Earliest European chessmen

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Many mediaeval chess sets or isolated chess pieces have been found in several places of Europe. There are two kinds of design: abstract design and figurative design.

Abstract Chess Sets

Abstract design has been inspired by Muslim design. Actually, many abstract sets found in Europe are in fact of Muslim manufacturing. This is for example the case with many sets made of rock crystal which have been manufactured in the Fatimid Egypt.

Generally, this design shows Kings with the shape of a throne, Queens very similar but smaller, Bishops present two small protuberances which are the forgotten reminiscence of the Elephant's tusks, Knights have a single protuberance representing the head of the Horse and the Rooks present a V cut on the top, which has been interpreted as a bishop's mitre in several European regions. Pawns usually have a simple shape.

Some abstract pieces are finally not abstract at all as the artists have carved them with so many details that they are as informative and elaborated that the figurative sets.

 

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Mozarab chess pieces known as "the pieces of San Genadio". Ivory. Once preserved in the Mozarabic monastery of Santiago de Peñalba (Leon/ Spain), now in a monastery in Ponferrada. Dated at least from the first years of the 10th century, and very likely from the 9th century.
(Many thanks to Miguel Angel Nepomuceno. Miguel Angel Nepomuceno is the investigator who found those 4 pieces, the most ancient chessmen in Europe, in 1958. He took the photograph (left) which has been utilized by the regretted Dr. Calvo in his subsequent papers. Those pieces had been first described and photographied in 1923 but had then diseappeared until their new discovery in 1958).


Pieces from San Rosenda de Celanova (province of Orense, Galicia, Spain), rock crystal, 10th c.

Pieces from San Millan de la Cogolla (La Rioja, Spain), rock crystal, 10th c. 

 

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The Ager set: Mozarab chess set, rock-crystal, Museu de Lleida Diocesa I Comarcal, Spain, late 9th c - beg. 11th c.

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 King and Queen from the same set found at church of San Pere of Ager near Urgel, Catalonia, beg 11th c.

 

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Rook, rock-crystal,
Late 9th - beg. 11th c.,
Domschatzkammer, Osnabrück

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Osnabrück set, wrongly said "Charlemagne" (another one!), rock-crystal, 12th century (or 10th?.
 
(Photo , Picasa)

 

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 Italian Chess pieces, bone with ivory topping, late 10th c., found at Venafro, Campania, Italy and once considered the oldest European pieces, Museo archeologico di Napoli . Read a paper (in Italian) from Gianfelice Ferlito

 


Whale bone chessmen,
Late 11th c., found at Witchampton, Dorset
 

 

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Knight found in Europe (where?) and made in Arabic style, 8th-9th c. (!?) according to C. Schafroth , ivory, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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 King (?), deer bone or antler,
end of 10th c., found at Loisy,
Musée des Ursulines,Mâcon

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 Scandinavian (?) Knight, deer antler,
9/10th c., found near Chatenois (Alsace, France), Musée de Cluny, Paris
 

 

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Rook, from castel of Freteval, Loir et Cher, France (thanks to François Houdebert).

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Same piece with a better view to this strange face on the side 


 Rook, deer bone,
978-1070,
Pineuilh, Gironde, France

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Kneeled piece (Pawn?),
978-1070, Pineuilh, Gironde, France


King or Queen, Cluny, France

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 Queen, hazeltree wood,
1008-1010,
Paladru Lake
Colletière, Charavines, Isère, France

 

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Aufin (Bishop), wood,
1008-1010, Paladru Lake
Colletière, Isère, France

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Rukh (Rook), bone,
1008-1010, Paladru Lake
Colletière, Isère, France

 

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Chess piece from a private collection. Bone. Maybe a King or a Queen. See beside for more views. Estimated 11th c.collection
(Collection Nicolas Devigne)

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Scandinavian Chess pieces,
bone, Beginning 11th c. (or 12th?),
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum

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Scandinavian Knight, Bishop, Pawn,
deer bone, Beginning 11th c.,
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum

 


A Chess Pawn (?), Nassington, Tithe Barn Museum, UK


 Knight, red deer antler,
12th century, Malting, Museum of St Albans Hertfordshire, UK

 

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Islamic-style Elephant (Bishop), Spain or Sicily, 12th c., ivory
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Alfil (Bishop), wrongly announced as a Knight, castel of Mataplana, circa Ripoll, Catalunya, Spain, 13th c., ivory, (thanks to Alejandro Melchor)

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The same piece and a dice, castel of Mataplana, circa Ripoll, Catalunya, Spain, 13th c., ivory (thanks to Alejandro Melchor)

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 Chessmen excavated from river Thames, England, 13th c : bone King, wood King, unidentified (Queen?), Bishop on top. Bishop, bone King side and above view showing the hollow..

