Irving Finkel and the Chamber of Lewis Chessmen I Curator’s Corner Season 2 Episode 9

Irving Finkel and the Chamber of Lewis Chessmen I Curator’s Corner Season 2 Episode 9


Hello my name is Irving Finkel. I work in the British Museum. I’m a curator and welcome to my corner. So today we’re going to talk about the Lewis Chessmen. The Lewis Chessmen are not in my department which is called the Middle East they’re in a totally different
department which I don’t approve of but I can’t do anything about it. They’ve been carved in the middle of the 12th century out of walrus tusks by craftsmen who were really geniuses but they imparted to those chess pieces a
huge dollop of humanity and rather a lot of humour. So these chessmen probably were carved north of England in Norway, Scandinavia – we don’t know where there are different theories about it. Some group of them was buried on the shore of Lewis for reasons we don’t really know and lay there from the middle of the
12th century till about 1830. So those chess pieces are quite extraordinary they were found somewhere on the Isle of Lewis on a white silvery beach on the northern shore sometime in 1830 nobody – quite knows
what really happened there’s a story about a nunnery there’s a story about a murder there’s all the usual stories but the most reasonable one is that a cow
was munching grass which was growing on the edge of the beach and somehow with its foot or its nose dislodged something which slid apart and there revealed and some kind of case where all these small ivory chess pieces who must have terrified the life out of the first person who saw them because they probably thought they were devils but wisdom prevailed and somebody
local scooped them up or most of them… and they were taken to the mainland on
the quiet and they were sold to a collector here and a collector there and the bulk of them ended up in the British Museum and the rest in the museum in Edinburgh. When you see them for the first time something magical happens and they bewitch you and of course that’s what happened to me that’s what happens to all curators in this Museum they come here as children, they fall in love with certain things and for me it was in the first place the Lewis chess pieces I never managed to get them out of my system I’ve always, always been crazy about them. So in the old days when I was a young person you could buy replicas of these chess pieces in the shop. It was an innovation they were about one pound twelve shillings and sixpence and they were made by craftsmen who did their utmost to reproduce the look of ancient ivory so they were very impressive. We were not a particularly affluent family and we were brought up in such a way that we only had treats on a small number of occasions like birthdays and things of this kind so I acquired my set of replicas of the Lewis chess pieces 32 pieces on Christmas and birthdays over many, many years of work. In fact, when I got my PhD I still was short
seven pawns and my dad decided he would buy those as a small gesture. So I finally had a whole set to play with. When you have that chess set in front of you you feel like a general with an army at your disposal fighting to the death but also tinged with a big dollop of humanity as I said. So it’s a marvellous matter that they’ve come to light because thousands and thousands and thousands of people have seen these chess pieces. In fact they’re in the back of people’s mind and sometimes you see them on biscuit tins sometimes you see them on calendars and of course you will have seen them in
that cursed horrible film! Whose name I forget about some kid with glasses who had nothing better to do one afternoon than to play a game of chess and they used the replicas of the Lewis chess pieces which belong to me. Thing was the movie wasn’t very interesting but the chess piece part was very
interesting indeed because if you ever saw it you will have seen how wicked this queen could be and how vulnerable this poor military knight could be in the face of her fury. So these are the actual ones and I would quite like to be able to bring this alive for you by showing you that film if I can remember what it was called but as I can’t what we’re going to do now is a kind of reenactment of it in the British Museum so that it brings it back into your memory in case you’ve forgotten too. **The kind of music you might hear at a magic school plays** Knight to E5. Queen to E5. That’s totally barbaric! That’s wizard’s chess. See you’ve packed. I see you haven’t. Change a plan my parents decided to go to Romania to visit my brother Charlie. He’s studying dragons there. Now this is an interesting matter, I tell you for why because in that film which will become nameless in this speech it was necessary to have a chess
set where children in the school could play a game and the wardrobe mistress was sent to the British Museum to get a set of Lewis chess piece replicas because she was a British Museum girl because her father and her grandfather
had been keepers in this Museum back in time a long way. So she knew all about the Lewis chess pieces. Like me, she’s grown up admiring them. So she came here to buy a set of replicas and lo and behold there were none available in the
shop even for ready money. So she rang me up knowing I had these replicas and to cut a long story short they borrowed my replicas for use in the film. Now this isn’t just a small matter it’s a matter of extremely significant archaeology because when the chess pieces were first discovered some of them were red. Most of them were white but some were red they’d been stained artificially in the
workshop to distinguish the two sides on the chessboard because as we have black and white pieces so originally they were white and red. Well it turns out nowadays that you cannot for love nor money tell which of those pieces was
originally red because all the colour has vanished even on the inside of the pieces where you have the kind of net of structure which formed the marrow of the tusk so to speak even in the interstices inside the core of the piece there is no trace of red. So I’d asked the man who makes these marvellous replicas to make a replica set in red so we can see what they would really look like. So what actually happened was that all the children in the world saw the replicas
of the Lewis chess pieces as they were originally red and white and if they watched attentively which I hope they did they will have seen how unpleasant
and vicious in nature the red queen could be when provoked. They are amazing things and I think they really need to be appreciated for lots
of reasons. Somehow or other they captivate the
passerby. It is true in museums that when people have been there a while their legs get weary and they’re actually thinking longing for open the fields and yoghurt. But sometimes things arrest their attention and I have been many times hanging around by the case where the chess piece are I’m often hanging around there because I’ve always expected one of these days they will have a conversation that I can overhear but leaving that aside it is always a heartwarming thing to see jaded people who rather wish they were no
longer in the British Museum at all seeing these chess pieces and being
electrified by them and stooping down and saying: ‘look at that, and look at that and isn’t that marvellous’ and that is what they are they are marvellous.

