A Set of Viking Burial Clothing Had Arabic Embroidery

In Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead" (and "The 13th Warrior," the Antonio Banderas movie based on the book), an ambassador from Baghdad finds himself in league with a group of Vikings and under attack by a tribe of cannibalistic Neanderthals. Science fiction sure is wacky sometimes — but there really was contact between the Muslim world and 10th century Vikings. And the proof is still piling up.

A Distant Mirror

Discovered during World War II, this set of Viking burial clothes has hidden a secret for more than 70 years. While textile archaeologist Annika Larsson was preparing it for a "Viking Couture" exhibit at Enköping Museum, she made a startling discovery when the fabric was placed in front of a mirror. Seen backward, a geometric pattern that resembled runes became the word "Allah" in Kufic script.

It's not the first piece concrete piece of evidence that Vikings interacted with the Arabic world (more on that in a minute), but it does make a compelling case for the exact nature of that interaction. If Vikings in Sweden were burying their dead with reverent references to Allah, that suggests that the relationship that spanned the European continent was far from acrimonious. The Vikings didn't appear to have ransacked an Arabic treasure hoard for its valuables — they had taken a sacred tradition and integrated it into their own.

Volga Display of Power

It's actually not exactly news that Viking and Arabic cultures interacted at different points in history. Written accounts from 10th-century ambassador Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas' character in the movie) tell of meeting Vikings sailing the Volga, but for many years there was a question about how reliable that written record was.

At some point, though, you've got to just accept it. In 2008, a cache of Viking era silver coins from Baghdad and Damascus was found near the site of Stockholm's Arlanda airport. And in 2015, a silver ring was found in a Scandinavian site bearing an inscription reading "or to Allah." Other research has shown a link between Arabic and Viking metal-smithing techniques as well — Vikings almost certainly learned certain methods from their trading partners on the southern end of the Volga. It all makes the ancient world seem a lot smaller, doesn't it?

Want some sci-fi in your historical epic? Check out "Eaters of the Dead" or find the real story of Arab and Viking interactions in "Ibn Fadlan in the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North." Any purchase you make from that link will help support Curiosity.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas November 15, 2017

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