A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Ring with an Arabic Inscription from the Viking Age

I'm crashing on deadlines and appointments today and haven't had time for blogging, but wanted to at least show the flag.

This is probably being given more attention than it deserves since it isn't quite as strange as people are making it sound: "Why was a 9th century Viking woman buried with a ring that says ‘for Allah’ on it?" (Washington Post); "Ring brings ancient Viking, Islamic civilizations closer together," (Science News), and similar reports.

They are all reporting on a scholarly piece from The Journal of Scanning Microscopies,  of an article called "Analysis and interpretation of a unique Arabic finger ring from the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden,"  for those who prefer the original paper to the journalistic summaries. The illustrations below are from that article.

The ring comes from a woman's grave in which the clothing and other burial goods are all Viking Age Scandinavian. The silver ring, set with a stone originally thought to be amethyst, but which is actually colored glass, is inscribed with what appears to be a Kufic inscription which the article interprets as "for/to Allah," I presume reading it as li-llah, though they write it as al-_llah.

Unpointed Kufic is always a challenge, and inscribed on glass even more so. Here's their rendering:

It could as easily be {stray alif] billah, since it;'s unpointed.

Interesting, but not that revolutionary. Rings with Arabic inscriptions have been found in several sites in Eastern Europe, and Birka, Sweden, was a key Viking trading center, so the ring presumably arrived as trade goods.

Offa's "Dinar" (British Museum)
Arabic coinage (especially gold dinars and silver dirhams due to their intrinsic value) circulated all over Europe, and the 8th century Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia Offa (builder of Offa's Dyke to hold back the Welsh), famously struck a gold coin that directly imitated a dinar of the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, with the Arabic shahada imperfectly copied on one side and "Offa Rex" on the other. Offa was a Christian and the British Museum site suggests the coin was struck for the Pope, so we can assume Offa was better at holding back the Welsh than at recognizing the shahada.

And of course there was Ibn Fadlan, the medieval Arab traveler who visited the Volga Vikings in what is now Russia. He didn't like them much. Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead was a fictionalization of Ibn Fadlan's travels. A bad movie was made from it, The 13th Warrior.

So the Birka find is interesting, but not unprecedented. The trade routes across Europe are quite ancient; Ancient Near Eastern jewelery has been found in Scandinavia, and the Ancient Greeks knew Baltic amber.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Thirteenth Warrior" is not so bad and Banderas is pretty sympathetic as Ibn Fadlan. It has a great Jerry Goldsmith score too.

And you can't have enough movies with Arabs and Vikings (1964's "The Long Ships" is fun too).