Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Of texts and textiles

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Yesterday, if you spend as much time as I do browsing random news articles online, your eye might have been caught by a story with the headline “‘Allah’ is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes.” Similar pieces ran in multiple publications, but I’ll stick with the one in the New York Times, which I think is where I saw it first. Here’s how it begins:

The discovery of Arabic characters that spell “Allah” and “Ali” on Viking funeral costumes in boat graves in Sweden has raised questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia. The grave where the costumes were found belonged to a woman dressed in silk burial clothes and was excavated from a field in Gamla Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in the 1970s, but its contents were not cataloged until a few years ago, Annika Larsson, a textile archaeologist at Uppsala University, said on Friday.

Larsson says that she was examining the patterns when she “remembered seeing them in similar Moorish designs in silk ribbons from Spain. I understood it had to be a kind of Arabic character, not Nordic.” The article continues: “Upon closer examination of the band from all angles, she said, she realized she was looking at Kufic script. The words Allah and Ali appeared in the silk found in Boat Grave 36 and in many other graves—and, most intriguing, the word Allah could be seen when reflected in a mirror.” It’s “most intriguing” indeed, particularly because it’s consistent with the hypothesis, which is widely credited, that “the Viking settlements in the Malar Valley of Sweden were, in fact, a western outpost of the Silk Road that stretched through Russia to silk-producing centers east of the Caspian Sea.”

Unfortunately, this particular piece of evidence began to fall apart almost at once. I’d like to say that I felt a flicker of doubt even as I read the article, particularly the part about the pattern being “reflected in a mirror,” but I can’t be entirely sure—like a lot of other readers, I glanced over it briefly and moved on. A few hours later, I saw another story headlined “That Viking Textile Probably Didn’t Actually Have ‘Allah’ On It.” It linked to a very persuasive blog post by Carolyn Priest-Dorman, a textile historian and Viking reenactor who seems perfectly positioned to identify the flaws in Larsson’s argument. As the Times article neglects to mention, Larsson’s reconstruction doesn’t just depend on reflecting the design, but in extending it conjecturally on either side, on the assumption that portions of the original are missing. Priest-Dorman points out that this is unwarranted on the evidence:

This unexplained extrapolation practically doubles the width of the band, and here’s why that’s a problem…If you consult…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 discontinuous single passes of brocading weft with cut or broken ends at each edge.

In other words, if the pattern were incomplete, we’d see the breaks, but we don’t. And even if this point were up for debate, you clearly increase the risk of subjective readings when you duplicate, reflect, and otherwise distort the raw “text.”

No one has accused Larsson of intentional fraud, but it appears that the right combination of elements—a source of ambiguous patterns, some erudition, and a certain amount of wishful thinking—resulted in a “solution” to a problem that wasn’t there. If this sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve discussed similar cases on this blog before. One is The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius L. Donnelly, who argued that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and left clues to his identity in a code in the plays. An even better parallel is the scholar William Romaine Newbold, who died believing that he had cracked the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold fell victim to much the same kind of error that Larsson did, except at far greater length and complexity:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section…The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear…Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

The result, of course, was highly suspect. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted, and the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

Donnelly and Newbold were working before an era of instantaneous news coverage, but I don’t doubt that they would have received plenty of sympathetic, or at least credulous, attention if they had published their results today—and, in fact, hardly a month goes by without reports of a new “breakthrough” in the Voynich Manuscript. (I’m reminded of the Beale cipher, a similar enigma encoding an alleged hidden treasure that inspired an entire society, the Beale Cypher Association, devoted to solving it. In his book Biggest Secrets, the author William Poundstone examined a copy of the society’s quarterly newsletter, which is available online. It contained no fewer than three proposed solutions.) In the aftermath of the Larsson debacle, a number of observers, including Stephennie Mulder of the University of Texas, raised concerns about how the theory was reported: “It should go without saying that a single scholar’s un-peer-reviewed claim does not truth make.” She’s right. But I think there’s a more specific lesson here. Both Larsson and Newbold started with a vast source of raw material, selected a tiny piece of it, and subjected it to a series of analogous permutations. Larsson doubled the pattern and reflected it in a mirror; Newbold doubled the illusory characters and then anagrammed the result. The first step increased the amount of text that could be “studied,” while the second rearranged it arbitrarily to facilitate additional readings. Each transformation moved further away from the original, which should have been a red flag for any skeptical reader. But when you summarize the process by providing only the first and the last steps, while omitting the intermediate stages, the conclusion looks a lot more impressive. This is exactly what happened with Larsson, and when we turn to Newbold, who announced his findings in 1921, we see how little anything has changed. As Kahn writes in The Codebreakers: “The public at large was fascinated. Sunday supplements had a field day.”

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