31 October 2015

Futhark: Mysterious Ancient Runic Alphabet of Northern Europe

This article from Ancient Origins on the Futhark, the ancient runic alphabet of the Germanic tribes, is extremely detailed and interesting. Anyone with a professed interest in medieval Vikings will glean much from this informative article. (Ed.)


Featured image: Detail of the runic inscription found on one of the copies of the golden horns of Gallehus housed at the Moesgaard Museum. Wikimedia Commons

18 JUNE, 2015 - 03:22 BRYAN HILL

The word rune comes from the Norse rún which means mystery or secret. Little is known about the origins of the Runic alphabet and no one knows exactly when, where or who invented it. 
Runes are the characters of the earliest written alphabet used by the Germanic peoples of Europe called Futhark. The runic alphabet was used within Germanic languages but primarily in Nordic countries.  Inscriptions have been found throughout northern Europe from the Balkans to Germany, Scandinavia, the British Isles and Iceland, and were in use from about 100 to 1600 AD. Runic inscriptions have even been found in North America, supporting claims that the Vikings arrived in the Americas long before Columbus. These days English and other Northern European languages are written using Latin letters, but they used to be written using “Runestaves.”
The oldest known runic inscription dates to 160 AD and is found on the Vimose Comb reading simply “HARJA”.

A comb made of antler from around 150 to 200 CE and was found in Vimose on the island of Funen, Denmark. The Elder Futhark inscription reads "Harja", a male name. This is the oldest known runic inscription. The comb is housed at the National Museum of Denmark. Wikimedia Commons
More than 4,000 runic inscriptions and several runic manuscripts have been found with approximately 2,500 of these coming from Sweden.  Many date from the 800's to the 1000's, during the period of the Vikings.  Runic texts are found on hard surfaces such as rock, wood, and metal. The characters were also scratched on coins, jewelry, monuments, and slabs of stone. 

This runic inscription has been carved into bone. Found in Sweden. Wikimedia Commons
The Runic alphabet is known as Futhark after the first six runes, namely f,u,th,a,r and k.  It consisted of 24 letters, 18 consonants and 6 vowels, and was a writing system where each character marked a certain sound. Runes could be written in both directions and could also be inverted or upside down. The earliest runes consisted almost entirely of straight lines, arranged singly or in combinations of two or more.  Later runes took on more complex forms and some even resemble modern day letters of the English alphabet.

Futhark origins

Because of the resemblance to Mediterranean writing, it is thought that Futhark was adapted from either the Greek or Etruscan alphabet and its origin begins further back than the pre-history of Northern Europe. The earliest Futhark inscriptions don’t have a fixed writing direction, but instead were written left-to-right or right-to-left, which was a feature of very archaic Greek or Etruscan alphabets before the third century BC. One theory is that the runic alphabet was developed by the Goths, a Germanic people.  Two inscriptions, the Negau and the Maria Saalerberg inscriptions, written in Etruscan script in a Germanic language and dating from the second and first centuries BC, give credence to the theory of Etruscan origins.

A sample of Etruscan text carved into the Cippus Perusinus - a stone tablet discovered on the hill of San Marco, Italy, in 1822. Circa third/second century BC. Wikimedia Commons

Elder Futhark – the oldest runic script

Elder Futhark is thought to be the oldest version of the runic script, and was used in the parts of Europe that were home to Germanic peoples, including Scandinavia.  It consisted of 24 letters, and was used mostly before the ninth century AD. This was the ancestor language of English, Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic. As languages changed and more Germanic groups adopted it, Futhark changed to suit the language that it came to write. An early offshoot of Futhark was employed by Goths known as Gothic Runes, which was used until 500 AD before it was replaced by the Greek-based Gothic alphabet.  Elder Futhark was used until 550 AD around the Baltic and North Seas to write the language described by Antonson as ‘North-west Germanic’. Unlike other forms of runes, the skill of reading Elder Futhark was lost overtime until it was rediscovered with its decipherment in 1865 by the Norwegian Sophus Bugge.

Younger Futhark or "Normal Runes" evolved from Elder Futhark over a period of many years and stabilized by about 800 AD, the beginning of the Viking Age. Instead of 24 letters, the Scandinavian "Younger" Futhark had 16, as nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped. The Younger Futhark is divided into two types, short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) and long-branch (Danish).  It was the main alphabet in Norway, Sweden and Denmark throughout the Viking Age, and largely (though not completely) replaced by the Latin alphabet by about 1200 AD, which was a result of the conversion of most of Scandinavia to Christianity. Futhark continued to be used in Scandinavia for centuries, but by 1600 AD, it had become little more than a curiosity among scholars.

