Bone Chess Pieces

Bone Chess Pieces

These two chess pieces were made of bone and found below the floor of two workers’ cottages of the Victorian period at the Darling Quarter site, Darling Harbour, Sydney. Each component was individually sawn, turned, carved and polished. Probably made in Britain for a burgeoning market these portable sets were part of a long tradition of bone, ivory, horn working to make objects of utility, fun and beauty.

Such work or ‘scrimshaw’ is typically associated with sailors but was also done by prisoners-of-war, convicts and slaves to get food or money. Similar small objects were also made of stone or other easily available materials.

Other gaming pieces were also made such as dice and dominos as well as a variety of toys, boxes and buttons. They are found at many eighteenth and nineteenth-century sites around the world, particularly those with a military or maritime connection, such as forts, prison camps, forts, shipwrecks and prison hulks.

Site Listing

Darling Quarter 2008-2010
Left two pieces: House 13, top 8585/#16111; base underside 8630/#15437.
Right: House 9, complete 8610/#81461.
10cm scale, 1cm per division, photograph by Gallery2.


Frank, S. 2012 Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved, Scrimshaw in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, David R. Godine, Boston.

Henderson, G. 1976 James Matthews Excavation Summer 1975/76, Preliminary Report for Maritime Archaeology Advisory Committee, Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum, No.4. Online (see last page).

Stocks, R. 2009a ‘New evidence for local manufacture of artefacts at Parramatta, 1790-1830’, Australasian Historical Archaeology 26: 29-43.

Wessex Archaeology 2010Norman Cross Camp, Cambridgeshire, Archaeological Evaluation and Assessment, prepared for Videotext Communications Ltd, September 2010.

Chess sets:

Darling Quarter Report in Progress: Darling Quarter report in preparation 

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