Seljuk ring discovered in Viking-era grave

Ring discovered in Viking-era grave has Arabic inscription

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A silver ring from a Viking-era grave in Birka, Sweden, has a distinctive history: it is the first ring with Arabic inscription from that era found in Scandinavia.

The ring, which has an inscription that says “To Allah” or “For Allah” in Kufic Arabic, is physical evidence suggesting there was direct contact between the Vikings of Sweden and the Muslim world, in this case possibly Asia Minor.

An example of Kufic Arabic in a copy of the Koran

An example of Kufic Arabic in a copy of the Koran (Akif Sahin photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

The woman’s grave dates to about 850 AD. Also found in the woman’s grave were items from India, the Caucasus or Yemen and possibly other locales. Archaeologists think the ring may be a signet ring that was used to mark or stamp documents.

The ring is relatively recent compared to some objects from the East found in Scandinavia. Ancient Origins reported in December 2014 that scientists working in Denmark unearthed glass blue beads crafted in an ancient Egyptian workshop for King Tutankhamun that made its way north to Europe 3,400 years ago. The find suggested there was contact between the two regions long ago via possible ancient trade routes. Those beads too were from graves of women.

 Two blue glass beads from 3,400-year-old graves in Denmark came from ancient Egypt, possibly through trade routes.

Two blue glass beads from 3,400-year-old graves in Denmark came from ancient Egypt, possibly through trade routes. (Photo by A. Mikkelsen/National Museum of Denmark)

An Arabic writer, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who encountered far-traveling Vikings near the Caspian Sea around 1,000 years ago, did not write favorably of his encounter with them:

They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food.

Fadlan was impressed by their physiques, though:

I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the tunic or the caftan.

Muslims inhabited areas from Asia to the Mediterranean, but archaeological evidence of contact between them and Vikings is rare. In fact, the ring is the first with Arabic writing found in a Viking-era grave.

“Even though a few rings of similar design have been encountered at Birka and other archaeological sites, this is the only Viking Age ring with an Arabic inscription found in Scandinavia, which affords it a unique status,” wrote the authors in their report on the find in the journal Scanning (A PDF file of the article is here .) “The ring has been cast in a high-grade silver alloy (94.5/5.5 Ag/Cu) and retains the post-casting marks from the filing done to remove flash and mold lines. Thus, the ring has rarely been worn and likely passed from the silversmith to the woman buried at Birka with few owners in between. The ring may therefore constitute material evidence for direct interactions between Viking Age Scandinavia and the Islamic world. Being the only ring with an Arabic inscription found at a Scandinavian archaeological site it is a unique object among Swedish Viking Age material.”

The grave fields at Birka, on Björkö Island 25 km (15.5 miles) west of Stockholm, were first excavated in the late 1800s. Archaeologists have found many valuable items in the cemeteries of Birka, including in the grave where the ring was found. Birka has been called Sweden’s first town.

The woman’s skeleton was completely decomposed, but her clothing was intact and she was buried with jewelry, arm brooches, scissors and the ring and other materials. She may have been buried with her hands crossed on her chest because the ring was found near where her chest would have been. It may have been attached to the brooches with a string, now lost.

“Between the two brooches was a row of beads made from glass, rock crystal and carnelian,” the authors wrote. “The last two materials could originate from India or Caucasus, although also Yemen was known for its carnelian. In addition some of the glass beads have a foreign appearance, and were likely imported. The woman's brooches and clothing are however typical Scandinavian. The clothing included an undergarment of flax and a garment of blue wool likely dyed with woad.” Woad is a plant from which blue dye is derived.

For more than a century scientists thought the ring was made of amethyst, but recent analysis with high-powered microscopes shows it is made of colored glass, which was rare at that time. Two other rings of similar design, thought to be from Asia Minor (now Turkey), have been found in the Birka Viking graves. Similar rings have been found in Eastern Europe and Tatarstan. Though glass, the ring was probably considered valuable as glass was rare in Scandinavia then and had to be imported, as bottles, beakers or rods that could be reworked into beads.

Comments

Hi again Mark. I don't want to overshadow an article that I enjoyed reading, so I will write one last comment on this. Yes there was a Seljuk tribe of Central Asia in the 990s, named after its founder and leader Seljuk Beg who lived in the late 10th century and died in 1036 AD. The tribe and the dynasty were named after him (in Turkish "Selçuklu", meaning descendants of Selçuk), just like the Ottoman dynasty was named after its founder Osman (in Turkish, "Osmanlı", i.e. the descendants of Osman). The Seljuks, in other words, cannot precede Seljuk Beg.

It was Seljuk's sons who turned the clan into an imperial polity and conquered territory all the way from the Caspian Sea to Asia Minor in-mid 1000s. Seljuks of Asia Minor (also known as Seljuks of Rum), which this article refers to, existed as an independent sultanate from 1077 onwards, breaking from the Great Seljuk Empire, which was by then in its terminal decline.

In short, if the ring actually dates to around 850 AD it is impossible to be a Seljuk ring. It could of course belong to another Islamicized Turkic tribe or dynasty that existed at the time. Or it could be made by Arabs with whom the Vikings are known to have had fairly extensive contacts in the 9th century AD.

Best Regards...

Mark Miller's picture

According to this article, http://factsanddetails.com/asian/cat65/sub424/item2688.html, which is not by an expert but which seems well-researched, there was a Seljuk tribe of Central Asia that converted to Islam in the 990s. So there were Seljuks prior to Seljuk the hero, who may have been named after the tribe.

 

 

Hello Mark. Seljuk Beg, whom the dynasty and the state were named after, lived in the 10th century AD and died in the early 11th. There could not have been "Seljuks" before him. In any case, the arrival of the Seljuks in Asia Minor starts in the 11th century. There were Islamicized Turkic bands and tribes in 850 AD, yes, but they weren't Seljuks. The first Islamic Turkic dynasty is the Karakhanids, who ruled far away from Asia Minor in Central Asia, between 840 to 1212.

Mark Miller's picture

Hi Kara. There were Seljuks then, in 850 AD, but no Seljuk Empire yet.

 

 

"The woman’s grave dates to about 850 AD" but the ring is said to be from the Seljuks of Asia Minor, which was founded in 1077 AD. Either the ring was added centuries later to the grave, or it is not from the Seljuk era (but perhaps from Spain, North Africa or the Levant itself), or the grave actually dates from a much later period. In any case, something is missing or not accurate in this article.

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