Chesspieces are known in a number of different materials but to date this is the first set of this period made in alabaster to have been published. Well-known groups or single figures in carved rock crystal have survived in a number of church treasuries in Europe including Osnabrück, Halberstadt, Ager, Orense, Capua and Lerida (Shalem, Avinoam: Islam Christianized, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1998, pp.188-191 and pls.10 and 12). Figures in ivory are also known, a few of which are on a very large scale (one was sold in these Rooms 11 April 2000, lot 318). Bone was also used for sets of lesser importance (Cutatola, Giovanni: Eredità dell'Islam, Venice, 1993, no.6, pp.71-2), while others were made in unglazed ceramic (Christie's, 1 May 2001, lot 282) and glass (The Unity of Islamic Art, exhibition catalogue, London, 1985, no.62, pp.78-9).
The most frequent form of surface decoration is, as seen here, vertical bands. These can vary from simple incised lines to fully worked tall arcading. The fluting seen here is a particularly elegant variant on this decoration. With the exception of the rock crystal examples with scrolling floral designs, which are attributed to Fatimid Egypt with reasonable confidence, it is difficult to ascribe an origin to these with any certainty. Pieces of similar form dateable to the 9th century were excavated at Nishapur and are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; others have origins in the Eastern Mediterranean region and even Italy.
The present pieces are also unusual in that they show clearly how the two opposing sides were differentiated. On most other examples this is a matter of conjecture, but here the lapis and coral inserts in the top of each piece clearly give the solution.