Description of the Younger Futhark as "Viking Ogham" in the Book of Ballymote (AD 1390). Public Domain
Futhark is brought to Britain

Between 400 and 600 AD, three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, invaded Britain and brought Futhark from continental Europe with them. They modified it into the 33-letter "Futhorc" to accommodate sound changes that were occurring in Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. The name "Futhorc" is evidence to a phonological change where the long /a/ vowel in Old English evolved into a later /o/ vowel.  Even though Futhark thrived as a writing system, it started to decline with the spread of the Latin alphabet. In England, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc began to be replaced by Latin by the ninth century AD, and did not survive much more past the Norman Conquest of 1066.  By the 1000's, missionaries had converted the Germanic peoples to Christianity.

A secret religious formula?

As runes date from before the time Northern Europe became Christianized, they have become associated with the "pagan" or non-Christian past, and thus a mystique has been cast upon the alphabet. The many meanings of the word have led to a number of theories linking the origin of the runic alphabet to cultic use. When the missionary bishop Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek into Visigothic in the fourth century, he translated the word mysterion toruna.  One theory, therefore, is that the oldest Proto-Norse or Proto-Germanic meanings of the word may have been “religious mystery” or “secret religious formula.”

Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes. Public Domain

In popular culture, runes have been seen as possessing mystical or magical properties.  Historical and fictional, runes appear commonly in modern popular culture, particularly in fantasy literature, video games and various other forms of media. Many modern Wiccan sects use Runes ceremonially and ritualistically.
The ‘secret’ of the runes continues to captivate us today.

"The Origins of the Runes." Norse Mythology for Smart People. [Online] Available here
"Runes." Norse Mythology for Smart People. [Online] Available at: http://norse-mythology.org/runes/
"The Runic Alphabet – Futhark." ThorNews. March 2, 2013. [Online] Available at:   http://thornews.com/2013/03/02/the-runic-alphabet-futhark/
"Use of Runes Survived Introduction of Christianity." ThorNews. February 5, 2015. [Online] Available here.
"Ancient Scripts: Futhark." Ancient Scripts: Futhark. [Online] Available at:   http://www.ancientscripts.com/futhark.html
"Runic Alphabet." Omniglot. [Online] Available at:   http://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm

24 October 2015

Viking Doors to the Dead

Most ancient people's revered their dead in some way. The medieval Vikings were among them. The author, Eriksen, pens a good article on the possibility that doors and thresholds are portals back and forth to the Otherworld. (Ed.)


Doors to the dead: The power of doorways and thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia


Doors to the dead: The power of doorways and thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia
By Marianne Hem Eriksen

Archaeological Dialogues, Vol. 20:2 (2013)

Photograph of Þjóðveldisbærinn in Iceland, a reconstruction of the Viking Longhouse Stöng. Photo by Thomas Ormston / Flickr
Abstract: Mortuary practices could vary almost indefinitely in the Viking Age. Within a theoretical framework of ritualization and architectural philosophy, this article explores how doors and thresholds were used in mortuary practice and ritual behaviour. The door is a deep metaphor for transition, transformation and liminality. It is argued that Viking Age people built ‘doors to the dead’ of various types, such as freestanding portals, causewayed ring-ditches or thresholds to grave mounds; or on occasion even buried their dead in the doorway. The paper proposes that the ritualized doors functioned in three ways: they created connections between the dead and the living; they constituted boundaries and thresholds that could possibly be controlled; and they formed between-spaces, expressing liminality and, conceivably, deviance. Ultimately, the paper underlines the profound impact of domestic architecture on mortuary practice and ritual behaviour in the Viking Age.

Introduction: This article discusses how the power of the door was utilized by Viking Age communities to obtain contact with the dead in the Otherworld, materially and metaphorically. Doors and thresholds are near-universal expressions of social transformation, boundaries, and liminality. The main topic of the article is the practice of echoing domestic architecture, specifically doors, in mortuary contexts in Viking Age Scandinavia (A.D. 750–1050). It is suggested that the door could create an access point between the world of the living and the world of the dead, where the dead could be approached. Creating ritualized doors in mortuary contexts can be understood as one of multiple ritual strategies in a society with diverse cultic traditions, rooted in practice rather than dogma. Interaction with the dead was achieved through ritualized practices, by ritualized bodies, in a highly ritualized environment. Thus the ‘door to the dead’ constitutes an excellent case study for exploring ritualization.

