History · Knitting

Islamic Egypt and Viking Sweden

I’m retroactively adding a preface to this post, to note that the research report it is based on has subsequently been discredited. There are two basic counterarguments, of which one is convincingly based on the structural detail of the contested object — a conjectural elaboration of an actual Viking find. The other focuses on the chronology of Arabic Square Kufic calligraphy, which is itself a controversial topic.

The sources cited in a preceding post make reference to “pseudo-Kufic” and “Kufesque” when discussing the Arabic inscriptions found on textiles, presumably aware of the issues attaching to “Kufic.”  In that light, arguing that Kufic calligraphy first appeared as architectural epigraphy far later than the alleged date of the questioned object is somewhat beside the point, and implicitly and incorrectly questions the dating of the earlier inscribed material.

The research report that was the basis for the present post has been updated in response to the criticism and is still at the original URL. Subsequent to that, an extremely detailed review appeared in a Swedish post on Facebook but was then deleted. (It was at https://www.facebook.com/andforsgren/posts/10155920499322502 in case it should reappear.) That had all but convinced me simply to delete the material below but I first wanted to see the museum exhibition where the object is on display. I’ve now done so, and (noting this in a second retroactive edit) seen the pivotal original object, as well.

The exhibition and collection visits leave me wishing that I hadn’t posted anything about this, at all. Notwithstanding, I’m keeping a modified version of the initial post online until I’ve figured out what, if anything, might be worth saying instead. I’m also conflicted. Uppsala University is my academic home but my career was in the museum sector — and this story is a credit to neither.

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Two days after I posted about the calligraphic use of the name “Allah” on Egyptian knitted stockings, Uppsala University published a research report with the title Viking Age script deciphered – mentions ‘Allah’ and ‘Ali’. This describes strips of woven silk decorated with Kufic Arabic inscription, extrapolated from finds in several Viking graves. Although this might suggest that the Vikings had acquired them on foreign expeditions, the report says that they were of Nordic manufacture. A related Swedish radio program, Viking clothes show Muslim influence, presents further detail about the calligraphic device and discusses the more extensive use of Islamic design elements in Viking garments.

This would appear to add to the reasons for discounting pure coincidence in the parallel appearance of the knitted tubes from Egypt, described in the intervening guest post, and knitted tubes found in Viking hoards in Northern Europe. It may also be relevant to the similarly surprising appearance of a number the same compound nalbound stitches (out of a staggering array of possibilities) in both Coptic Egypt and Northern Europe. (I was heading toward a discussion of the latter material when focus shifted to the inscribed knitting, but will return to it.)

I’m going to keep this post briefer than usual (and have pruned it further in light of the concerns about the cited report, now delinked) and then present two lengthier ones in more rapid order. The first will describe knitted tubes of Viking origin, dating from the 9th to the 11th centuries CE. The second will present Irish flat knitting from the 8th century.

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