‘Were Vikings Muslim?’ Late last year, newspapers all around the world vied with each other for the most attention-grabbing headline following what had originally been a press release by Uppsala University: ‘Viking age patterns may be Kufic script’. A Swedish archeologist had proposed to interpret the ornamentation of a textile discovered in a Viking age boat burial as a form of Arabic script, spelling out the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Ali’. Within a week, this news had transformed into headlines, reporting an historic fact, allegedly questioning long established knowledge about religious life in early medieval Scandinavia.
In reaction to this apparent discovery and the public discussion it had sparked, the Islamic art historian, Stephennie Mulder (University of Texas at Austin), published a response – in the form of a Twitter thread of 60 consecutive tweets. Mulder disproved the claim in a series of visual examples that she discussed in the tweets; without, of course, challenging its underlying historical assumption: that contacts existed between medieval Scandinavia and the Muslim world, a fact which has been known and documented beyond doubt in archeological finds as well as through written sources.
Mulder was not so much concerned with the implications of this supposed finding for medieval studies. Rather, she highlighted this case as an example of current interactions between academia and the public, of the impact of an attention economy on the production of academic knowledge. Following an invitation by the international research group ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’, Mulder spoke about these issues at the Warburg Institute. She presented her response to the archaeologist’s original claim and reported on her experiences as an academic using digital media to disseminate her work; including the various reactions to her post.
The Warburg Institute is a particularly pertinent place to discuss the issues raised by Mulder. Its founder Aby Warburg engaged extensively with the use of images during WWI, especially concerning the implications of the ‘new media’ of his time. After the Institute’s arrival in London it remained a place of engagement with both the potential and dangers of images as a means of communication. This intellectual and political history laid the foundation for the Institute’s distinct awareness of the role of images in public discourse, and the corollary responsibilities of those disciplines methodologically equipped to interpret and deconstruct them.
– Submitted by Johannes Von Müller
Johannes Von Müller is the Coordinator for the Bilderfahrzeuge Project.