12 October 2017

Viking Age Tablet Weaving: Kufic or Not?

Please read the important update at the bottom of this post.

Well, here on the Left Coast of the USA I woke up to a Viking textile controversy this morning, and no mistake! Maybe I'm an idiot, and maybe I'm not, but here's my take on it.

Today's controversy involves the Birka tablet-woven brocade bands. According to Annika Larsson (about whom more below), the geometric designs actually depict Kufic inscriptions saying "Allah" and "Ali." We already know there was plenty of contact with Muslim culture of the period given the large quantity of Persian silver and Eastern silk found in Viking Age contexts. That contact is not at issue, not even remotely. But this particular reinterpretation of the bands has me really steamed, and here's why.

Larsson's "discovery" is predicated on unfounded extensions of pattern, not on existing pattern.

If you consult any of the current crop of articles about this topic, you'll see a photo of a graph on a page with a mirror next to it. (Here's a link to the Heritage Daily one.) The pattern graph is quite clearly Band 6 from the Birka finds, an artifact found in a tenth-century woman's grave, Grave 965, which was published in Agnes Geijer's 1938 Birka III: Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. (See photo below, which is taken from Abb. 20, "Muster der Brettchenbänder," on page 82 in Geijer.)


If you look at the pattern Larsson is postulating, it shows nine additional pattern units at each side of the band, for a total of 18 additional tablets' worth of width. In Larsson's photo you can tell the additional pattern units apart from the original pattern units printed in Geijer because the additional units indicating the brocade weft at the two sides of the graph are slightly lighter than the ones in the central part of the graph; they are also printed 90 degrees off from the direction of the original unit graphics. This unexplained extrapolation practically doubles the width of the band, and here's why that's a problem.

According to Geijer, Band 6 was woven in a technique common to almost every piece of tablet-woven brocade at Birka. Each pattern tablet was threaded half with silk, half with linen and offset by one-quarter turn from the tablet next to it. "Stave borders" of warp twining one tablet wide marked off the selvedges; they are threaded entirely with silk. The tablets were alternately threaded and turned continuously forward. The band was woven with a structural weft that is hidden inside the band as well as a supplementary metallic brocading weft that floats on top of the band to make the pattern. When linen is "up" during the weaving, it's always covered with metallic brocading weft; when silk is "up," it's often (but not always) visible as a tie-down point. This technique is very economical, as the resulting band looks like it's woven with 100% silk when it is much less expensive to weave than 100% silk as about half the warp is linen rather than silk.

If you consult Tafl 17:1 in Birka III for a photo of Band 6, you can clearly see the continuous metallic weft of the band turning at each selvedge to enter back in the other direction. If Larsson were correct that Band 6 was originally significantly wider, you would not see those turning loops; you'd see a series of discontinous single passes of brocading weft with cut or broken ends at each edge.

Annika Larsson is currently with the Institute for Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University in Sweden. The bio at her web page there says "[t]he first degree I took at the Textile Institute, where I trained myself as product designer and pattern designer for the industry. But I am also a craftsman and collaborate with various craft crafts in textiles and throws." She is not trained in archaeology as nearly as I can tell.

You may remember how she offered a radically disruptive theory in 2007 that Viking Age women's oval brooches were worn at the level of the nipples. (You can read more about her idea here.) I have yet to read a textile archaeologist's endorsement of that particular version of costume history, which doesn't surprise me since on the face of it it seems incompatible with much of the published archaeological material on women's clothing from Birka, let alone the rest of the Viking cultural milieu.

Again, I have nothing against the theory that these patterns are Kufic. I would welcome additional overt evidence for Persian influence at Birka, since I already believe the mix of cultures there is too rich and thorough to gloss Birka as representing a single and "Viking" cultural context. But Larsson's theory flies in the face of what we know about Band 6; it doesn't pass my sniff test.

UPDATE 17 October 2017: I see the Guardian has called me a "textile archaeologist." This is incorrect. I have never claimed to be a textile archaeologist, although the discipline of textile archaeology is my chief intellectual interest. Please do not hold me responsible for anybody's failure to describe me correctly.

UPDATE 1 November 2017: The Enköping Museum has put out a statement about this controversy.

The criticism is directed towards a part of the exhibition, but not to the whole. In anticipation of clarifications from the researcher at Uppsala University, the museum now chooses to pause this part of the exhibition until further notice. [via Google Translate]

The statement further makes it clear that the issue centers on interpretation of a Birka band, not a band from some other site.

30 comments:

  1. Thanks for post, very clear explanation.

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  2. Thank you, my friend. As always, you present a solid argument.

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  3. Thank you for this analysis. It makes a great deal of sense.

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  4. You are absolutely correct about the turning loops.

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  5. And anyway ... that symbol for Allah is written in a style called square Kufic, mostly used in architecture, but I did find a woven textile from Uzbekistan incorporating the symbol. Only it’s from the 14th century. And when I dug a bit into the origin of square Kufic, it seems it first appears in the thirteenth century. So the idea that it would appear, backwards, as a result of Muslim influence in an earlier century, seems ....debatable.

    http://timur-i-lang.tumblr.com/post/77824018366/decorative-motif-composed-of-the-word-allah-aq

    http://www.academia.edu/7852093/Chapter_Two_What_is_Square_Kufic_Terminology_Origins_and_Conceptual_Frameworks

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311667947_Mysteries_of_Square_Kufic_Calligraphy

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    1. Thank you for sharing these useful links!