100 thoughts on “Irving Finkel and the Chamber of Lewis Chessmen I Curator’s Corner Season 2 Episode 9

  1. Those chessman have, like the ancient world of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians etc, fascinated me since childhood, probably because they represented something with which I was familiar but being so much older.

    I made a replica set in my teens from rubber moulds, marvellous!

  2. You created such expectation I was dissappointed (as someone who doesn't live in England) not to have seen all the pieces in detail! Could this be possible? I mean a sequel to show them closeup with accompanying comments?

  3. I have a similar chess set from the 1970's. White vs red. But I think they are a variant. I'm sure the pawns are round. The other peices are very similar. (I can't check easily as their buried away in the loft). They live rather disrespectfully huddled together in an old round fake medieval chest. Spain circ. Early 1970's.

  4. The original scene from Harry Potter and the chess game… Ofc this was better thoug. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwjZ1J2b8UY

  5. Took a moment to realise he was getting worked up about Harry Potter. For the love of God, nobody show him Twilight!

  6. When I read the title of this clip, I was inclined to think it was a spoof, a parody, some sort of joke. When I clicked on it and starting watching Mr Finkel, I was all but convinced I was correct. It was only in continuing to watch that I realized it was a serious video. In the end, I feel that my love of humans has increased thanks to this lovely gentleman scholar.

  7. With all the respect mr. Finkel. You state in the video that it's impossible to tell wether an intricately sculpted ivory figurine of the 12th century AD was stained because the color has ''vanished''… but at the same time archeologists can tell that Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans colored their statues. What kind of sorcery is this? :/

  8. Finkel is an awesome guy to have on here…cheers British museum . I hope the rest of the curators are this cool…

  9. ok… MIND BLOWN about the HP refernce with the chess pieces O_o but it's cool that Professor Dumbledore explains it

  10. You ain't the Irv I knew he got killed in jail big player in the jdl….sorry that was irv Rubin…my apologies sir

  11. Irving reminds me of David Bellamy. This pleases me greatly. Their generous inclusive joy and wonder captivate me inspire awe. I smile more because of them. im such a silly bean….

  12. I have these! Inherited two of these replicas from my grandmother. Such a shame they don’t make these replicas anymore.

  13. 3D print them and sell them.im the gift shop…. all I want in return is free admission….. ; )

  14. The name of the film was….Harry…Harold….Potts or something. Magic kid with a scar and a chip on his shoulder.

  15. You will need to be of a certain age to fully understand this, but watching Irving Finkel is like watching a distillation of David Bellamy, Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore, to which is added Mr Finkel's own style. The enthusiasm, the knowledge, the eccentricity and the humour are, I believe, something that is so British. It's a sheer joy to watch Irving Finkel.

  16. I kid you not I was looking through old boxes and found my “no longer named movie” chess set pieces as I was watching this video.

  17. Just as all libraries connect via L-Space, having seen the presenter here, I'm sure all museums must be joined through a similar M-Space … 😉

  18. How could they both dis Harry Potter and create an entire Harry Potter scene reenactment without remembering it's from Harry Potter?

  19. I love his rant about the "forgotten" movie while holding the Queen with utter gusto and that the queen was a force to be reckoned with.❤❤ Irving Finkel shall have his own gallery in the BM.

  20. I just recently found your channel and I'm just a person who likes to learn knew stuff and love your enthusiasm. Subbed and now I want to come to the British museum. You have a new fan

  21. He reminds me of a Wizard and how I feel my dad would be if a 20 year injury didn't take him out 8 years ago. My dad was a History Teacher and loved all forms of RPG and Strategy games so …. This man is living my dad's best life or dream life. But my got me now I want to thank Irving for feeling a small void also Harry Potter was my childhood so no worry sir I SAW them and now know that Wizard Chess is now infact 12th century

    I work Ren Faires, do some history bloggy things on Amino and thanks to your series I am now in love ancient games.

  22. laki74;

    Absolutely, without a doubt! Should I ever have occasion to cross over the Great Pond for a visit to the UK, I would have to insist that a visit to The British Museum be among the first things I do while there. All preferably while Dr. Irving Finkle is still alive and well and hopefully spark-up a conversation with him. I have more than just a few things I would love to ask him about. Including, of course, some about that magnificent white, un-kept looking beard of his.

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