In the mid 19th century, someone tucked two chess pieces into the wooden beam of a barn in Lincolnshire, a county in eastern England. There the little figurines stayed, unnoticed, for some 170 years. But recently, when the current owners of the property decided to renovate the barn, the chess pieces were rediscovered, as Evan Nicole Brown reports for Atlas Obscura. Which of course begs the question: Why had they been put there in the first place?
The figures, a queen and a bishop, had been cast in plaster of Paris and dipped in resin. Both are seated on thrones; the bishop has his hands clasped together in prayer and the queen is wearing a crown. Though the pieces have been dated to around 1850, their design suggests they were made from medieval molds. They were found in a beam just over the main entry point of the barn, leading Adam Daubney, the finds liaison officer for the Lincolnshire County Council, to suspect they had talismanic purposes.
“I think these have been purposely selected and placed to help keep the occupiers and their livestock safe,” he says.
Though secularism and scientific advances proliferated in 19th century England, Victorians were very much inclined toward superstition. According to the British Library, “[i]t was a golden age of belief in supernatural forces and energies, ghost stories, weird transmissions and spooky phenomena.” People flocked to mediums who claimed to commune with the dead, and sought out medical cures that purportedly channel invisible energies. The field of “psychical research” was devoted to demonstrating the existence of paranormal phenomena. And, according to Daubney, Victorians placed trinkets at the borders of their property to ward off evil spirits.
Daubney has encountered all sorts of weird amulets hidden in the thresholds of 19th century sites: shoes, miniature Bibles, even mummified cats. But, he says, “We haven’t seen chess pieces before.”
Though the find is unusual, Daubney tells Brown he is quite certain the figures were “used as amulets.” For one, they seemed to have been intentionally concealed in the barn’s beam. And the selection of these specific pieces is significant, he says. The bishop is praying and the queen may have been intended to represent the Virgin Mary—holy figures, in other words, who could keep the property’s human and animal inhabitants safe from nefarious spirits.