Archaeologists taken aback by evidence of Vikings in Arab world

Norway: Viking age boat burial found in Kvinesdal

The Vikings were expert sailors, a Norse people who came from the area known as Scandinavia, from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Today, their lands are called Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and they are Known for their ruthlessness.

The name ‘Viking’ quite literally means ‘a pirate raid’, fitting for a people who often raided monasteries and foreign lands for treasure. Though far removed from the rest of the world, the Vikings didn’t let this stop them from exploring.

They are even said to have been the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas. And they didn’t stop there as one of their rare relics, previously discovered, bore the inscription not of their native tongue of Old Norse – but Arabic, hinting at just how far the Vikings travelled around the world.

The finger ring, found in a Swedish grave belonging to a woman, is thought to hail from the 9th century and is inscribed with Arabic Kufic writing, and proves that the Vikings did, in fact, travel to places as far away as Iraq. 

READ MORE Family finds 1,200-year-old Viking treasure while looking for a lost earring

The letters appear to read “AL_LLH”, according to researchers from Stockholm University biophysicist Sebastian Wärmländer, which they interpreted as meaning “for/to (the approval of) Allah”.

Writing in a paper for the journal Scanning in 2015, they say it is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site.The ring was originally found during excavations in the late 19th century in the town of Birka, on Björkö island, 19 miles from Stockholm.

Birka acted as a key trading centre for the Vikings and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The discovery of the ring has backed up previous records that suggest Vikings travelled as far away as modern-day Iraq.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, writing 1,000 years ago, said he encountered a strange race he called the “Rusiyyah”, today known as Vikings. I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs.

As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades,” he wrote in one of his accounts.

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The Vikings, it is thought, travelled across the Russian steppes and worked their way on their great ships down the Volga River in search of people to trade with and ransack.

They would have eventually reached the Caspian Sea, from which they met the great trade routes from Central Asia and ventured into lands such as Iraq and Iran.

The Vikings also down the Dnieper and into the Black Sea, moving on to Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — where they set up trading posts.

Analysis of the ring found at the Swedish dig site revealed that it was made of silver alloy and that the red “amethyst” was in fact coloured glass.

While we today may perceive such craftsmanship as fake or cheap, for the Vikings, such materials were highly exotic. Researchers previously assumed that the ring had been covered in a gold plate, though no such trace of the metal was found.

The team wrote: “Together with the absence of gold on the metal surface … the file marks clearly show that the previous description of the ring as gilded was mistaken: if the surface had been gilt and the gold layer had worn away, also the file markings would be gone. But the metal surface displays no wear, and as the original file marks are still in place, this ring has never been much used.”

They believe that the ring was passed directly to a Viking owner from an Arabic Silversmith with few if any owners before. Coins all the way from Afghanistan were also found in the grave, many of them broken and worn from passing through many hands along the way back to Scandinavia.

While the owner of the grave was found buried with traditional Scandinavian clothing, it is impossible to discover her ethnicity because her remains were so far decomposed.

“It is not impossible that the woman herself, or someone close to her, might have visited – or even originate from – the Caliphate (which then stretched from Tunisia to the borders of India) or its surrounding regions,” the team wrote.

While historians know that the Vikings did make such epic journeys, those same journeys were also accompanied by tales of dragons and giant beasts, making it hard for researchers to separate fact from fiction.

They concluded: “The importance of the studied Birka ring is that it most eloquently corroborates ancient tales about direct contacts between Viking Age Scandinavia and the Islamic world. Such contacts must have facilitated exchange of goods, culture, ideas, and news much more efficiently than indirect trade involving several merchants in-between.”

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