Art in Archaeology: Expressionism or Interpretation? The Lewis Chessmen’s Knights

This week I’d like to discuss a topic within archaeological studies that has always been a conundrum to me, as an artist and an archaeologist. I’ve identified as an artist as long as I can remember, with the title of ‘archaeologist’ only being attached to me in the last 6 years. I’ve always wanted to combine the two fields somehow, and have used my background in art in order to understand archaeological finds. However, this stance has seemingly sent me down a rabbit hole of expressionism versus interpretation.

To illustrate my issue more clearly, I will use the Lewis Chessmen’s Knights as an example. These exquisite chessmen are carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth and were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Though found in Scotland, the chessmen are thought to be Norwegian in origin, and date 1150-1200AD. Their date coincides with the ending of the Viking period in northern Europe. Now, while this is an excellent and rare find, a date has been set, and origin as well, a lot can be ‘deduced’ about the art itself. However, this can be dangerous territory.

For example, my master’s dissertation was on the horse in Viking Iceland. Now, one of my goals within my research was to reconstruct the tack used by Icelandic Vikings at this time. To do so required combining archaeology, written sources, as well as art. While archaeology was the backbone to the evidence I uncovered, art muddled the picture more often than naught. Because the time period I was researching overlapped with the Lewis Chessmen’s Knights – and were also Scandinavian, I looked into interpreting the tack shown on the beautiful ivory horses.

The archaeological evidence for reconstructing saddles in Viking Iceland is almost non-existent, but the ivory knights displayed full saddles, a nice break in my research, or so I thought. I tried to lean on the artistic evidence of saddles, but as an artist I remained hesitant to do so and eventually left that section out of my final work. While this evidence could’ve been quite helpful in my tack reconstruction, I could not ignore that the chessmen still remain as an artistic piece. Did the artist carving these knights ride horses at all? Was their work displaying what they THOUGHT saddles might look like? Did they copy another artist’s (factual/non-factual) illustration of saddles? Were they illustrating a VIKING saddle from Scandinavia, or a saddle from the British Isles, where the set was found? Or, was the artist familiar with saddles and recreated them to the exact detail as they saw them?

Note the basic stirrup irons, and the long saddle blankets.

Note the basic stirrup irons, and the long saddle blankets.

Note the square cantle.

Note the square cantle.

The answers to these questions are frustratingly vague and quite difficult to answer. The same questions have been asked about the artist representation of archery in the latest youtube hit that turned out to be a fake – with historical artist representations of bows being egregiously wrong, but artistically aesthetic. As an artist and an equestrian, my artistic representations of horses and their tack CAN be extremely accurate for the culture and time I’m representing, however, I know that I have also drawn tack to be what I think looks best. Accurate? No. Expressionistic? Yes.

Thus, in the final stages of my dissertation I did not rely on such evidence on the basis that there was no reliable way to determine whether these artistic renditions were viable for historical and archaeological interpretation or whether they were artistic expressionism. Therefore, the answer for ‘what did saddles in Viking Iceland look like?’ ends up being frustratingly vague and grey.

Reconstruction of the Icelandic Viking saddle based on archaeological finds. (drawn by author)

Reconstruction of the Icelandic Viking saddle based on archaeological finds. (drawn by author)

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2 responses to “Art in Archaeology: Expressionism or Interpretation? The Lewis Chessmen’s Knights

  1. Pingback: How to Find Truth in Ancient Art - Rantin' and Rovin'

  2. Pingback: What Does the Dress Have to Do with Archaeology? - Rantin' and Rovin'

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