Archaeology and Chess

In 1682, Scottish surveyor John Adair (1655-1722) discovered a chess piece in Northern Scotland.  The piece was carved from the tooth of a whale.

In 1781, 30-40 chess pieces made of bone were found at Queen Margaret’s Inch at the Loch of Forfar in Scotland.

In 1817, a number of ivory chess pieces were discovered in a bog near Clonard in County Meath, Ireland.  Only one piece, a queen survived.  The piece is in exactly the same style as the Lewis chessmen and is dated to the late 12th century.  The piece may be of Scottish or Scandinavian in origin.  The piece is housed in the National Museum in Dublin.

In 1830, chess pieces were discovered among the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey northwest of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England.  They were carved from walrus tusk around the 11th or 12th century in the Scandinavian countries.  The pieces can be found in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

In March 1831 the oldest known chess pieces in existence, carved from walrus tusk and whale teeth, were found.   93 pieces or 78 chessmen were found (8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 warders (rooks), 19 pawns, 14 plain disks, 1 belt buckle) in a stone chamber in a sand bank in Uig Bay on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in 1831 in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland.  They date back to 1150-1170.  The pieces form parts of 5 sets, two complete.  The pieces were discovered by a peasant who found a mysterious stone building buried under several feet of sand.  It is believed the pieces were crafted in the Trondheim/Nidaros area of Norway.  Nidaros was Norway’s capital during Viking times.  The pieces reside in the British Museum and the National Museum in Edinburgh. 


In 1841, a chess piece was found at Mote Hill, Warrington.  Another chess piece was discovered 10 years later at the site.  The pieces were made of jet and dated from the 12th century.


In 1846, a 700 year old walrus ivory chess piece, a king on horseback, was found in the drainage channels at Salisbury, England, by the superintendent of drainage works.  At the time, he was working on the installation of sewers and piped water throughout Salisbury.  The chess piece was probably made in Germany or Scandinavia.


In 1866, a jet (lignite) chessman (bishop) was found at Thelton, Norfolk.  It came from the Saxon period and may be of Norse manufacture.  It is engraved with lines and circles and is shaped like a small flat bottle. 


In 1909, a carved ivory chess king was found in San Sebastiano, Italy.  Its age is around 1100 AD.  The piece is now in the Louvre.


In 1912, a chess piece (bishop) from India was discovered in Poltava in central Ukraine.


In the 1920s, two chess pieces were found at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, England.  The pieces are over 800 years old.  The white piece was cut from the femur of an ox.  It is a stylized representation of an Indian king mounted on an elephant.  The second piece is a jet rook, made from Whitby jet and with silver infills.


In 1926, chessmen were found during excavation on the grounds of Witchampton Manor in Dorset.  The pieces are made of whale bone and dated to the 11th or 12th century.


In 1932, 18 chess pieces were discovered in a Roman tomb in the southern Italian necropolis of Venafro, Italy, near a Roman theatre.  They are bone chess pieces with ivory topping of Arabic shape.  The chess pieces are preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.  Radiocarbon dating puts the pieces age around 885 – 1017 AD.


The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia has an ivory elephant chess piece dated around the 11th century.  It is North Indian or Iranian in origin.  It was found at Sarkel/Belaya Vezha (White Tower), on the Don River, south of Russia in the 1930s.  The piece was found in a Khazar dwelling.


In 1943, chess pieces were excavated by Charles K. Wilkinson (1897-1986) at Nishapur in Persia (northeastern Iran).  The pieces date to the 12th century.  The chess pieces consist of 17 turquoise pieces and 15 purple pieces made of glazed fritware (stonepaste).  The pieces are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


In 1958, Miguel Angel Nepomuceno discovered four chess pieces in a monastery in Ponferrada, Spain.  The pieces are known as the pieces of San Genadio, once preserved in the Mozarabic monastery of Santiago de Penalba in Leon, Spain.  The pieces are dated from the late 9th century or early 10th century.


In the 1960s, two almost complete deer antler chess sets (29 pieces) were excavated in Sandomierz, Poland.  They were found in a semi sunken floored hut near the church of St. James.  They date to the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 12th century.  The pieces are made of deer horn.  They were most likely brought to Poland from the Middle East during the Crusades.  The pieces are now housed in the District Museum in Sandomierz.


In the autumn of 1972, Uzbek archaeologists discovered two possible chess pieces that may be as old as the 2nd century.  The ivory chess pieces, including an elephant and a hunchbacked zebu-bull, were found under a two year thick layer of clay and mud in Dalverzin-Tepe, an ancient citadel of the Kushan empire, in the valley of the Surkhandarya River in southern modern Uzbekistan.   Because of its early age, they may not be chess pieces, but toys or amulets.  The pieces are at the Chamra Institute of Scientific Art in Tashkent.


In 1977, chess (chatrang) pieces were found in Afrasiab, near Samarkand, in the ancient Sogdiana (now Uzbekistan).  They are 7 small figurines made of ivory: two foot soldiers, one knight, one mounted elephant, one mounted feline animal, and two different chariots.  It is dated about 760 AD.  A coin, dated 761 AD, was found with the chess pieces.  The pieces are now conserved at the State Museum of Samarkand.


In 1977, chess pieces were found during the excavation of the Glass Wreck, an ancient wreck deep in the Aegean near Serce Limani, Turkey.  The ship sailed in 1025 and later sank.  Eight medieval chessmen were recovered from the site.  The 8 wooden chess pieces are of Islamic design.  The set was kept in the stern compartment while a backgammon piece was recovered from the midships area.


