Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Book: The Ivory Vikings

What am I working on in 2014? A new book about Iceland, Vikings, and medieval history. Here's the official "pitch":

In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-three game pieces carved from walrus ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen—the Lewis chessmen—the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: The kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but mail-shirted Vikings, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps—and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, perhaps something like backgammon. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets—only one knight, four rooks, and most of the pawns are missing—about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Who carved them? Where? Why were they buried in a sandbank or a secret chamber on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides? These mysteries The Ivory Vikings will explore by connecting medieval sagas to modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, The Ivory Vikings will present a history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, when the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the islands of the Hebrides and Orkneys, and even Greenland and Norse North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economics behind the Viking voyages to the west. It illuminates the Viking impact on Scotland and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for over 400 years, from the early 800s until the mid-1200s, when the Scottish king finally reclaimed his islands. The story of the Lewis chessmen reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

The Ivory Vikings will be published in New York and London by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2015. Time for me to get to work.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland and the medieval world.


  1. I'm delighted you have a new book, and on something I've loved for almost 50 years -- the Lewis chessmen. We have a set, missing one rook "adopted" by a guest at a church party at my mother-in-law's home! Obviously irresistible!

  2. Sounds fascinating! Look forward to read it when it is out :)

  3. You tell us about it now and make us wait until Spring of 2015? That is almost cruel, but will teach us patience. We have no choice but to wait.

  4. Sounds like a winner. I have always thought those chess pieces had a story waiting to be told.