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Why Are These Viking Burial Clothes Inscribed with Arabic Script?

The Islamic world may have had a bigger influence on the Vikings than previously thought.

It is well-known among researchers that the Vikings, those Scandinavian warriors who roamed the seas between the 9th and 11th centuries, made contact with the Islamic world. But new evidence suggests these interactions were greater than previously thought.

While studying Viking burial garments in Sweden, textile archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University discovered they’d been decorated with Kufic characters, a form of Arabic script. Specifically, she found characters signifying “Ali,” the fourth caliph of Islam, and “Allah,” the Arabic word for God.

These burial garments come from Viking boat graves, which, as their name suggests, used boats as coffins. Out of the nearly 100 garments that she is working through, the BBC reports that she has found “Ali” and “Allah” on at least 10 of them. It’s still unclear what all this means, but Larsson told the BBC that “the possibility that some of those in the graves were Muslim cannot be completely ruled out.”

Excavated fragments of a woven band discovered at the Swedish sites. (Credit: Annika Larsson)

Excavated fragments of a woven band discovered at the Swedish sites. (Credit: Annika Larsson)

Previous DNA testing has shown that some people buried in Viking graves originated in Persia, where Islam was dominant. Larsson has determined that the material on the garments she is studying comes from central Asia, Persia, and China, and her team is now working with DNA researchers to determine who, exactly, was wearing them. Still, Larsson says “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.”

In the past decade, researchers have also unearthed Arab coins buried by Vikings and a ring inscribed with “for Allah” in a Viking grave. Yet Larsson’s burial garments mark the first time that artifacts with the Arabic characters for “Ali” have been found in Scandinavia.

Again, it’s not clear what the significance of this is. Larsson notes that “Ali” and “Allah” always appear together in the burial garments; since Ali has an elevated status in the Shia branch of Islam, this could suggest that the Vikings made connections specifically with Shiites. Amir De Martino of the Islamic College in London told the BBC that since “Ali” usually appears in Shia culture with the phrase “waly Allah,” or “friend of Allah,” it could also mean that the pattern has been incorrectly copied.

An enlarged print of the woven band's pattern reveals "Allah" in it's reflection. (Credit: Annika Larsson)

An enlarged print of the woven band’s pattern reveals “Allah” in it’s reflection. (Credit: Annika Larsson)

“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,” Larsson toldThe Independent. “It is a staggering thought” that these burial garments could’ve been “made west of the Muslim heartland.”

In an interview with the the Swedish news site The Local, Larsson added that her findings demonstrate the the importance of “challenging historical research.” The scholars who originally studied these garments in the mid-20th century failed to notice their non-Western influences, and it was only through Larsson’s review of them that she was able to uncover their meaning.

Correcting the record is important not just for its own sake, but also because it can prevent people from weaponizing false narratives for their own gain. Larsson points out that her research could help disassociate the Vikings from the many white supremacist groups who have adopted their iconography. Unlike these hate groups, it doesn’t appear that the Vikings opposed Islam; in fact, they may have embraced parts of the religion as their own.

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