In the late 1970s, ancient chess pieces are discovered during an excavation at Lake Paladru, Isere, France.  The pieces are a queen, bishop, and rook made from hazeltree wood or bone.  The pieces are dated betwwn 1008 and 1010.


In August 1980, the sunken royal warship Kronan (Crown) was discovered 4 miles off the southeast coast of Oland, Sweden.  The ship was the largest and most powerful warship of her day.  It was sunk in 1676 while fighting a combined Danish-Dutch battle fleet.  Among its 25,000 artifacts were chess pieces.


In 1981, a chess piece was recovered during the Chequer Street excavations in the medieval town of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England.  The chess piece was found in a 12th century rubbish pit.  It is carved from a piece of red deer antler, decorated with carved lines and ring-and-dot-patterns.  It has a stylized head projecting from the front which signifies that it is a knight.


In 1986, chess pieces made of deer bone and dated to the 12th century was discovered at Ilot des Deux-Bornes around Noyon, Oise, France.  The pieces seem to be of Scandinavian or German in origin.


In 1986, a chess piece was found near St. Margaret’s Church in Habrough, Lincolnshire, England, when a trench wad dug for a water pipe.  The chess piece is medieval in date and is carved from a piece of antler.


In 1995, an excavation at Point Lookout Site in St. Mary’s County, Maryland found a civil war bullet carved into a chess piece.  The site is at the mouth of the Potomac River, which included a lighthouse, an army hospital and a nearby POW camp that housed 20,000 Confederate prisoners.  It was one of the largest camps for Confederate POWs during the American Civil War.


In 1996, excavations of the Danish Om cloister (monastery) found a chess bishop made of walrus ivory.  It was found in a layer deposited in 1495.  The piece may have been carved three centuries earlier.


In 2000, a carved chess piece (chess king) was discovered at Bekkvika on the island of Hitra, Norway.


In July 2002, archaeologists unearthed some possible chess pieces in the ancient city of Butrint in southern Albania, on the site of an old Byzantine palace.  The ivory pieces, less than 2 inches in size, date to the 6th century.


In 2003, excavations at Pineuilh near Gironde, France discovered a rook and a kneeled piece made of deer bone.  The piece is dated between 978 and 1070. 


In 2004, excavations in Kiev found a chess piece, the first found in the territory of Ukraine.  It was made of clay and had an Asian appearance.


In 2005, a chess knight on horseback was found by an amateur using a metal detector on farmland in north Nottinghamshire.  The piece is similar to one of the pieces of the Lewis chessmen.


In 2006, a chess pieces were found in north Afghanistan.  It is made of 5 pieces.


In 2007, artifacts were recovered from a cellar in Jamestown.  Some of the artifacts were chess pieces dated around 1600.


In 2008, archaeologists in northwest Russia discovered a chess piece dating back to the late 14th century.  The piece was a chess king made of solid wood.  The excavations were being carried out at the site of the Palace of Facets in Veliky Novgorod.  The palace is believed to be the oldest in Russia.  Besides the king, archaeologists have found 82 other chess pieces dating back to the 14th century.  In 1286, chess was banned by the church. 


In 2008, a bone chess piece with finely worked details was discovered on the site of the Tyoply shops in the Kitay-gorad (Moscow Metro) district of Moscow.


In 2008, the excavation of a site called RasUshairiq in Qatar uncovered a large settlement called Rubayaqa.  Wooden chess pieces were unearthed.


In 2011, archaeologists unearthed fragments of a chess set at James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Orange County, Virginia.  The fragments are of two pawns.


In 2011, a chess piece cut out of haddock bone (cleithrum) was among the objects found in an archeology expedition at Siglunes, Iceland at the eastern mouth of Siglufjordur bay.  The chess piece is dated around the 12th or 13th century.  The chess piece is a small figure holding a shield and a spear.  It is most likely a pawn.  The piece has a resemblance to the Lewis chessmen and could mean that the Lewis chessmen came from Iceland instead of Norway as is commonly believed.


In 2011, a chess piece (king) dated to the 12th or 13th century was found at Steinbogi in Myvatnssveit, Iceland.


In 2012, a carved bone chess piece (knight) was recovered from an 1830s storefront cellar at Historic Washington State Park in Hemsptead County, Arkansas.


In 2012, bone chess pieces were discovered among the remnants of the service structure at Ivan Mazepa’s (1639-1709) court in Honcharivka, Ukraine.


In 2012, a medieval carved bone chess piece was recovered from excavations at Bayley Lane in Coventry.  It is dated to the 14th century.


In May, 2014, dozens of clay Chinese chess pieces were found during the Great Wall of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) repair work at Funing county in Qinhuangdao city in north China’s Hebei province.


In 2014, archaeologists found two medieval horn and antler chess pieces during a dig in Northampton, England.  The chess pieces were clear evidence of chess in the middle to late 12th century in Northampton.  The larger piece is probably a bishop and is 2.3 inches high.  The second piece appears to be the top part of a king and is 1.2 inches high.


In 2014, a 800 year old chess piece (queen) was found at an excavation in Linkoping, Sweden.


In 2014, a medieval chess piece was found in a dig at a Cistercian abbey in Cumbria, England.


In 2014, archaeologists digging around the Roamn Colosseum, discovered a figurine of a tiny monkey, carved in ivory, which was probably used as a pawn in a chess game.  The piece dates around the 14th century.