Annika Larsson

Viking Couture; Public arena for research, dialogue and communication

Many people are interested in history, but accurate and detailed knowledge of many aspects often somehow don't reach the general audience. Culture and heritage belongs to everyone and can be interpreted in a range of ways, depending of the backgrounds. So how can more scientific heritage research results reach a wider audience? We have to make it fun and interesting. Research projects must affect, include and communicate with the surrounding society in order to be successful.

This project is built on collaboration between textile scientists from Uppsala University, established craft and textile designers and museum arena curators. The aim of the project is to bring the research process to life by creating an interaction between scientists and the visitors of an exhibition, exploring an interesting topic; The Vikings and their attire. A ceremonial gown for women "Viking Couture" is in the focus.

The exhibition questions - by using fashion and clothes - old myths, surrounding gender, social status, aesthetic and national identity, during the Viking age. The Scandinavian Viking textiles originate from the same parts of the world where today's refugees come from - namely the Middle East. The influence is visual in traditional textile crafts that are still used in Scandinavia today.

This project is important as it raises the awareness around complex historical facts that showcase the diversity of influences in historical cultures and counteracts xenophobic ideologies.
Final report

2016, we received contributions for a Communication project – Viking Couture – with the aim of publicly presenting ongoing archaeological research, relevant for today's culture meetings.

From the application:

"Viking Couture; Public arena for research, dialogue and communication.
... The aim of the project is to bring the research process to life by creating an interaction between
scientists and the visitors of an exhibition, exploring an interesting topic; The Vikings and their attire  /.../ The exhibition questions - by using fashion and clothes - old myths, surrounding gender, social
status, aesthetic and national identity, during the Viking age. The Scandinavian Viking textiles
originate from the same parts of the world where today's refugees come from - namely the Middle East.
The influence is visual in traditional textile crafts that are still used in Scandinavia today. This
project is important as it raises the awareness around complex historical facts that showcase the
diversity of influences in historical cultures and counteracts xenophobic ideologies."

The project was administered by Uppsala University and involved collaboration between the following participants:

• Project leader Annika Larsson, PhD / Researcher in Textile Archaeology.
• Fashion Creator Desirée Köster, "Couture & Culture" in London.
• Well-reputed craftsmen in historical weaving and embroidery techniques.
• Archaeological finds, borrowed from Museum Gustavianum.
• Enköpings Museum. Co-financing part and public arena for the exhibition's staging.

The exhibition was designed by an established interior designer, in consultation with the project. The project was, with the exception of some architectural adjustments, carried out according to the application.

From the exhibition:

"Viking Couture
Costumes reflect human roles for a certain period of time in a certain place. Historical costumes are therefore often used to make the history alive. But historical writing is always influenced by its own time. The federal society had its local and self-sustaining perspective, while today's global society sees other things. In the melting point of textile archeology, fashion creators and textile craftsmen, old truths about the Viking Age – through the costume – are questioned.

The exhibition
The exhibition tells about apparel as supplies at ceremonies of life, today and a thousand years ago. Now and then, dreams of eternal happiness were expressed in silk and sewing art on a high level. The discussion is not only conducted in words. It is achieved through the recreation of pattern designs, fashion couture and traditional manufacturing methods in textile handicraft."


The textile-based exhibition was tactile and colorful. The purpose was to visually communicate ongoing research concerning Viking Age grave costume, and compare the results with ceremonial dress codes in our contemporary time - based on rarely noted archaeological finds and text sources. The focus was on highlighting extensive oriental influences of silk and craftsmanship in Viking textile finds. Influences from Central Asia and the Middle East have been integrated into the Nordic art since the Viking Age, but – contradictory – have turned into identity-creating symbols for the Scandinavian culture.

The goal was to communicate with the following main target groups, but also xenophobic groups, that often use Viking symbols to legitimize a genuine Nordic cultural heritage.

• Education & Research
• Re-enacters
• Integration

The exhibition opened in September 2017, and was available for visitors during the opening hours of the museum, five days a week for four months. The number of visitors was beyond expectation and they were explicitly positive. Collaboration with the county senior high school resulted in the following-up project "The Global Viking", presented in digital 3D by students in history and digital design at a seminar day for several hundred high school students in Swedish, English and Arabic, as well as for a huge interested public at the Uppsala SciFest in March 2018.