The socio-ritual significance of doors has been sporadically explored in Viking Age research. In this article, I aim to expand on previous studies and underline the potential of exploring the door’s role as an influential spatial, social and ritual element of Viking Age society. Door and threshold are deep metaphors in almost all sedentary cultures and languages of the world – to paraphrase Lakoff and Johnson, they constitute metaphors we live by. The near-universal metaphorical significance of the door, while impossible to date, probably developed early in human history, because of the door’s vital role as a border between the inside and outside of inhabited space. The door controls access and marks the boundary between antagonistic spaces confronting each other. Yet it is also the architectural element allowing passage from one space to the next. Crossing the threshold means abandoning one space and entering the next, a bodily practice recognized both in ritual and in language as a transition from one social role to another. Doors and thresholds are thus closely linked with rites de passage – the word ‘liminality’ itself stemming from Latin for ‘threshold’. This does not imply that each and every crossing of a threshold constitutes a liminal ritual – but rather that passing through a doorway is an embodied, everyday experience prompting numerous social and metaphorical implications.

17 October 2015

The Vikings and clothing accessories they brought home

An archaeologist defending her doctoral thesis at the University of Oslo has come up with these interesting contentions on many of the blings commonly worn by the Vikings, both male and female, and found among their grave goods. Makes a lot of sense and I think you will find her work interesting. (Ed.)



From a Scandinavian perspective, the Viking Age (ca. 800 to 1050) was a time of increased contact with other countries. People from Scandinavia plundered and traded in foreign countries. They brought home jewels, clothing, silver, gold, coins and other costly objects.

 Mounting from a reliquary, produced in Northumbria in the 8th century. The mounting have been modified and was used as a brooch. It was found in a woman’s grave from the second part of the 9th century, in Buskerud, Norway – Photo courtesy University of Oslo Museum of Cultural History
In August this year, the archaeologist Hanne Lovise Aannestad defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Oslo regarding the ways in which these expensive, imported objects were used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. In her thesis, she has surveyed over 350 imported objects that were used as clothing accessories in Eastern Norway in the Viking Age. These objects include buckles, necklaces, coins, belts and pearls from the British Isles, from the European Continent and from along the eastern trade routes to Asia via the Baltic Sea.

“Throughout the whole Viking Age, people were eager to display these exotic objects. The ninth century in particular was a time when large quantities of imported objects were refashioned into jewellery for women. Coins were turned into necklaces in big strings of pearls. Fittings from harnesses for horses and parts of holy reliquaries and books were used as buckles for clothing and thereby assumed new functions and attained a different significance in Scandinavia,” says Aannestad.

The objects show signs of both wear and reworking. These traces show that certain groups of objects were remodelled by local craftsmen, whereas others were reworked by professional metalworkers who had long experience with this kind of work. The different traces indicate social disparities, but the way in which the jewels are used indicates a common understanding throughout all of Scandinavia of the importance of the imported objects.

Imported objects used as personal adornment

Aannestad interprets the importance of the imported objects in light of cultural and ideological conditions in Norse society. When so many objects have been refashioned into clothing accessories, it indicates that it was very important to be seen wearing these objects. Norse literature describes travels to remote places. In many cases, the journey amounted to a kind of coming-of-age ritual, a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. The political circumstances in the Viking Age were unstable and power was in the hands of individuals. The prestige that was accorded to those who had been on journeys to foreign lands was significant in social and political proceedings. The fact that the imported objects were used as personal adornment attests that they signalled the individual’s or the clan’s status and prestige.
Mounting, probably from a religious object, produced in Ireland in the 8th century. The mounting have traces of modifications and was probably used as a brooch. It was found in a woman’s grave from the first part of the 9th century, in Oppland, Norway – Photo courtesy University of Oslo Museum of Cultural History
The practice of refashioning exotic objects into jewellery for women disappeared in the latter part of the Viking Age. This development suggests that Scandinavians had gained a greater understanding of how the objects were originally used. Archaeological complexes with many imported objects tell us that the Scandinavians were steadily developing more stable relations with foreign countries. The way that the use of imported objects developed shows that Scandinavia and foreign countries were coming culturally and ideologically closer during the Viking Age.

Aannestad’s thesis, Transformasjoner. Omforming og bruk av importerte gjenstander i vikingtid  (“Transformations. Reworking and use of imported objects in the Viking Age”), gives insight into the ways in which Scandinavian society was changed by its encounters with the new. The Viking journeys were motivated by more than just political conflicts and the need for wealth and land. The foreign jewels were symbols of travel, prestige and adventure.

