V is for Vikings

The Oseberg ship, a symbol of a different kind of trader. Wikipedia.

When you visualize “medieval traders of Persian textiles,” Vikings may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Yet the Scandinavians were masterful travelers who, despite their reputation for looting, were also supreme world traders. They had access to their own products from the Silk Road and navigated their own pathways into the heart of the world exchange that took place on the central Asian steppes. As much as some would like to debunk the idea, you can’t argue when the evidence is dug up a Norwegian back yard.

Where the Bodies Were Buried

The Viking ship above, called a karve, was discovered near a farm in Southeastern Norway at the beginning of the 20th century. (Discovered near a farm … hmm … perhaps that means a plow hit an immovable object one fine Osebergian spring morn?) A Swedish archaeologist took charge of unearthing the site in 1904-05. While precious metal items were missing, they did find two female skeletons and a big stash of goods still remained.

The Oseberg ship uncovered, photo from World Archaeology.

For much of the twentieth century, the goods were believed to have come from loot that marauders collected across Northern Europe, from churches and monasteries as well as towns. The textiles in particular were thought to have be related to religious ornamentation.

However, more recent scholarship, especially by Norwegian professor Marianne Vedeler, links the textile items to Persian sources, Persian patterns, and Persian silk textiles. These items have long been dated from the tenth century, and Vedeler notes that documents between the Byzantines and the Rus–read the Greeks and Vikings–set up a payment valuation of one slave equals two pieces of silk. The enslaved were common in trading, and silk was very valuable in that trade.

Persian silk borders on Viking cloths, photo from Archaeology Wiki.

Specific silk strips found on the ships were thought to be high-end borders for textiles. The designs were definitely Persian, dating ,say the experts, to the Abbasid dynasty. Plenty of other documents establish that the Vikings traded with Constantinople as well as other cities along the rivers that threaded through Europe.

Another Scandinavian textile expert, Annika Larsson, was elated to study the design of another scrap, perhaps of a belt. She thought the design might spell “Allah,” and wondered aloud as much to Uppsala University, which trumpeted her findings before they were peer reviewed.

All hell broke loose.

False Scientific Controversy and the Real Scholarship

Viking artifact stirs up controversy, photo by Annika Larsson.

On October 3, 2017, Larsson’s findings were widely publicized by the university as “Viking Age patterns might be Kufic script.” The idea was that this scrap found among Viking loot might be traceable back to Persia because, Larsson thought, there might be the word “Allah” written in mirror image. For the next two weeks, the articles generated bold headlines as people were shocked, shocked! to think that Vikings might have been somehow connected to Islam, rather than the pure white Christian (?) ancestors to which the rising crowd of white supremacists had been trying to attach themselves. This was one year into the presidency of you-know-who, after all, very close to the time when Charlottesville marchers had shown up replete with Nordic imagery and swastikas.

The white supremacists were relieved to find that all of this was quickly debunked. A few other professors pointed out that the Kufic script was from the wrong time period and other claims about That Particular Script from That Particular Artifact were unlikely. Phew! said the world. Thank Goodness we can conclusively demonstrate that the Vikings never had anything to do with Islam in the tenth century. Just as there had been an explosion of articles about the supposed connection, there was another explosion of articles quick to show how silly it was to connect Scandinavia and Persia just to counter the narrative of white supremacists. All back to normal.

Only, of course, while Larsson had been wrong about that particular item, the connection to other items has been well established. A bit of silk doesn’t need to say “Allah” on it to prove that it might have been woven by the Abbasids. Marianne Vedeler must have been wondering why the “debunking” narrative got it all wrong, again.

The River Runs Through It

Back on planet Earth, Marianne Vedeler has continued to dig into the details around the Oseberg silks, which were definitely from Persia and definitely found in a Viking ship. The Vikings were expert at navigating rivers and seas, with longships whose wide flat bottoms were designed for shallows.

The Silk Route for Vikings, she thinks, was thus down the riverswhich ran from the Baltic and North Seas through Northeastern Europe, into what is now Russia and down to the Black and Caspian Seas. Some likely reached Samarkand and Transoxiana and sailed on the Oxus or the Jaxartes, even though Vedeler argues that most of their trading probably happened in Constantinople. (Yep, See “O is for Oxus” and “S is for Samarkand”).

Meanwhile, there have been thousands of Arabian dirhams found in other sites in Scandinavia. The Viking-Rus-Islam connection is a sure thing, demonstrating that there multiple paths that the products of the silkworm traveled in the Middle Ages. Plenty of coins, sculptures, and trimming have established a lively trade between Islam and the Vikings, even if tiny bits of the narrative have been lost elsewhere.

Dr. Annika Larsson has been unfazed, following up the brouhaha over her earlier findings with three more studies, the latest being “Asian Silk in Scandinavian Viking Age Scandinavia. Based on the boat- and chamber graves in Eastern Mälar Valley, Sweden.” In: Fragments of Eurasia. Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. Eva Myrdal (ed.). Peer Reviewed.

Somehow that last bit seems like the scholarly equivalent of flipping the bird.

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