 


Rook, Lower Rhein, Germany, 11th century


Rook, UK, 12th century


Rook, UK, 13th century


Rook, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 13th century

 

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King
Sandomierz, Poland


Pawn
Sandomierz, Poland
 


Sandomierz Chess pieces,
deer bone, end of 11th c. or beginning of 12th, Disctric Museum
, Sandormiertz, Poland

 


Very beautiful Scandinavian Bishop, narval tooth, 12th century (courtesy of Rodolfo Pozzi)


Bishop, "sea ivory", Collection Jean-Joseph Marquet de Vasselot, England or Germany, 12th century
(the ivory has been dated between AD 790 and 990 at 95% by carbon 14) (
photo Christie)
(
Société des Amis du musée de Cluny)

 

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 Scandinavian or German Chessmen, deer bone, found at Ilot des Deux-Bornes, around Noyon, Oise
Beg 12th c., Musée du Noyonnais, Noyon, France


King, ivory,
11th c., South of Italia
Musée du Louvre, Paris  

 

French Roc (Rook), both faces, elephant ivory,
Mid 12th century, Musée du Louvre, Paris

 


King, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy 


Rook (Pawn?), Museo Nazionale del Bargello,
Florence, Italy

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King (also said as Knight),
ivory, 12th c, France
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
 

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Rook (Tower), ivory, late 11th c (or 14th?).,Italy
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

 

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Common chess set from end of 14th c., morse and sperm whale ivory, Scandinavia, Musée National du Moyen-Âge, Cluny, France


King or Queen (?), Yorkshire, England, 14th c.

 

Figurative Chess Sets

 


Chariot, deer bone or antler,
10th c., found at Loisy,
Musée des Ursulines,Mâcon

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 South Italian Elephant,
elephant ivory, Late 11th c.,
Musée du Louvre, Paris


Swedish Queen, 11th century

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The "Charlemagne set", elephant ivory, South Italia, Late 11th c,
Bibliothèque Nationale - Cabinet des Médailles, Paris
 

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 South Italian Kings, black and red, front and back-side
elephant ivory, beg. 12th c.,
Museo Bargello, Florence, Italy
 

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South Italian Vizier, elephant ivory,
Beginning 12th c., Bibliothèque Nationale - Cabinet des Médailles, Paris
 

 

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 Queen, Spain, an Kings, ivory, 12th c.,
Wlaters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA

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South Italian Queen, ivory,
Beginning 12th c., Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Skulpturensammlung

 

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Scandinavian Bishop, walrus ivory, Trondheim, Norway, 1150-1200,
(thanks to Emile Lhomme) (
Property of M.E.T.)

 

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German King, bone or antler,
found at Dorf Langenbogen near Mansfeld (Saxony)
Mid 12th c., ex-von Hirsch coll. 

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 Norvegian King, walrus ivory,
Late 12th c., Musée du Louvres, Paris

 


Islandic Chess piece (Pawn or Warder=Rook?), herringbone, 12th or 13th c. Found in an archeology expedition at Siglunes by Siglufjördur. (Thanks to Sean Evans)

 

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The "Lewis set", King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Warder, Pawn., walrus tusk
Scandinavian (Trondheim ?), Mid 12th c, British Museum, London

 

Scandinavian Chess pieces: King, Knight, Knight
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

 

Seated figure of the Church (Ecclesia), walrus ivory, North Germany or Scandinavian, 13th century,
Staatliches Museum Schwerin (
thanks to Alain Truong)

 

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 Scandinavian Bishop, walrus ivory,
Beginning 13th c., Copenhagen,
Nationalmuseum (The holes in
the eyes were filled by jewels)

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Knight, walrus ivory,
England, 13th c.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England 

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 Bishop, ivory,
14th c., Germany
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum
Munich, Germany  

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Queen on horseback, walrus ivory,
Denmark, 13th c.
Nationalmuseum, Copenhagen

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 Queen on horseback, walrus ivory,
Denmark, 14th c.
Nationalmuseum, Copenhagen

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 King (I doubt, it should be a Queen), ivory, 14th c., Danmark
Copenhagen, Nationalmuseum

 

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 Wooden Queen known as the "Bryggens Madonna" which has shrinked since it has been exposed to air, Bergen Museum, Norway

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 The "Bryggens Madonna" photographied just when it has been exhumed from damp layers.
14th c., Bergen, Norway

 

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Bishop, walrus tusk, Northern Europe, 14th c.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Knight, Northern Europe, 14th c.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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King, ivory, Germany, 14th c.,
private collection

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Bishop, walrus tusk, Germany, 14th c.,
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Bishop, ivory, Southern Germany, 14th c.,
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
 

The images and photographs shown on this page are coming from the following sources :

The authors of theses works, books and photographs, are kindly acknowledged.
If there is any problem with their presence here, please do
mail me.

A big thanks (gros merci) à Sylvestre Jonquay, Association Aisling-1198, for his precious remarks and kind corrections,
Many thanks to Thierry Depaulis and François Leysour de Rohello for pointing many illustrations to me
Thanks also to Eric Verdel for informations about the Charavines-Colletière pieces
Thanks also to Antoine Fourrière for pointing out the pieces from Pineuilh
and to Nicolas Devigne for the piece from his collection
Many thanks to Alejandro Melchor for providing me valuable information
Thanks to Pierre Mille for the Serçe Limani photographs
Thanks to Gianfelice Ferlito for the Venafro photograph
Thanks to Emile Lhomme and Ole Drønen for noting an error
Thanks to Rodolfo Pozzi, Emile Lhomme, Sean Evan
Muchas gracias a Miguel Angel Nepocumenos
Many thanks also to Carmen Romeo

 

02/01/2013