10 October 2015

Large Viking Hall found in Reykjavik in Iceland

This surprising find of a Viking longhouse dating to the 9th century, the early period of Norse settlement on Iceland, was accidentally discovered while excavating for a farm cottage from the 18th century - the longhouse was under the cottage. (Ed.)


13. JULY 2015

Large Viking Hall found in Reykjavik in Iceland

Archaeologists digging on Lækjargata in central Reykjavik were looking for traces of a farm cottage built in 1799 – and found a Viking longhouse 900 years older
The longhouse is at least 20 m long at 5.5m wide at it widest point. The ‘long fire’ in the centre of the hut is one of the largest ever found in Iceland, which visible traces suggesting it was over 5.2 m long.
“This find came as a great surprise for everybody,” says Þor­steinn Bergs­son, Managing Director of Minja­vernd, an independent association working for the preservation of old buildings in Iceland.
“This rewrites the history of Reykjavik”, said Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir, archaeologist at the Icelandic Institute of Archaeology to the Iceland Monitor. She says there is no way of knowing who could have lived in the longhouse. “We have no records of any building on this spot other than the cottage built in 1799,” she explains.
The building is from the first years of the settlement of Iceland – a period usually dated 870-930 AD; but more exact dating will need to wait until after the excavation has been completed.

The Long Fire

The Longfire in Lækjargata in Reykjavik. Photo: Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir
The exact size of the hall cannot me measured as part of it is hidden beneath neighbouring houses. However, the size of the long-fire is on par with that found during the excavations at Hrísbrú; perhaps the new hall or longhouse measured the same: 30 m.

Such fires were both a source of heat and light. However, as there was no chimney, longhouses were very smoky and uncomfortable to stay in. An experimental archaeology project in two Danish reconstructed Viking Age Houses have shown that the exposure to woodsmoke must have been a contributing factor to health problems [1]. However, in another study the archaeologists teamed up with scientists and found that “even a high inhalation exposure to wood smoke was associated with limited systemic effects on markers of oxidative stress, DNA damage, inflammation, and monocyte activation” [2]. In a series of simulated experiments another Danish archaeologist has shown that the heating of such a large building poised enormous challenges [3]

The Settlement Exhibition

An computer generated image of the layout of the viking hall exhibited in Reykjavik. © Gargarin
The last time a longhouse was discovered in Reykjavik was in 2001, at Aðalstræti. The relics found at this site represented the oldest evidence of human habitation in Reykjavik, dating back to before 871 AD. This longhouse has been preserved as the centre for an exhibition about the Viking settlement in Reykjavik.

The construction of Viking Age buildings is explained using multimedia technology. Computer technology is used to give an impression of what life was like in the hall.
The exhibition aims to provide insights into the environment of the Reykjavík farm at the time of the first settlers. Exhibits include artefacts from archaeological excavations in central Reykjavík.

The remains of the two longhouses were located approximately 250 meters from each other

The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik 871 +/- 2
Reykjavík center, Aðalstræti 16, Iceland
[1] Household air pollution from wood burning in two reconstructed houses from the Danish Viking Age.
By J. M. Christensen and M. Ryhl-Svendsen
In: Indoor Air. 2015, Vol 25, issue 3, pp. 329 – 340.
[2] Biomarkers of oxidative stress and inflammation after wood smoke exposure in a reconstructed Viking Age house
By: Annie Jensen, Dorina Gabriela Karottki, Jannie Marie Christensen, Jakob Hjort Bønløkke, Torben Sigsgaard, Marianne Glasius, Steffen Loft and Peter Møller
In: Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis, 2014, Vol. 55, Issue 8, pp. 652–661,

Halls in Iceland: Viking Archaeology, sagas, and Interdisciplinary Research in Iceland’s Mosfell Valley. 
By: Jesse Byock and Davide Zori.
In: Celebrating 40 Years of Discovery. In: Backdirt 2013. Annual review of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA
Viking Archaeology in Iceland. Mossfell Archaeological Project.
By D. Zori and J. Byock (eds).
Brepols 2014

03 October 2015

Sword of Late Viking Age Burial Unveiled

To let a masterpiece like this Viking sword go for whatever reason defies logic, but that is what they did, buried it with its owner. He would need it in Valhalla, of course, but to fashion such a weapon must have taken some doing in those days.
This sword brings to mind the sword Leg Biter, the weapon of choice for Halfdan Ingolfsson, chieftain of the Greenland Norse people that sailed from Greenland in my Axe of Iron historical fiction series, to eventually assimilate with the pre-historical natives of Vinland.
All that said, though, I would have liked to have seen this magnificent sword, to hold it in my hand, to feel its heft. It's a good article, I hope you enjoy the read. (Ed.)


