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No, it does not say "Allah" on the Viking cloth ribbon from Birka

Allah on Viking Age cloth ribbons
Photo: Annika Larsson

The other week, it was a world sensation when researchers at Uppsala University discovered that "Allah" is written in Kufic script in a Viking Age ribbon pattern from Birka. Well, "discovered", rather.

"Did the Vikings in Svealand believe in Allah, the god of Islam?" was the angle that Aftonbladet chosen, but also Swedish Radio, Upsala Newspaper and Swedish YLE spread the news. Abroad, the following hung New York Times, The Guardian, BBC on the train.

In press release from Uppsala University states that "What were previously thought to be typical Viking Age patterns in silver on woven bands of silk in Viking Age tombs have been shown to be geometric Kufic signs. The pattern of the ribbons invokes both Allah and Ali."

It was Annika Larsson, a researcher in textile archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, who made the "discovery" while "recreating" the pattern using "other research methods than the usual theoretical ones".

But her research has now come in for some pretty heavy criticism. Stephennie Mulder, a professor of medieval Islamic art and architecture at the University of Texas, criticises not only the "discovery" but also the uncritical media in a long thread on Twitter, arguing that experts should have been consulted before trumpeting the world news - because it's not world news to speak of, according to Stephennie.

Stephanie påpekar bland annat hur stilen på det specifika mönstret som Annika har ”återskapat” i själva verket hör till en tidsperiod först 500 år senare, och sen är det förstås biten med att en stor del av ”upptäckten” är hittepå.

En annan kritisk artikel som delats mycket ifrågasätter just detta, att ”upptäckten” gjorts i efterkonstruerade mönster och inte i existerande mönster som finns i verkligheten. Så här ser originalmönstret ut:

Birka Volume 6
Ur Agnes Geijers Birka III: The textile finds from the tombs (1938), s 82.

Translation: you used your imagination and made it up, plain and simple. And leaving out this little detail from the press release.

Since the stated goal of the work is to "reach a broader audience than just academics", shouldn't a history department make sure to be extra clear about what it is actually presenting to this audience? Is it allowed to present any speculation as fact? Or are these "alternative facts" presented by Uppsala University?

In a time of increasing polarisation and a climate of social hostility to say the least, especially when it comes to things to do with our heritage and history, I think it makes sense to stick to the facts and just present real facts as facts.

There is no doubt that our Viking ancestors had many contacts in the East and brought back Arab silver coins, Buddha statues and new experiences and influences. Even down to Miklagård (Constantinople, conquered in 1453 by Muhammad the Conqueror and was named Istanbul in 1926) went on their travels, some of which included joining the Väringalidet, the Byzantine emperor's personal bodyguard, largely composed of northerners.

From Joannis Scylitzas Joannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum: Kodikas Virt. 26-2 tes Ethnikes Bibliothekes tes Madrites = Codex Matritensis Graecus Vitr. 26-2 (2000), facsimile of Madrid Skylitzis from the 12th century by Militos (Μίλητος)

The history of the Vikings' travels in the east is really interesting and well worth exploring. But surely we can do it without making things up and thereby risking destroying public confidence in the research?

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