Hidden Treasures

Imagine digging in your own little piece of earth – the wind, fresh upon your face; the sun warms your skin; your thoughts are in delicious free-fall. A hard, echoey clink startles: your heart literally skips a beat…
Throwing the spade aside, you bend down, peering into the shadows. Inquisitive fingers reach in, clearing away the grit. What can it be? An old rusty nail or the hard metal lip of something bigger?
Who isn’t entranced by finding something old, something buried?
Some treasures are uncovered by happenstance, others through endless hours of planning and toil. Perhaps a wild Atlantic gale does the work as at Uig on the west coast of the Scottish Hebrides where the Lewis Chessmen first saw the dim light of day.
I’ve walked these rolling sand hills and often wondered how such treasures came to lie beneath the billowing, wild flowered machair, hidden for almost a millennium in a dark, snug place.
What Viking hands wrought (and played) with these pieces? And what drama led to their hasty burial?
Fortunately, an array of these chess pieces can be seen in the British Museum in London and the Scottish Museum in Chambers St in Edinburgh. Look closely at the pieces, and you will see that the walrus ivory was worked by metal tools for such material was dense, requiring the tusks to be cut by a saw and carved with a chisel. Great skill was also required to avoid the unsightly substance – secondary dentine – filling the cavity of the tusk; a material, coarser grained in texture.
Museum experts suggest the craftsmen used old stores of ivory from long dead walrus.
These tusks were highly valued and a likely source was Greenland, colonised by the Norse for its huge walrus population. Craftsmen in markets towns such as Trondheim and Bergen in Norway would have worked such precious items, portable and light, for sailors and merchants to while away long nights. They held boredom at bay, required intricate, strategic thinking and probably consolidated relationships with friends and family.
We see these gaming pieces now and perhaps think them quaint and charming, the faces, oddly grotesque, but they had real value for their owners.
Our throw-away society holds our tools of entertainment – computers, TVs, play stations and the like in such high esteem; expensive, complex technology, often resulting in fragile and unreliable equipment, dependent upon finite resources, which tends to separate us from the warmth of face to face human companionship. Who is to say which is better or more durable?

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2 thoughts on “Hidden Treasures

  1. Jo Woolf says:

    So very true, Jeanette! I have often had those same thoughts and wishes myself, particularly about the Lewis chessmen. They are so very enigmatic and appealing!

  2. diaspora52 says:

    And so many wonderful things still to be discovered! Thanks Jo!

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