Lewis Chessmen – a Cultural Colonialism?


Lewis ChessmenThis story from Scotland on Sunday 23rd December 2007 , tells of Alex Salmold’s bid to recover the Lewis Chessmen.  Eleven pieces carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, are  part of the cache found on the Isle of Lewis,in 1831. There are 82 more in the British Museum in London and many Scotsmen would love to have them back in Scotland. 

In a speech to Gaelic campaigners last week, Salmond said: “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett Formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland.”

Uniquely though,  he is not just calling for the return from one national institution to another, but  the return of most of them to their home – Lewis

Alex MacDonald, convener of the islands council, said: “We welcome this move by Alex Salmond, and it is very significant for us that the First Minister believes that the Chessmen should be returned to the islands. My preference would be for some to be in Edinburgh, some in Stornoway (the islands’ capital] and some in Uig, where they were originally found.”

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: “By Act of Parliament, the British Museum is forbidden from disposing of any of its assets, and to change that would require primary legislation. We have no plans to do that.”

In this act, we are looking at a use of Cultural Heritage, not just to enrich a single location, but to give a community that is in need of tourism, a hub, a purpose and a reason for people to visit.  Cultural Colonialism is alive and well by the looks of the British Museum is not going to let go of it’s pretty things, even if the country where they were found is now trying to recover them…  The British Museum may best be a taster for what is on offer in that country, and perhaps beyond, for those who offer items to – in a way – market their heritage.  Just as the National Museum of Scotland can be a place for visitors to see the rich heritage of Scotland and encourage them to travel and see more in situ.   The same is true of say the Nether Largie South cremation, from Kilmartin Glen, where the excellent and World class museum and centre is best placed to hold these items, where the visitor can visit the location of the finds in context, rather than another exhibit in a room in the British Museum (The finds from the excavation, are all in the British Museum, including a Neolithic bowl, beaker, food vessel and cinerary urn sherds, barbed and tanged arrowheads and flint flakes.) 

Nether Largie South Cairn

Should we look at our own heritage and realise that we must place our past into context, whether it is the Lewis Chessmen, hidden all those years ago on a windswept beach on Lewis or a cremation urn beside the actual cairn where the occupant hoped to spend eternity?   

It does lead to interesting questions though, where the Chessmen were made in Norway, enroute to Ireland, buried in Scotland (when that part was not in Scotland).  So who really should reclaim them?  

One thing is for sure in my mind.  They cannot all remain in London, which is so far removed from the beach on Uig, as to make them meaningless other than beautifully carved objects.  We have left the Victorian period behind, perhaps it is time to leave the Victorian values behind too….


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Filed under Archaeology News, BAJR Talk

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