows little damage.
When it was opened, the researchers found a bishop’s crozier carved from walrus ivory resting on the shoulder of the skeleton.
In 2012, any question that the skeleton was not that of Pall Jonsson was put to rest by radiocarbon analysis, which dated a bone sample to between 1165 and 1220.
Margret the Adroit would have remained a colorful detail in a little-read saga if the Icelanders had not decided to build that new, modern cathedral at Skalholt—and called first for an archaeological excavation. The existence of Pall’s sarcophagus vouches for the overall truth of the Saga of Bishop Pall. The ivory crozier found inside it calls to mind the one Margret carved out of walrus tusk, the saga says, “so skillfully that no one in Iceland had seen such artistry before.”
Bishop Pall’s crozier is now on display in the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. We don’t know if Margret made it, but if the one she carved was comparable, she was clearly a talented artist. And the description of Bishop Pall in his saga proves that this lover of fine things had the means, the motivation, and the taste to commission the Lewis chessmen.