In the early 1800s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, 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? Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown 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 explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
"Full of exciting detective work, along with absorbing excursions into the history of the Vikings, of chess in the Middle Ages, and of walrus ivory (known as “arctic gold”)."—The New Yorker
"Brown . . . believes the [Lewis] chessmen were carved in Iceland by a master craftswoman, Margaret the Adroit, reputed at the time to be the best carver in Iceland and who worked for Bishop Pall of Skalholt. This book, which reads like a mystery novel, presents her evidence and the long complicated path to that conclusion."—Annie Proulx, The Millions
“The absorbing story of long-ago links between the British Isles and Scandinavia that puts the Lewis chessmen into a vivid and much broader cultural context of Viking trade, plunder and sophisticated gift-giving . . . an engaging, accessible tale.”—The Economist