Ring brings ancient Viking, Islamic civilizations closer together

Inscription, style and lack of wear point to rare archaeological evidence of contact

Ring

DISTANT BLING  A new study suggests that a ninth century ring from a Viking site in Sweden came directly from the Islamic civilization. The ring includes an inset of colored glass engraved with ancient Arabic script.

Christer Åhlin/The Swedish History Museum

More than a century after its discovery in a ninth century woman’s grave, an engraved ring has revealed evidence of close contacts between Viking Age Scandinavians and the Islamic world.

Excavators of a Viking trading center in Sweden called Birka recovered the silver ring in the late 1800s. Until now, it was thought that it featured a violet amethyst engraved with Arabic-looking characters. But closer inspection with a scanning electron microscope revealed that the presumed amethyst is colored glass (an exotic material at the time), say biophysicist Sebastian Wärmländer of Stockholm University and his colleagues.

An inscription on the glass inset reads either “for Allah” or “to Allah” in an ancient Arabic script, the researchers report February 23 in Scanning.

Scandinavians traded for fancy glass objects from Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as 3,400 years ago (SN: 1/24/15, p. 8). Thus, seagoing Scandinavians could have acquired glass items from Islamic traders in the same part of the world more than 2,000 years later rather than waiting for such desirable pieces to move north through trade networks.

Ancient texts mention encounters around 1,000 years ago between Scandinavians and members of the Islamic civilization, which stretched from West Asia to Mediterranean lands. Archaeological evidence supporting those accounts, though, is rare.

The inner surface of the Birka ring’s silver body shows virtually no signs of wear. Filing marks made in the final stage of its production are still visible. That suggests that the ring made by an Arabic silversmith had few or no owners before it reached the Viking woman, the researchers say.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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