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  • Haunted Chessmen November 25, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    File:Knight, Lewis Chessmen, British Museum.jpg


    Invisible writes in with the news that the Lewis Chessmen are about to go on exhibition in New York. And Beach took this as a prompt for one of his favourite archaeological stories. The unnamed Lewis farmer in the following account was one Malcolm ‘Sprot’ Macleod

    In 1831 a high tide on the coast near Uig in the Isle of Lewis washed away a sand-bank and exposed a cave in which there as a small beehive-shaped building rather like the little domestic grinding querns to be found in the Highlands. A labourer working near found it, and, thinking it might contain some treasure, broke into it. He found a cache of eighty-four carved chessmen ranged together. They  had an uncanny look, and he flung down his spade and ran, convinced that he had come on a sleeping company of fairies.

    Beachcombing isn’t in the least surprised. He first saw the Lewis Chessmen as a child in a museum and these are the only thing he can remember from hundreds of family jaunts past display cases in long white corridors. For a six or seven-year old there was something magical about them.

    In any case, the narrative above, from the great Katharine Briggs, continues with poor Malcolm being sent back to get the chessmen by his furious wife.

    The greater part of them [67 of 78]  are now in the British museum. Replicas have been made of them, but the originals, all mustered together, are much more impressive. A tradition has risen about them. It is said that the guards who take the guard-dogs round at night cannot get them to pass the Celtic [sic] chessmen. They bristle and drag back on their haunches. So perhaps the Highlander’s superstition can be excused.

    The chess pieces are actually Norse in origin and were probably made in Scandinavia, quite possibly in Norway, which ruled the Western Isles at this time. But in Gaelic legends chess games between mortals and fairies are a commonplace, perhaps because chess was seen as a ‘game of kings’.

    As to those poor dogs, Katharine Briggs is always reliable and she will certainly have come across this tale in her endless fairy hunting. It remains to be seen though whether it is just third-hand London rumour or a folk belief from the staff of the British Museum itself. Can anyone fill in the gaps or give any other examples of ‘cursed’ archaeological displays? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    And the latest round up of bizarre history news! Thanks to contributors!


