Heavy must be the crown that dons the head of this seated king in an intimate portrait recovered from the beaches of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. The bearded king, dressed in a flowing robe with his hands clinching a sword and scabbard, stares hauntingly out into space, his thoughts no doubt lingering on the enormous responsibilities that confront him at home and abroad.
This 4-inch-tall figurine, however, does not depict an actual king. It is one of the famous Lewis Chessmen, a collection of 93 ivory chess pieces—including kings, queens, bishops, knights, rooks and pawns—that were made in the last of the Scandinavian Viking kingdoms and then shipped to the British Isles sometime in the 12th century C.E. The number of pieces—way too many for a standard chess set of 32—indicates that three or even four sets were buried together, possibly by a Scandinavian merchant who hoped to sell the pieces to European elites who were increasingly interested in this exotic game that had been invented in India.