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Wednesday Art: The Birka Ring

The ring from Bj 515 with Kufic inscription (Swedish History Museum |
Ola Myrin SHM | CC-BY).

The ring in Bj 515 is something of a mystery. This high-quality silver ring holds a piece of coloured glass with an inscription. Hjalmar Stolpe discovered this ring in the burial during his excavations on the island of Björkö in 1877. Björkö, as you may already know, is famous for the Viking Age trading town called Birka.

About the Grave

On Björkö is a strip of land between the north of Borg and the Black Earth that archaeologists split into two sections called 2a and 2b.

Graves on Björkö (Historiska museet | Creative Commons | Location).

In 2b is the famous chamber grave Bj 581. The warrior grave with the bones of a female inside. Not far off, in section 2a is coffin grave Bj 515. There are no bones left for any gender or origin analysis, so the grave itself and the grave goods are the only leads to identify the deceased. And these grave goods are typical for a woman’s grave. There are two brooches of the Petersen 27b type, a necklace of colourful beads, a needle case, and several pieces of textile.1 Whilst male graves often have grave goods such as cooking equipment or brooches,2 too, a pair of oval brooches is specific for female burials.3

The woman in Bj 515 died around 850 and she is well-to-do considering the rich grave goods. Without her remains, it is difficult to pinpoint if she wore the ring on her finger, or perhaps attached with a cord to the needle case or brooches. What is intriguing, is that the ring still has visible (post-)production marks and hardly shows any wear or tear? Was it made especially for her burial, perhaps?4

The Ring’s Inscription

And then there is the ring’s inscription. The researchers who publish a study about the ring in 2015, believe this is Kufic text, an old Arabic script used from the seventh to the tenth century. In their analysis, the Kufic inscription reads AL_LL-[H?] (transl. to/for Allah).5 This would beg the question if the woman was perhaps a migrant and the only owner of the ring which she then took to her grave far from home in Birka?

Pseudo-Kufic

Others see this differently, among them Arabists and Islamic Art scholars. They claim the analysed letters do not form legible words in Kufic text, but are an imitation better known as pseudo-Kufic.6

What does this mean for the origins of the ring? It makes it less likely for the woman or the ring to have come all the way from the Caliphate. Foremost, because it seems hard to imagine any Arab-speaking silversmith engraving a faulty text on a ring – or an Arab-speaking woman wearing it.

On another note, if a Swedish silversmith made the ring, he obviously chose not to visualise the letters in the geometrical Kufic style. A kind of application that is seen, for example, on textile bands on clothing. Instead, he chooses the characters to resemble Arabic letters. And he is not the only one to do so. There are more local artisans who are inspired by Islamic artwork in early medieval Europe.

Other Examples

After the dust of the Migration period settles, the Merovingians are among the first nouveau riche in Europe. They adore luxury items and have the money to buy them. As a result, they frequently import silk textiles from the Islamic world. Until at one point, they can buy silk closer to home and local artisans know enough about the originals to produce well-made local designs for garments and tapestries (see the Tapestries’ series).7

Other items coming from the Islamic world through trade or gifts, are coins. King Offa’s golden dinar is famous for its pseudo-Arabic text. Dinars must have arrived at Offa’s court at some point and one artisan decides to make a copy, script and all. Only, he copies the Arabic rather badly and stamps Offa’s name upside down compared to the Arabic text.8

Islamic Art in the Viking World

Islamic art reaches Scandinavia, too. Early on, the Vikings have established trade routes via the West to Muslim Spain and via the East, to Byzantium and beyond. A staggering 85,000 Arabic coins are known from Sweden, and rings of the type in Bj 515 are common among the Volga Bulgars and Khazars, as well.9 In particular, Birka is a dynamic hub in the region. Artisans have plenty of opportunities to see and learn from objects from far beyond. Apart from the Arab coins, archaeologists have found a Buddha statue and a ladle from Egypt.