Enköpings Museum informed about the exhibition via Web pages, Facebook and Instagram. The project was also presented through public media, e.g. press releases, national journals and science radio. Thanks to a press release from Uppsala University, the project was mentioned worldwide already in October 2017 in very positive terms in the BBC, the New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian et al.

But, soon the world turned against the project. The starting point was a Twitter post adressed "To the whole World" by an American scientist who, despite the apparent lack of Viking expertise knowledge, had the impact of fanatic right-wing movements all over the world – also wide dissemination in academic circles appeared. In mascopy with an American author, the researcher claimed that the presented finds were neither Viking Age nor Oriental, and that the results were false. This spread quickly, also to the administrating department at Uppsala University, which suddenly took an active position against the project. The project didn´t understand what was going on.

When the misunderstanding was clarified from the University's Communication Department, the criticism was transferred to deal with whether a scientific article had been published where the results were reviewed by Peer Review. There was no such requirement for the granted communication projects, which also was addressed outside the academy environments for research-related communication. Scientific Peer Review articles are, as appropriate, written for the current research in two articles (see below) that directly relate to the studied material. Now, such a formal requirement was suddenly created for the exhibition, by a conspiracy world, to legitimize its own criticism. They did not want the exhibition to initiate a dialogue about Viking history writing being too narrow. All over the world, the news therefore was spread that the research was Fake News. One even manipulated our pictures. Within the Uppsala university leadership, my doctorate title was rumored to be a fake – despite the fact that I ten years earlier had my Ph.D. in this subject at this university.

Before this unpleasant debate, a great and positive interest in the research and exhibition was shown – a media interest that could have led to a constructive dialogue with both the public and the research colleagues. But awful threats led to a shutdown of the desired dialogue, which gave even more room for xenophobic movements to express themselves. The debate in social media understood how to live their own lives. My opinion is, that it primarily reveals our own contemporary islamophobic ideas, but also the uncritical approach to what is spread in social media.

The focus has been on some highly advanced pieces of tablet woven bands, from the graves of the Viking Age necropolis Birka, which have long been interpreted by internationally well-renowned scientists being of Oriental origin and symbolic value (Sylwan 1926; Geijer 1972). This interpretation has not been questioned before. Archaeologists with Eastern research focus, all point – although they are not costume researchers – on Oriental details in the Viking Age costume. In an article, "Birkas Orientaliska praktplagg" (Hägg 1983), the bands are seen as expressions of an Oriental court outfit. Other costume details are e.g. copies of Arabic coins with the Muslim creed “No God than Allah” written in Kufic (La ilaha il Allah), which, at least in Viking grave contexts, were used as necklaces pendants. The items are assumed to have been produced west – outside the Caliphate (Nylén & Schönbäck 1994: 60).

In my opinion, the tablet woven bands reproduce Kufic characters, but in geometric shapes. The patterns are found in old Mosques and Muslim tombs, where they reproduce the Islamic creed and quotes from the Quran. Clear examples are found in the ornamentation of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, where the architecture of Damascus served as a model. Other examples are found in Egypt and in Central Asian areas, in Iran and around the Caspian Sea. Almost all inscriptions are of religious nature and denote Allah, Mohammed and/or Ali.

The patterns remain in textile folk art in areas where the Viking Age trade routes between East and West went through Russia, and they are also found in Viking Age and Early Medieval woven textiles in Scandinavia. This interpretations are supported by established language (Kufic) and cultural historian researchers in Iran and Morocco. Together, we have identified additional Viking Age textile patterns in Sweden and Norway, corresponding to the Berber's textile art expressed in old Central Asian traditions. Among the Scandinavian textiles there are a number of inscriptions that reproduce the name Mohamed, in exactly the same forms of expression that are preserved in Moorish textiles.