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Thank you! I only wish I had read this before first re-posting the Guardian article and then wasting hours investigating Larsson and her apparent lack of publications after her doctoral thesis a decade ago. Apparently, she called a journalist to share her nifty "discovery". What real scientist does that? The press come calling after a new interpretation gets published at the end of a detailed, comprehensive paper in a peer-reviewed journal, not before. I will now do my best to get this whole kerfuffle out of my head!

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  6. Larsson's theory about apron dresses was flawed because she does not know archaeology, particularly of VA Scandinavia (she was not aware that many Viking corpses were buried in a seated position, so that brooches were likely to migrate downward as the flesh decayed). But this "Kufic script" theory is flawed because Larsson apparently has no idea how tablet weaving is done. As Thora says, if the Birka band had been wider originally, there would have been breaks in the brocading weft, and there are none.

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    1. I would argue against the broaches being placed over the nipple area on practical reasons.
      Having stick out pieces of metal protruding far from the torso is inviting them to catch and snag on things during everyday tasks. This could rip the expensive fabrics of the dress and also get in the way of carrying things or become entangled during tasks like weaving or spinning. Much more sensible to have them out of the way up at the clavicle. Though even there they can be a pain if you've ever worn cloak pins while working.

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    2. Please note that A.L. does not state that the band in question has been wider, she states that IF you would add bits to the sides it might mean "Allah". She is well aware of how a tablet wowen band is made. This way of adding bits to get an exciting result, i might add, seems rather speculative, but i think it is an interesting idea.

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    3. (a reply to "Goatboy": this is a relevant observation, but there are many scientists that have theories about these brooches as being part of formal / religious / burial wear, not for everyday work. Of course i don't have any citations at hand... These kinds of observations is part of why the reenactment culture is so good at contributing to pen-end-paper research!)

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  7. "She is not trained in archaeology as nearly as I can tell"
    Annika Larsson has a PhD in archaeology. You can read all about it and her research interests in her bio you link to above.

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    1. I can't read Swedish, but the Google translation of Larsson's bio page says, about her educational background: " I have education in two textile professions that I combine in my role as a researcher in archeology. The first degree I took at the Textile Institute, where I trained myself as product designer and pattern designer for the industry. But I am also a craftsman and collaborate with various craft crafts in textiles and throws."

      Larsson might well have a PhD in archaeology, but this page does not expressly say so. It does talk about her research interest in some detail, however.

      Note too that the articles talking about her Kufic script theory refer to her as a "textile researcher," not as a PhD.

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    2. Here's a link which will take you to an abstract of Larsson's Phd-thesis:
      http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A170173&dswid=-828

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    3. Hi! If you try using google translate on more text, for example the line before ande after your excerpt, it clearly states that she is a archaeological researcher with a PhD, no less in textile archaeology. /Johanna Burström, (i'm swedish, former student of textile science and archaeology)

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    4. I did use Google Translate on the entire page. What I did not understand is the sentence that agger and Linkan discuss below.

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    5. Even the google translate says "dissertation Clad Warrior. Change in Scandinavian costume around 1000" and "Within the framework of the postdok project".

      What do you think dissertation and then postdok (postdoc) means?

      (However, when she starts to talk about her PhD thesis, she opens with "I defended" and Google translate badly translates this to "I disputed", so that part is unclear.)

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  8. She has been referred to as a Swedish Archaeologist in other English language articles about her VA costume theory. While I agree there is more to be considered on both theories, this post should be updated to reflect that she has a formal in archaeology.

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  9. This:

    "2007 disputerade jag här i Uppsala med avhandlingen Klädd krigare. Skifte i skandinaviskt dräktskick omkring år 1000 ."

    means that Larsson defended her PhD thesis in archeology in 2007.

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  10. No it doesnt.

    Jag är svensk. Jag vet.

    Google translate that.

    She is embarassing though...

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  11. Annika Larsson has a PhD in textile archaeology. She works at Uppsala University

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  12. Nice to hear someone speak sense on the matter. It shows that publications like the New York Times are not interested in portraying a nuanced truth, only an agenda

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  13. A.L. has a PhD in Archaeology from Uppsala University AND a formal textile education which makes her unusually well suited to study ancient costumes. She is now a post doctoral research fellow at Uppsala University - working with the actual archaeological remains, and not Geijer's book. Larsson's theories might be controversial, but they are not flawed in the way you make them out to be here.

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  14. This blog has been cited in an update of the Guardian article. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/13/viking-burial-clothes-woven-with-allah-unveiled-by-swedish-university

    You've also been cited by Stephennie Mulder, UT Austin assoc. prof., Medieval Islamic art & archaeology. Link to twitter - https://mobile.twitter.com/step.../status/919897406031978496

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  15. Replies
    1. Yes, I agree that the whole theory is fake news.

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