The Butrint Chessman

La pièce de Butrint

Quoi de neuf ?

Mes livres

Histoire des échecs



 End of July 2002, a spectacular announcement has been made upon the discovery from the 6th century in Butrint, south of Albania, by a team of British archaeologists. Another account is here.

It is an ivory chess piece, only lightly damaged, excavated at a Byzantine palace. Professor Richard Hodges said: "We are wondering if it is the king or queen because it has a little cross but we are not sure."


click to enlarge

click to enlarge


Somewhere else on the web, I read that the estimated date was 465. It would be delicious to have a finding of chess material older than, says, 600, which is the oldest date at which some kind of Chess is evoked. (In a tale which depicts the arrival of Chess at the Persian court of Khosraw Nushirwan (531 - 578), many years before). Sincerely, I would be very glad if this happens.

But here, it is not enough (yet ?) to be convincing:

  • how has the dating been made ? What is the attached uncertainty ?
  • to make sure it is a Chess piece, at least 2 other pieces of other kinds should be found as well. Otherwise, it is just an artifact.
  • the base seems broken. This object looks like the ending part of something
  • the cross is not found in chess piece at this time.

I would rather agree with Hans Ree who writes the following in (page is no longer available) :

"This is the familiar tale that indeed will have to be strongly revised if the British archaeologists are right, for not only do they claim to have found the earliest European chess piece, they date it from a period (in one account the year 465 is mentioned) of which no firm evidence exists that chess was played anywhere in the world at all.

As far as I know, dating a man-made object is not an easy task. It is not enough to date the material (ivory in this case) but what needs to be fixed is the period when the artisan made it into the thing it is now. Not only the established history of chess, but also methods of dating provide room for controversy.

But even more difficult, I think, is to decide if the object is really a chess piece. It would be nice if we found 32 little objects of different sizes, reflecting the hierarchy of the pieces, but this is not the case here. Only one "piece" has been found.

I look at the picture. What can it tell us? A piece of ivory, four centimeters high, that looks a bit like a miniature Eastern-European church tower, with a little crown or cross on top. Yes, it has some resemblance to European chess pieces of a much later age, but chess pieces have come in many forms.

It might have been a chess piece and it might have been a lot of other things. To name only one possibility, it might have been made for purely decorative reasons, with no function at all except to be pretty.

The English archaeologist John Mitchell declared that the team had excluded the possibility that the object had anything to do with other board games such as backgammon or the Roman game tabula. It would have to be a chess King or Queen, because of the crown on top.

A Queen? That would force us to re-write the history of chess even more drastically, as until now we had been convinced that the Queen was invented in Western Europe during the 15th century. Maybe what Mitchell meant was the Firzan, the Queen's early precursor, but that doesn't sound logical either, for why would a mere councilor of the King wear a crown?

(Note from JLC: as it was pointed out to me by Franceco Cappiotti, Queen - and Bishop - are in fact represented very early in European chess. Lewis or Charlemagne sets prove that. Hans Ree is making a confusion here : what was invented in Europe in the 15th century is their modern long move).

I doubt if the team of archaeologists had a detailed knowledge of the history of chess. But they knew enough to realise that their find, if it were really a chess piece, would force a re-writing of a small but substantial part of cultural history. Quite a big consequence of the find of a tiny piece of ivory.

Sometimes it happens indeed that history has to be re-written, but for that the new facts have to be at least as firmly based as old theory. You can never be sure, of course. But to me it seems that the British archaeologists found an object that could have been anything. Only if it were a chess piece would it have such an impact on general history. So a chess piece it had to be.

Not only chess champions but also scientists and cultural scholars have to jump through hoops to get the media attention that nowadays is indispensable to the funding of their work. The team that did the excavations in Butrint got plenty of media attention after finding their "chess piece". As I said, you cannot be sure. The thing might be what they claim it to be. I certainly do not want to pass as an expert on chess history, but it seems to me that chess has been taken for a ride."

Another critic towards the media reports, is that Chess did not reach Europe at 12th century. It is well attested since 10th century at least from both literary and archaeologic sources.

Nevertheless, we have to remain open, this Albanian finding could reserve more surprises.

All my deepest thanks to Sean Evans who sent me this link about the Butrint piece : 

This one was sent by Janet L.Newton who is acknowledged here:

Feel free to contact me if you have more information. Thanks.