And there are many weights with pseudo-Kufic text. Weights are important tools for a trader, and part of a trustworthy sales exchange. A specific set of ornaments belonging to the owner mark the different weights and make it difficult to change its size (and cheat). At the moment, researchers think that pseudo-Arabic on weights signals the owner’s status. Long-distance travel and contact with the Islamic world are considered a good thing as it brings in trade and wealth. And using pseudo-Arabic is a sign of that status.10

Back to the woman

The woman buried around 850 in Bj 515 belongs to the elite. She wears Viking jewellery and wears a Viking-style dress. Yet, she has a high-quality silver ring with a pseudo-Kufic inscription. What does it say about her? About the society she lived in?

The chance this ring was made in the Islamic world is pretty slim, though perhaps the raw silver may have originated from there.11 Possibly, a capable silversmith in Birka made her ring shortly before or at the time of her death. He has seen Arabic or pseudo-Arabic on other objects before and his engraving of the letters is neat, despite the mumbo jumbo of the words. The quality of the silver alone recognises the deceased woman as a member of the elite. Why did they need to add the inscription?

One question leads to another. And another. There is no suggestion or conclusion why this inscription is on this ring in this grave. The picture that emerges, to me at least, is that the people who live in Birka during the Viking Age are very aware and more knowledgeable of the world outside their town, than we might think. They are familiar seeing new faces, learning about different cultures, discovering new objects.

This woman died as part of this community. Perhaps she was only a local elite who never set foot outside her region. In that case, the ring represents only an illusion – that ends up in the burial. Yet, she might also belong to a family who did know about the world beyond lake Mälaren, who knew about other people, different customs, who might have travelled and traded abroad. And to mark this knowledge, they send her on her last journey with a valuable ring that might guide her in other worlds, too.

References


  1. Wärmländer, S.K., Wåhlander, L., Saage et al, ‘Analysis and interpretation of a unique Arabic finger ring from the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden,’ in: Scanning, Volume 37 (2015), pp. 132 [pp. 131–137]. https://doi.org/10.1002/sca.21189.  ↩︎
  2. Neil Price, The Children of Ash and Elm. (London: Allan Lane (Penguin), 2020), pp. 147. [E–book].  ↩︎
  3. Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991), pp. 15.  ↩︎
  4. Wärmländer, S.K., et al. (2015), pp. 133.  ↩︎
  5. Wärmländer, S.K., et al. (2015), pp. 134–136.  ↩︎
  6. See the Twitter thread of Professor Stephennie Mulder, professor of Islamic Art on https://twitter.com/stephenniem/status/919902172615184385. And also the Twitter thread of Marijn v.d. Putten, Arabist/linguist, on https://twitter.com/PhDniX/status/920584737168723968.  ↩︎
  7. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Beautiful Gibberish: Fake Arabic in Medieval and Renaissance Art,’ Britannica Online Last Accessed 04 April 2021. https://www.britannica.com/story/beautiful–gibberish–fake–arabic–in–medieval–and–renaissance–art. See also the Tapestries’ series on TVAA.  ↩︎
  8. ‘Gold Dinar of King Offa,’ British Library | Collections Last Accessed 04 April 2021. https://www.bl.uk/collection–items/gold–dinar–of–king–offa. See the close–up on the British Museum website: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1913–1213–1. ‘Fake News,’ British Museum Published 1 April 2017. Last Accessed 04 April 2021. https://blog.britishmuseum.org/fake–news.  ↩︎
  9. Egil Mikkelsen, ‘The Vikings and Islam,’ in: The Viking World edited by Stefan Brink (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 545–546 [pp. 543–549].  ↩︎
  10. Lotta Fernstål, ‘A Bit Arabic: Pseudo–Arabic Inscriptions on Viking Age Weights in Sweden and Expression of Self–image,’ in: Current Swedish Archaeology Volume 15–16 ( 2007/2008), pp. 67–68 [pp. 61–71].  ↩︎
  11. Wärmländer, S.K., et al. (2015), pp. 135. You can see the map on http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/birka.asp?sm=10_7.  ↩︎

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