Monday, 23 March 2015

The Viking's ring — part one

15 English, and 76 German coins.
photo: Daderot
Whenever I notice a news report that I might use as a subject for a blog post I read the headline link and then the article. Usually, the news organization publishing the report does not interest me much: I find that relatively minor publications can get things just as right or wrong as the bigger presses, so noting where the article was published is the third thing I do as I want to know if it is a spoof article (like in The Onion, for example), or whether the publisher has some particular ax to grind which could slant the story.

After reading a news report about the recent analysis of a ring with an Islamic inscription in a Swedish Viking hoard it did not come as a great surprise that it did not mention the large number of Islamic coins that have been found in Viking (Norse) hoards over the years. It was common numismatic knowledge, I knew about this as a child. It seemed like a typical "hyped" article, and a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the ring is the only firm confirmation of such distant contacts after reading: "Ancient texts mention contact between Scandinavians and members of Islamic civilization, but such archaeological evidence is rare. “Being the only ring with an Arabic inscription found at a Scandinavian archaeological site, it is a unique object among Swedish Viking Age material,”".

Looking at the source of the report, I was rather surprised to see that it was from the Archaeological Institute of America. Surely such an organization could cut through the initial hype and say something like "While the ring is a unique item for a Viking hoard, Islamic coins are actually rather common in such hoards." Its absence was such a surprise that I even started to doubt what I had been hearing since I was a child, but a quick web search soon validated my memories. By far, the best thing I found on my Google search was: Islamic Coin Hoards and the Trade Routes: How Dirham Reached the North by Dr. Aram Vardanyan, Institute of Oriental Studies, Yerevan, Armenia, and this paper tells me that Sweden has recorded 70,000 Islamic dirham finds in recent years and leads the northern countries list of more than 114,000 such coin finds.

The original paper certainly does not hide the fact of such coin discoveries, but tries to separate the importance of the ring from them as it seems to be a product that was fairly new when it was buried and the coins are usually worn and sometimes cut or broken for "smaller denominations". This does not explain, though, why such coins were not mentioned in the AIA article and how that could question their statement: "Ancient texts mention contact between Scandinavians and members of Islamic civilization, but such archaeological evidence is rare.". Then it dawned on me, the AIA restrict publication of anything that was not the result of an archaeological excavation. By projecting this policy to all archaeology, accidental finds like the Sysma hoard that was uncovered by a plough cannot be spoken about at all. So (by their standards) archaeological evidence is rare. Would the public understand this? Of course not. The AIA's ideas of "political correctness" gives the uninformed public reader a very different picture of the importance of the discovery.

Part two of this short series will appear on Wednesday as tomorrow's post is a "special". In it I will give much more of the Islamic links to the Vikings and NW Europe in general, including some of the medieval (not "ancient" history) and  a bit about a modern "novel" about the subject that seems to deliberately confuse such histories.


  1. Honestly, the practice of archaeological organisations not recognizing impromptu historic finds, if they were not recovered by archaeological methods, is a tremendous disservice to the core mission of researching history. How disheartening!

    1. Hi James, In their instructions for authors, the AIA state:

      "In keeping with the 2004 policy of the AIA, the AJA will not accept any article that serves as the primary publication of any object or archaeological material in a private or public collection after 30 December 1973 unless its existence is documented before that date or it was legally exported from the country of origin. An exception may be made if, in the view of the Editor-in-Chief, the aim of the article is to emphasize the loss of archaeological context. Reviews of exhibitions, catalogues, or publications that do not follow these guidelines should state that the exhibition or publication in question includes material without known archaeological findspot (see N.J. Norman, “Editorial Policy on the Publication of Recently Acquired Antiquities,” AJA 109 [2005] 135–36).".

      The fact of this dogma makes it impossible for any scientific-based study of any class of artifact as such information is only available for a small percentage of such objects, although some artifact types are as yet unknown coming from archaeological excavations. It is also significant that the only exception to their policy is where the author is attempting to support their dogma.