    26 Nov 2011: Amanda writes in with some exceptional cursed archaeological artifacts. First an extract from a BBC news storyA Belgian tourist who took a stone from an ancient Scottish burial site has returned it after complaining it had cursed his family. Surprised tourism staff received a parcel containing the 2lb stone and an anonymous letter which urged them to return it to its rightful place at Clava Cairns. The man said that since taking the stone his daughter had broken her leg, his wife had become very ill, and he had lost his job and broken his arm. Bob Hunter-Dorans, visitor services assistant at Inverness tourist information centre, said: ‘He thought he was cursed, definitely. He said in the letter ‘I know you will probably be laughing at me, but while you are laughing could you please take this stone back to Clava Cairns’. That site, near Inverness, dates from the Neolithic period and was an extensive burial ground comprising three circles of standing stones with burial chambers in the middle.’ This second tale came originally from the Peak District Magazine  One of the strangest stories in the folklore of the Peak District concerns a group of ancient carved stones found on a hill near the town of Glossop during the reign of Queen Victoria. Visitors to Buxton Museum can inspect the stones which are built into an archway in the permanent galleries, but they will learn nothing about their power to generate fear and suspicion from the caption which accompanies them. The Museum says ‘their precise origins are unknown, but the consensus of opinion is that they are of Celtic (Iron Age) origin, and may have belonged to larger groups of carvings of cult significance.” The  stones take their name from Mouselow Castle which is a prominent landmark above Old Glossop. Archaeologists have found the site, known locally as ‘Castle Hill’ was used by native tribes as far back as the Bronze Age. The hilltop may have remained a Celtic stronghold when the Romans arrived in the 1st century AD and began work on their fort at Melandra, on the opposite side of the River Etherow. It was at Mouselow, in 1840, that a Wesleyan Minister, the Reverend George Marsden, discovered ‘some curiously marked stones’ whilst searching the ruins of an old building which local tradition said had once been the foundations of a Catholic chapel. Having removed them from the hill Marsden built them into the gable end of his house in Hadfield, where they remained for a number of years before they were taken out and presented to the Glossop Antiquarian Society, and finally Buxton Museum. Even at this early stage the stones were surrounded by mystery because they were decorated with carvings and symbols that had connotations of superstition or witchcraft. Perhaps in a bid to downplay their power, in 1905 a local historian described the stones as being of ‘early Anglo-Saxon origin’ and wrote ‘some of the symbols have been recognized as representing the river of life, the wind blowing from the four quarters of the earth, Thoth, one of their gods and other objects which they worshipped’. Unfortunately, Thoth was an Egyptian deity, not an Anglo-Saxon god! Today, archaeologists believe the stones were produced not by Anglo-Saxons, but by native Celts whose traditions had been influenced by the brief Roman presence in the High Peak. The most striking is a rectangular block featuring a crudely-incised face with what appear to be horns sprouting from the brow of the head. As horns were a symbol of the devil to Christians, this stone may have been regarded as a focus evil power. In fact, it is similar to other crude native carvings found on the Roman wall, and may represent a Celtic warrior or the god known as Cernunnos (‘the horned one.’) Their reappearance in Glossop, in 1985, triggered a series of bizarre phone calls which led an archaeologist to temporarily suspend an exploratory excavation on the hilltop where they were found. The archaeologist, Glynis Reeve, herself a local woman, had always been intrigued by the history and folklore of the valley, particularly the ‘dark ages’ between the departure of the Romans and the Norman conquest. In 1984, with the backing of Manchester University and the Peak District National Park, Glynis undertook an extensive fieldwork survey and planned a small excavation on the summit of Mouselow in a bid to learn more about the age of the earthworks. The work was overshadowed by a series of strange events that has left a certain amount of ill-feeling in the district to this day. For it seemed the archaeologists had unearthed something more than they had bargained for. Glynis described how it was not long after volunteers began work that things began to go wrong. ‘We had not been up there for very long when we started to get anonymous phone calls, quite late in the evening from people obviously very concerned that we were digging on a site which had some special significance to them.’ The calls asked ‘why are young digging up there?’ and ‘what are you trying to find?’, and there were warnings about horned figures and ‘the Old Ways.’ The dig was based in a small field centre in Glossop and soon a number of people began to come in demanding to know what they were doing, some of whom were “quite annoyed.” Relations with local people worsened when Glynis began to research the history of Mouselow Stones and arrangements were made for them to return for an exhibition in the field centre. ‘I thought we would perhaps arouse some local interest and maybe find out some more about them,” said Glynis. “But I was totally unprepared for the reaction.’ One man visited the display and looked at the stones for a long time. When Glynis said she wished she knew what she wasn’t supposed to find on the hill, the visitor turned and said: ‘What you did not find was the entrance to hell.’ For the rest of the tale follow this link. Then there is the curse of the Croesus Treasure The Croesus Treasure, a collection of artifacts from the time of King Croesus’ rule of the Lydian Kingdom between 560 and 547 B.C., has had a turbulent history since its discovery back in the ‘60s, causing many to believe that the treasure, also known as the Lydian Hoard, is cursed. It was smuggled from its home in Turkey, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then taken back by Turkey following a legal battle…. The curse of the treasure dates back to 1965, when it was discovered in the village of Güre in the western province of Uşak by five villagers who dug up the tumulus of a princess from Lydian times and stole the jewelry that had been buried with her. Villagers robbed the rest of the treasures in 1966 and took 150 artifacts consisting of gold jewelry and silver pots, followed by a final theft that took place in 1968 where the fortune seekers could not find jewelry but wall paintings. The villagers illegally sold the Lydian artifacts to a smuggler, but instead of getting rich and living a happy life, they came across many misfortunes, leading villagers in the area to believe that the treasure was cursed. The villagers were first captured by the police after one of them reported the theft and smuggling of the artifacts to police following a quarrel over how to divide the profit. Later on, a detailed investigation led police to an İzmir-based smuggler named Ali Bayırlar, but by that time the artifacts had already been sold to buyers overseas.  In the 1970s, Boston Globe journalist Robert Taylor and one of the directors at a museum in Boston, Emily Vermeule, had alleged that 219 pieces of Lydian artifacts had been purchased by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1966 and 1968… Villagers from Uşak told one reporter that one of the thieves had lost three of his sons, one of whom was gruesomely murdered with his throat slit. His two other sons died in two separate traffic accident and in different countries. The thief was later paralyzed then died. Another went through a bitter divorce that was followed by the death of his son, who committed suicide. The last thief went mad and now tells people stories of how he hid 40 barrels of gold. Bayırlar, who sold the artifacts overseas, was also alleged to have gone through terrible times in his life and died in pain‘.  Then one final article:   If the Warehouse 13 agents are apt at their jobs, it is safe to assume that the paranormal storage facility will contain a number of items from Britain. For over a thousand years, relics and artefacts have featured in our myths and legends, some giving their user immense power, some cursing whoever toys with them, and others are, well, just a little redundant in the 21 century.  The UK can proudly boast a large number of cursed items. A chest at Cornwall’s Stanbury Manor is said to contain an evil spirit with telekinetic power, which moves nearby furniture. Prior to being delivered at the manor, two elderly women who owned the chest were struck deaf when they first opened it. Other furnishings are also cursed. The Great Bed, designed in the 1460s for English Monarchs, is housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum and contains the spirit of its creator Jonas Fosbrooke. Fosbrooke is said to attack anyone who tries to sleep in the bed that does not possess royal blood, unless a toast is drunk to him before lights out. One execration legend has it that a child who sleeps in a particular four poster bed at the castle on St Michael’s Mount will never awaken, while the Oast House pub in Southport declared one of their chairs cursed after eight people who perched on it died. The Venerable Bede’s Chair, at St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, has the opposite effect; any newlywed bride sitting on his chair will soon fall pregnant. Overall, flat pack furniture has never looked so tempting. Paranormal skulls are abundant. One of the famed crystal skulls resides at the British Museum, and although once thought to be Aztec in origin, tests have revealed the item to have been made with nineteenth century tools. The same story holds true for other crystal skulls scattered around the globe, though many people still maintain they have mythical power. But who requires crystal when bone can be just as magically powerful? A pair of skulls belonging to a married farming couple who were executed for a crime they did not commit returned to Calgarth Hall to haunt the man who framed them. The man threw the craniums away, buried them, cast them into deep water, and smashed them into tiny fragments, but the following day the skulls would return intact, and he lived with them until his own death. During the 1970s, Ripley’s Odditorium in Blackpool displayed the skull of a local girl. Several people reported seeing a female spectre standing by the remains, and the owner of the skull became convinced that the item was cursed. He may have been right, for he died a week after giving the skull away. Arthurian legend provides a veritable hoard of Warehouse 13 potential. Excalibur, also known as Caledfwlch, may be the most distinguished article; the sword wielded by King Arthur was reputed to possess magical power, and could burst into flame or generate lightning. As Arthur lay dying, he requested Excalibur be return to the Lady of the Lake. Several places claim to be this site, including Dozmary Pool at Bodmin Moor (Cornwall), Poole Harbour, and Broomlee Lough in Northumberland.’ Thanks Amanda, for these treasures!