The fact that the Scandinavian material still originates from Central Asian cultural exchange can be understood, inter alia, from:

• The nature and handling of the raw material
• Weaving techniques used in high-tech workshops
• Post-Sassanian patterns
• 100,000 Arabic coins with specified origin

The statement, that Geometric Kufic would not have emerged until 500 years after the Viking Age, is an erroneous statement that is easy to apply when traditional history writing is no longer sustainable, as only a handful of researchers from Western areas are aware of the symbolic values in the old Eastern material. One could have expected that at least some critics would have contacted me for a dialogue – and not just for threatening purposes.

The threats started with two nasty phone calls, from Sweden and England respectively. According to the first conversation, they would spread in the largest newspapers in the world, as well as in all the whole world's social media, that my research is Fake News – if I did not withdraw my interpretations. They would further support the twittering scientist in the United States about my research being fake, and also work for giving Uppsala University a bad reputation. They would also make sure that I could not continue my duty as a researcher. In the second conversation, they claimed I was appointed by the "the fanatic left-winged, communist-friendly, Swedish state" to spread false historical information, which they should put an end to. It only took a day or two, until these messages were processed in the world's most significant media.


Comments:

It seems remarkable that university graduates also took part in this persecution. Even the collaborating museum followed the powerful movements against the expertise. Parts of the exhibition that conveyed new knowledge were closed, further reinforcing the image of false research. My opinion is that the world-wide Viking trend of today can be at least as dangerous as the Aryan minds of the last century, but now wearing an Islamophobic suit. Textiles and clothing are particularly vulnerable areas, because the material highlights identity and influences attitudes.

In my opinion, the recently established communication projects, with rather small resources, stimulate and enable innovative research methods to evolve in ways that are unavailable within purely theoretical and often conservative research structures within the academic humanities. However, when I was asked, on the advice of RJ, to apply for follow-up funding for arranging a workshop with invited researchers from Iran, the department expressly rejected this. The reason, they said, was that researchers from these countries are considered biased. Considering the consequences of the Viking Couture communication project, I wonder if it isn´t the western world, which, to a great extent, has proved to be biased.


References:

Geijer, Agnes. 1972. Ur textilkonstens historia. s. 86, 261.
Hägg, Inga. 1983. Birkas orientaliska praktplagg. Fornvännen 78. s. 204-223.
Nylén & Schönbäck. 1994. Smyckena. Tuna i Badelunda I. s. 60.
Sylwan, Vivi. 1926. Brickband som kulturobjekt. Fornvännen 21. s. 231-244.



Peer Review:

Larsson, Annika. 2018. Asian Silk in Scandinavian Viking Age Graves. Based on the boat- and chamber graves in the Eastern Mälar Valley. In: The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. In print.

Larsson, Annika. 2019. Titel unknown. In: Abgadiyat 14 (2019). The Calligraphy Studies Center of Bibliotheca Alexandria. Accepted.  



Press:

RJ: https://www.rj.se/en/anslag/2016/viking-couturepublic-arena-for-research-dialogue-and-communication/

Swedish Radio: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/avsnitt/953862?programid=407

Swedish television: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/uppsala/vikingar-bar-arabiska-tecken

BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41567391

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/13/viking-burial-clothes-woven-with-allah-unveiled-by-swedish-university

London: https://mailchi.mp/70af05c82f0e/vikingar-i-couture

Publication list

Peer Review:

Larsson, Annika. 2018. Asian Silk in Scandinavian Viking Age Graves. Based on the boat- and chamber graves in the Eastern Mälar Valley. In: The Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. In print.

Larsson, Annika. 2019. Titel unknown. In: Abgadiyat 14 (2019). The Calligraphy Studies Center of Bibliotheca Alexandria. Accepted.



Press:

RJ: https://www.rj.se/en/anslag/2016/viking-couturepublic-arena-for-research-dialogue-and-communication/

Swedish Radio: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/avsnitt/953862?programid=407

Swedish television: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/uppsala/vikingar-bar-arabiska-tecken

BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41567391

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/13/viking-burial-clothes-woven-with-allah-unveiled-by-swedish-university

London: https://mailchi.mp/70af05c82f0e/vikingar-i-couture

Grant administrator
Uppsala University
Reference number
KOM16-1278:1
Amount
SEK 450,000.00
Funding
Communication Projects
Subject
Archaeology
Year
2016