Sword of Late Viking Age Burial Unveiled Exhibiting Links Between Norway and England

15 JULY, 2015 - 14:38 ALICIA MCDERMOTT

Though they discovered it in 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo had to wait through four long years of conservation and research to finally reveal the finding of a unique Late Viking Age sword excavated at a burial ground in Langeid, Norway, with mysterious links to England.

The site's lead excavator, Camilla Cecillie Wenn, told Live Science that she knew that they would find something special during excavation because in the burial grounds there was one grave that was different. It was much larger than the other 20 graves found at the site. But it wasn't only the size that indicated a special grave - the post holes (suggesting a roof over the grave) in the four corners surrounding the grave provided a clear clue to something special waiting beneath.

However, the archaeologists lost some hope as they began to dig in search of the coffin and only found fragments of two silver coins. While the coins were somewhat interesting - one with embossing suggesting it was from the German Viking Age and the other a penny from the time of Ethelred II in England (978-1016 AD), it was not what they were expecting.

Thus, Camilla Cecillie Wenn and her team continued searching even after they reached the coffin.  As she explained in a press release of the University of Oslo: "But when we went on digging outside the coffin, our eyes really popped. Along both sides, something metal appeared, but it was hard to see what it was. Suddenly a lump of earth fell to one side so that the object became clearer. Our pulses raced when we realised it was the hilt of a sword!"

That wasn't the end of the story however, as the team searched the other side of the coffin they also found more metal - a big battle-axe. Many questions arise from these weapons, in no particular order, one wonders: Why were they placed alongside the coffin? Who did they belong to? When and where are they from? The archaeologists and conservators at the Museum of Cultural History have been working hard for the last four years to try to answer these questions.

The archaeologists suggest that the placement may be to protect the corpse from enemies or, more likely, as a means to show the power and prestige of the dead body.

By dating some carbon from one of the post holes they were able to link the burial to the year 1030, which also makes sense due to the English coin discovered above the coffin.

Swords were undoubtedly seen as prestigious adornments and weapons during the Viking Age, and certainly a more ornate a sword would be a visible image of social status.

The Norse sagas also emphasize the importance of an elaborate sword. The mythical sagas speak of magical swords made by the dwarves. As the process to create a well-made sword would have been difficult, there was a sense of mystery and magic that surrounded beautiful weaponry.

King Svafrlame Secures the Dwarven-made magical Sword Tyrfing of Norse mythology from the Poetic Edda (1906) V. Rydberg 
Wikimedia Commons

As Hanne Lovise, the author of a recent article on ornate Viking Age swords told Live Science,  "[...] swords are referred to as aesthetic, powerful and magical objects. The many similarities between the descriptions of swords in Norse and Medieval literature suggest that the splendor of the sword in the latter had roots in the Viking notions of the symbolic power, magic and ritual aspects of the ornate sword... There is much to suggest that these magnificent swords were such objects, reflecting the status and power of the warrior and his clan."

The sword discovered at Langeid is 94 cm ( inches) long, and despite the rusted iron blade, the handle of the sword has been well-preserved.  It was undoubtedly owned by a wealthy person, due to the silver threads entwining the handle and silver and gold details on the hilt with copper alloy thread edging. The sword decoration includes spirals, Latin letters (with a grouping that remains a mystery), and most surprising is the image depicted at the top of the pommel: a hand holding a cross.

Full image of the Viking sword, Langeid, Norway
Ellen C. Holthe/Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
"That's unique and we don't know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism," Camilla Cecillie Wenn told Live Science. She believes that this treasure of a sword may have been created in a foreign land and exported to Norway by a very important man.

The axe found alongside the burial also suggests a connection between the buried body and England. The style of the axe with its brass/coated shaft, was very rare in Norway. However, it corresponds well with axes found by the River Thames in London. The dating of the axe also relates well with the axes found in England by the Thames.

Saxo-Norman/Viking Iron & Copper alloy Battle Axe (11th Century), from battle by the River Thames, London, England
Museum of London

Piecing together the evidence of the dating, the English coin, the foreign-made sword and the Thames like axe from the  burial, project leader Zanette Glørstad suggests that the burial may be of one of Danish King Canute's warriors from the battles with the English King Ethelred. She is tempted to even suggest it may be the burial of the legendary warrior Bjor or his father Arnstein.

Although this special find may have taken some years to make a public appearance, it has finally come to light in an exhibition called "Take it Personally" focusing on personal adornments. As the sword had such a large role in adorning and creating the presence and image of a Viking-Age warrior, it is a suitable choice to debut it at this time.

By Alicia McDermott