Researchers in Sweden have found Arabic characters woven into burial costumes from Viking boat graves, raises new questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia.
The researchers at Uppsala University behind the study also show that both Allah and Ali are invoked in the patterns of the bands.
The Arabic characters appear on woven bands of silk in burial costumes found in Viking Age boat-graves, as well as in the chamber graves clothing of central Viking Age sites such as Birka in Swedish Mälardalen.
They were kept in storage for more than 100 years, dismissed as typical examples of Viking Age funeral clothes. But a new investigation into the garments – found in 9th and 10th Century graves – has thrown up groundbreaking insights into contact between the Viking and Muslim worlds.
The breakthrough was made by textile archaeologist Annika Larsson while re-examining the remnants of burial costumes from a male and female boat and chamber graves originally excavated in Birka and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.
She became interested in the forgotten fragments after realising the material had come from central Asia, Persia and China.
Larsson says the tiny geometric designs – no more than 1.5cm (0.6in) high – resembled nothing she had come across in Scandinavia before.
“One exciting detail is that the word ‘Allah’ is depicted in mirror image,” says Annika Larsson, a researcher in textile archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University.
“It is a staggering thought that the bands, just like the costumes, was made west of the Muslim heartland. Perhaps this was an attempt to write prayers so that they could be read from left to right, but with the Arabic characters they should have.
“That we so often maintain that Eastern objects in Viking Age graves could only be the result of plundering and eastward trade doesn’t hold up as an explanatory model because the inscriptions appear in typical Viking Age clothing that have their counterparts in preserved images of Valkyries.”
Viking Age burials influenced by Islam
It was while working to recreate textile patterns for the Viking Couture exhibit at Enkoping Museum that the researchers discovered that the woven bands contained ancient Arabic script, Kufic characters, invoking both Allah and Ali.
Larsson then realised she was not looking at Viking patterns at all but ancient Arabic Kufic script.
There were two words that kept recurring. One of them she identified with the help of an Iranian colleague. It was the name “Ali” – the fourth caliph of Islam.
But the word next to Ali was more difficult to decipher. She enlarged the letters and examined them from all angles, including from behind.
“I suddenly saw that the word ‘Allah’ had been written in mirrored lettering,” she says.
Larsson has so far found the names on at least 10 of the nearly 100 pieces she is working through, and they always appear together.
The new find now raises fascinating questions about the grave’s occupants.”The possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out,” she says.
“We know from other Viking tomb excavations that DNA analysis has shown some of the people buried in them originated from places like Persia, where Islam was very dominant.
“However, it is more likely these findings show that Viking age burial customs were influenced by Islamic ideas such as eternal life in paradise after death.”
The Kufic characters were found in the Viking Age in mosaics on burial monuments and mausoleums, primarily in Central Asia.
“Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in Paradise after death,” says Larsson.
“Grave goods such as beautiful clothing, finely sewn in exotic fabrics, hardly reflect the deceased’s everyday life, just as little as the formal attire of our era reflects our own daily lives. The rich material of grave goods should rather be seen as tangible expressions of underlying values.”
Her team is now working with the university’s department for immunology, genetics and pathology to establish the geographic origins of the bodies dressed in the funeral clothes.
“In the Quran, it is written that the inhabitants of Paradise will wear garments of silk, which along with the text band’s inscriptions may explain the widespread occurrence of silk in Viking Age graves,” says Larsson.
“The findings are equally prevalent in both men’s and women’s graves.”