British Museum blog

The lives of others in runic inscriptions

gold finger ring with runic inscription
Martin Findell, Research Associate, University of Leicester

Gold finger-ring, engraved with a runic inscription. Late Anglo-Saxon, found in Cumbria, England. OA.10262

Gold finger-ring, engraved with a runic inscription. Late Anglo-Saxon, found in Cumbria, England. OA.10262

Call it perversity, but in my own research I’ve always had a taste for the unfashionable and the unglamorous areas of runic writing. I get more excited about a name scratched onto the back of a brooch than about a large and richly decorated runestone; and as a historical linguist, I take more pleasure in trying to work out problems of the relationship between spelling, speech and the changing structure of language than in broader questions of cultural history and society. Of course the two are interdependent, and while I concern myself with the troublesome nuts-and-bolts details of language, language is an aspect of culture and must be studied alongside other aspects of culture. Even the briefest and most unattractive inscription is an instance of language use by real people who belonged to a community in which the act of writing had some purpose. Rather than regale you with tales of unstressed vowels, I thought it would be more interesting to share my interest in some of the texts we find written in runes, and what they might tell us about the people who produced them.

One of the most impressive objects in the Vikings exhibition (if somewhat overshadowed by the great Roskilde ship) is a replica of the Jelling stone. The original is at the large royal complex at Jelling in southern Denmark, and was commissioned by Harald Bluetooth to honour his parents and boast of his own achievements. The inscription says “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm his father and Þorvi his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway, and who made the Danes Christian” (translation based on that in the Samnordisk rundatabas).

The memorial text is formulaic, and similar to inscriptions found all over Viking-Age Scandinavia (with a particular concentration in the Uppland region of Sweden, where several thousand have been found). The stone is probably best seen as a political statement, particularly when it comes to Harald’s display of his Christian credentials; lest the viewer be left in any doubt, one face of the stone is carved with an image of the Crucifixion.

The Jelling stone is an inscription made for a king, but not by him. The people who did the actual work – and importantly for linguists, these were probably also the people who made decisions about things like spelling – were craftsmen, possibly attached to Harald’s court, who remain silent in the historical record.

One of my favourite inscriptions lies at the other end of the scale: a short, personal message, informally scratched on the back of a brooch found in a sixth-century woman’s grave at Bad Krozingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The inscription reads boba:leub agirike, “Bōba, dear to Agirik”. Bōba is the name of a woman, perhaps that of the woman buried with the brooch (although not necessarily – valuable pieces of jewellery like this could be passed on as heirlooms, or looted and given to someone other than the original owner), and Agirik is a man. It is likely that he wrote the inscription himself – it is not a work of professional craftsmanship (which the brooch certainly is), and the fact that the message is on the back of the brooch means that it would not have been visible when worn. We have no way of knowing what the relationship between these two people was. They might have been husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister, or related in some other way; but this slender piece of evidence helps to remind us that these were real people, people who knew and cared for one another. It might not tell us much about the large-scale political and religious trends of the society in which they lived, but it brings both the words and objects of the past to life as something familiar, human and all too short-lived.

Martin Findell, Research Associate, University of Leicester. His particular interests are in the problems of understanding the relationship between spelling and sound change in the early Germanic languages, and in the uses and abuses of runes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This post was originally published on the British Museum Press blog. Martin’s book about runic inscriptions has been recently published by British Museum Press and can be found on our online shop.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Vikings in Russia

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow. This axe, with its backwards projecting knob, is typical of weapons from eastern Baltic lands. It was found in Russia’s Kazan region on the Volga river, but is decorated in a Scandinavian style with gold inlay that depicts a sword piercing a serpent from below – possibly a reference to the legend of Sigurd the dragon-slayer.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The British Museum would like to thank the State Historical Museum, Moscow and the State Novgorod Museum for the generous loan of objects.

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