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The Norse and the Islamic World: How Unique is this Ring?

There’s been a lot of hype in the last week about a ring worn by a 9th century Viking woman that says, “for Allah” on the glass inlay. Nearly every article discussing the ring says that it confirms contact between Vikings and the Islamic world, because it is a ring found in Sweden in a Viking grave, but with an ancient Arabic inscription.

(Statens historiska museum / Christer Åhlin)

(Statens historiska museum / Christer Åhlin)

Now, I don’t disagree that there was contact between the Norse and the Islamic world. That’s pretty clear, based on the archaeological evidence. I also don’t disagree with how cool this ring is. It’s pretty darn awesome.

But there are some issues here. First, the term ‘Vikings’ is such a difficult term to define. Archaeologists don’t really use it, because it’s more of a verb than a noun. There were Norse who went ‘a-viking,’ that is, they went out and raided, traded, etc. But the Norse were not all people who went a-viking, only some of them did. A bit like pirates.

‘Vikings’ also treats all of the possible groups in Scandinavia and who came into contact with those who went a-viking as a single group of people. If you went into Norway and told them they were Swedish due to some cultural similarities, the Norwegians would protest heavily. Similar to the Roman empire, just because the Norse came into contact with a lot of people and those people adopted certain Norse cultural practices or objects doesn’t mean they themselves identified as Norse. We can’t really know.

Likely Islamic bead found in a Norse context.

Likely Islamic bead found in a Norse context.

A more vexing problem than just the term ‘Viking’, though, is that this isn’t the first piece of evidence that the Norse were connected to the Islamic world. Certain Norse beads show pretty clear evidence that they come from the Islamic world at the absolute closest. Many Norse beads are drawn, not wound. There is no current evidence for drawn beads being made in Europe during this time. They were made in Asia, however, and the deep cobalt blue of most drawn beads found in Norse contexts suggests the Islamic regions of Asia. Many of these drawn beads are also gold or silver foil beads, which also point generally to the Islamic world. Cnip (or Kneep) on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides has 44 of these beads and has radiocarbon dates of about the 9th or 10th centuries.

(From http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7330540.stm)

(From http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7330540.stm)

In addition to beads, we’re well aware of the Norse having coins with Arabic inscriptions on them. In fact, we know that the Norse often duplicated these inscriptions, possibly to make their coins more highly valued. We also have writing from Ibn Fadlan, who visited Norse territory and witnessed a number of practices first-hand. Yes, the ring is 9th century and Ibn Fadlan is 10th century, but he’s early 10th century. When dating objects for this period in Europe, that’s pretty darn close.

But even before the Norse, many places in Europe had heavy contact with the Islamic world. Britain has several trade networks with the various regions of North Africa. Rome had heavy contact with the Islamic world, and that didn’t necessarily stop just because the Roman Empire dissolved. Much of mainland Europe also shows contact with the Islamic world prior to the 9th century.

As for the glass in the ring, glass was made in Europe by the Roman period, and the Norse eventually had very large glass workshops. While the Norse may not have made their own glass, they certainly worked it into objects and used glass rather extensively as beads.

The article also states that the ring had relatively little wear, suggesting direct contact between the Norse and the Islamic world. While I certainly don’t dispute the idea of direct contact (Ibn Fadlan pretty much proves it), the idea that a lack of wear would indicate direct contact is problematic. Really, what it indicates is that the woman didn’t use the ring much before she died. It also indicates that if anyone owned the ring before her, they didn’t use it much, either. But a merchant can acquire a ring in Istanbul, keep it packaged rather nicely, travel to Rome, and sell it to another merchant who also keeps it packaged rather nicely. That merchant can then travel up to Birka (or wherever this woman happened to be) and sell it to her. That isn’t direct interaction, and it’s not any less likely than direct interaction, so favoring direct interaction as an explanation doesn’t make much sense there.

In the end, while the ring itself might be rather unique in terms of style, it is not terribly unique in its indication of a connection between the Norse and the Islamic world.

2 thoughts on “The Norse and the Islamic World: How Unique is this Ring?

  1. Mark Safford

    If nothing else, there was substantial contact between Western Europe and the Islamic world due to the Moslem invasion of Iberia in the 7th-8th Centuries. They advanced as far as West Central France before the Frankish hero Charles Martel stopped them at the Battle of Tours in 732 C.E.

  2. Heather Post author

    Exactly! Just because the infrastructure of the Roman Empire declined starting in the 5th century, it took a while to recede completely, and just because the infrastructure was gone in places doesn’t mean the connections simply disappeared. The roads were still there, buildings still there, and much of daily life in many of these places continued on. Things changed, certainly, but something like trade didn’t just disappear.

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