    17 Dec 2011: SC an assistant at the British museum writes in (in reply to an email from Beach) with the following observation: ‘I have spoken with my colleagues who have looked into the story before and I am afraid to say that it is completely untrue! My colleague, who is extremely knowledgeable on the history of the Museum, told me that ‘dogs are not allowed in the British Museum and never have been.  Security staff do not use dogs.  The only dogs who ever come into the building (apart from guide dogs) are sniffer dogs when we are expecting a VIP visit.  There was a story which I had first-hand from the then Keeper of Greek &Roman Antiquities, Brian Cook, that he saw a sniffer dog which spotted one of the stone lions in the Nereid room out of the corner of his eye and went for it.  Fortunately, as Brian said, the dog was on a lead.  The tale was related to me as an  example of the quality of the carving and, although I have sometimes mentioned it to others, I have never seen it in print.  I have also heard tales of warders on patrol who did not like to go into the mummy reserve collections.  I have never heard a story of dogs and the Lewis chessmen – and would not expect to do so!’ Thanks to SC and the British Museum. Apologies to the departed spirit of Katharine Briggs for ruining a good story with the truth.

    23 June 2012: Draper, Invisible and Open Sesame sent in different versions of this story: ‘Six of the priceless world famous chessmen will feature in the permanent displays at the new Museum and Archive at Lews Castle when it opens in 2014 after a £13.5m revamp. The chessmen will be on “permanent loan” to the new museum  Previously Western Isles MP Mr MacNeil has demanded the “repatriation” of the British Museum’s 82 priceless Viking chess pieces back to Scotland. Another 11 are in the hands of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Prior to that former culture minister Linda Fabiani was sent to London to view the chessmen and make the public case for their return. But museum chiefs said moving the chessmen back to Scotland was impossible, since it would open a Pandora’s box for the return of artefacts. Unlike some of the British Museum’s controversial artefacts such as the Elgin marbles, the chessmen were not plundered but bought for 80 guineas from an Edinburgh dealer who himself had paid £30 for them. The types of pieces have not yet been revealed.’ Thanks Draper, Invisible and Open Sesame!

    4 October 2012: Beach just wants to put his seal of approval on a wonderful new Lewis chess-set created by a London chess shop, pieces that have arrived just in time to teach Beach’s daughters to play ‘the game of kings’. In the words of the Regency Chess website: ‘If you are looking for complete authenticity and don’t feel brave enough to steal the original pieces from the museum then the official set of Lewis chessmen is for you.’