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The World’s Oldest Chess Piece

TIRANA (Reuters) July 26, 2002 – Archaeologists in Albania have found what appears to be Europe’s oldest chessman, suggesting the game was played on the continent 500 years earlier than previously thought, according to a British professor.

The ivory piece was found in the ancient southern Albanian city of Butrint in a Roman palace dated to the fifth or sixth centuries, said archaeology professor Richard Hodges of East Anglia University. “We are wondering if it is a king or a queen because it has a little cross but we are not sure,” Hodges told Reuters by phone.

Chess is believed to have originated in India in the fourth or fifth centuries, and came to Europe via the Silk Road.  Historians believe the game was played by the upper classes throughout Europe by the early 12th century, based on the walrus-ivory chessmen found in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides and other pieces from as far as southern Italy.

“However, it now looks as though it was already being played in the central Mediteranean over 500 years earlier,” said Hodges, scientific leader of the Butrint Foundation which supports local archaeologists.

The following is an excerpt:

CHESS NOTES

By Harold Dondis and Patrick Wolff
Globe Correspondents
The Boston Globe, November 25, 2002

Earlier this year, the Institute of World Archaeology, an English non-profit association, reported that it had found an ivory chess piece dated 500 A.D. In ancient times, the city was the site of a Greek colony and later a Roman city, conceivably a crossroads of European civilization.

If true, this little piece of ivory would certainly shake historic chess conceptions as throroughly as recent archaeological data on the human species. The definitive work on the origin of chess is “A History of Chess” by H.R. Murray, a 900-page work that traces in minute detail the asserted creation of the game of chess around 600 A.D. in India. According to Murray, the game of chess passed through Islamic civilization and was introduced into Europe, perhaps through the Iberian Peninsula, as early as the 9th century.

The material assembled by Murray is staggering and surely indicates that the cities built under the Roman Empire, and before it Grecian civilization, knew nothing of chess. So the discovery of a chess piece in Europe dated in the 6th century would be a stunning revelation about the basic history of the game.

The Roman and Greek civilizations extended into the area now known as Albania and Alexander the Great is said to have been born in the region.

But the dramatic disclosure of the chess piece may well have been a broad jump into conclusions by the Institute of World Archaeology. It published a picture of the piece (but not a set of pieces), which could certainly pass for a king or a queen.. It is on a little pedestal, has a bowl-shaped body, calibrated to what looks like a collar and a head with a cross on top.

But Gareth Williams, author of the work “Master Pieces: The Architecture of Chess,” writing in the British magazine Chess, says it is definitely not a chess piece. Butrint, he says, was a relatively small port of the Roman Empire that was important in the struggle for power following the fall of that empire. Williams, a devoted follower of Murray’s work, says the artifact, discovered in a Roman house, stands on five small feet and thus without a flat base would not be convenient as a chess piece. Upright chessmen could not easily be manufactured, he says, and did not appear until the 15th century. He says that chessmen have been misdated on a number of occasions before and that this little creature cannot be a contradiction to all the chess histories in existence.

If Williams is right and the artistic creation is not a chess piece, what is it? A statuette, a tool, an idol, a talisiman? Those Staunton-designed kings and queens standing on our chessboards have a right to know whether their ancestors were active in the Greek and Roman Empires, and will not rest easily until they know.

Harold B.Dondis, Esq. whose award-winning chess column appears twice weekly in The Boston Globe, is a Frosina Founding Member and Clerk of the Frosina Information Network, Inc.