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Orkney runes: The new blog

Welcome to the Orkney runes blog!

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Dear reader,

you might have found this blog because you follow my work or because you googled something to do with runes and Orkney. Here, I will regularly share some musings about my PhD project “Runic writing in the diaspora: Expression of a Norse identity?” which is supervised by the Centre for Nordic Studies, UHI in Kirkwall and the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen. It is an Applied Research Collaboration, funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities, and as a non-academic partner, Orkney Museum, which hosts some of the inscriptions I work with, is also involved.

The “old” blog posts can be found here: Blog at CNS page

I hope you enjoy my musings, and if you have any further questions about my research or suggestions for topics, feel free to contact me!

Runes and the perception of temporal distance

This week, I went to Oxford for the amazing “Gender and Medieval Studies” conference. It is a meeting of people from all across Medieval Studies and related fields to discuss all aspects of gender in our field, this time focusing on identity and iconography. I will write more about gender aspects in my own research later, but today I want to focus on one concept that struck me quite deeply during my time there: the perception of runes as part of a kind of “distant past”.

I was part of a panel on “Stones and Silence”, and the other two speakers talked about the lost tomb of Guinevre and Marie de France respectively while I focused on the mid-12th-century inscriptions in Maeshowe. A very 12th century panel – and yet, there is often this feeling that runes are somehow elements of a more distant past, early medieval or even pre-medieval. I have also seen them labelled as “ancient” and “prehistoric” (specifically the Maeshowe inscriptions at that) outside academic contexts. Nobody would call Marie de France anything other than high medieval and yet, her writing dates within decades of the Maeshowe inscriptions. It is also worth noting that the corpus of runic inscriptions in Maeshowe post-dates the foundation of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, the establishment of teaching in Oxford, where I talked about it, and belongs in the same century as Richard Lionheart. So why do we (and I consciously include myself in this) often get the feeling that these runic inscriptions belong to a more distant past than many other 12th-century figures, buildings or objects? Where does this perception of temporal distance come from?

In my mind, there are various reasons for it. One is that, obviously, there are inscriptions which are much older than the ones in Maeshowe. Runes were in use for over a millenium, and so there are indeed inscriptions that belong into the Iron Age. Maybe because we are not using runes as a writing system now any more, it is difficult to fathom that some inscriptions are removed from our present by no more than an almost equal amount of years than, say, Marie de France’s Lais. Perception of time is highly subjective, and anything we constantly and continuously use seems closer in time to us than something of which we have abandoned any use. Through the same mechanism, whatever we continue to use is constantly adapted, re-shaped and rejuvenated while whatever we abandon, such as runes as a writing system, seems to remain frozen in time in its past state and is thus easily recognisable as old or “ancient”.

Another aspect that plays into this is the difficulty in accessing runic inscriptions on many levels. Maeshowe is not the easiest place to get to, so physical access is one issue – but they are also more difficult to both read and make sense of than many other 12th century texts for which translations and commentaries are in university libraries or open access and which often form core content of undergraduate courses. The inscriptions are often short and can be cryptic and impossible to access without a lot of background knowledge, and this inaccessibility again contributes to the perception of them being somehow more “distant” from our present.

Most crucial, however, might be the fact that we do not know the carvers very well. In most cases they are anonymous, and even where they name themselves, we know almost nothing except for their names, the language they used and sometimes tiny little pieces of other information. This makes it difficult to see the human being behind the text. Therefore, the runecarvers can seem far more alien to us than other prominent 12th century figures whom we can picture in our minds with some more ease. Evoking a mental picture of a person belonging to a name makes them seem much closer to our own personhood. Many figures from the 12th centure are still, or again, prominent in popular culture. Everybody in Europe will at some point have seen a portrayal of Richard Lionheart, and a mention of this name will instantly evoke a mental image. For the Norse in 12th century Orkney, this is not the case. The mental image provoked by runes will presumably in most cases be that of a Viking, thanks to both 19th century Borealism and modern popular culture – but this image certainly does nothing to prevent alienation. Going into the whole issue of Viking portrayals would lead too far now, but I hope you get the idea.

On the whole, it does not come as a big surprise then that 12th-century runes can feel much older and more distant for us than their contemporaries, be it historical figures, literature or objects. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage I cannot tell. You might think it enables us to approach these inscriptions with less contemporary bias – but I suspect that we only approach them with a different kind of bias.

Runes in Jarlshof?

Most of this blog is about Orkney, as this is the focus of my research, but obviously it is important to have a comparative perspective. Thus, I defied storm Ophelia last week and went on a boat trip to Shetland where I was lucky enough to have access to the runic objects Shetland museum holds and some additional potentially inscribed objects – big thanks to staff at Shetland Museum & Archives for supporting me!

The results of this trip will be written up in due course, but for this blog I want to focus on an exciting new discovery: Runes in Jarlshof! But are they all it seems?

I don’t think Jarlshof needs an introduction for Viking afficionados, it is the major Norse site in Shetland. An inscription there would be a major discovery – and, as we currently only know of seven Viking Age or medieval runic inscriptions from the archipelago, it would be a significant addition to the corpus.

I first heard about runes in Jarlshof from Historic Environment Scotland staff at the “Our Islands, Our Past” conference in Orkney in September, but they already cautioned that the runes might be modern. Nevertheless, as I was going to Shetland anyways, I felt this deserves further inspection. Before my Shetland trip, HES helpfully provided me with a description where to find the inscription because the site is too large to search for a small inscription on every stone slab.

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With a friend, I then managed to find the inscription. It is in the remaining structures of the Iron Age broch at the site, not in one of the Norse longhouses. Per se, this does not mean the runes have to be necessarily modern, but much of the broch site would have been filled by rubble during the Norse phases of the site.

The runes themselves are five faintly carved twig runes. Unfortunately, using the standard cipher code that is also common in Orkney, they do not make any lexical sense and result in something like “smlRn” or similar (some branches are difficult to discern, even holding a torch from different angles).

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The site is facing the sea and the sandstone there is very soft. So, on balance, could these runes have survived from the Viking Age or Middle Ages until now, having been exposed after excavation in the early 20th century but never detected before? I fear not, and after looking at all the evidence, I would class this as modern.

The inscription reminds me of some modern twig rune inscriptions in Neolithic tombs in Orkney, which also don’t appear to make any lexical sense, like for example Unstan and Cuween. There seems to be a trend of carving runes in freely accessible ancient monuments, which tells us more about modern perceptions about runes than about the past. (And I have to repeat my plea: Please, please do not carve new runes in ancient monuments!)

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Yours truly hard at work deciphering the code

So, to conclude: Yes, there is indeed a runic inscription in Jarlshof, and no, it is not Viking Age or medieval.

Runes are magic – or not?

After a bit of a hiatus, which has nothing to do with a lack of ideas and everything with my annual progress review and upgrading from MPhil to PhD for good, here is the next blog post trying to answer questions people have asked me when they heard I was doing research in runology.

One question that nobody working with runes ever escapes is the issue of magic. It might even be the most frequently asked question I have encountered so far. And of course, the issue is hotly debated on the internet and there are volumes of popular books on runes and magic.

So are runes magic? Were they ever? It is impossible to give an exhaustive overview of all ideas about this complex field within just one blog post, and it might well yield enough material for an entire PhD thesis. Or two. After all, runes were in use over more than a millennium in a vast area. Thus, I will focus on Orkney once again, and try to see if there is any evidence for magic runes in the Orcadian corpus.

First of all, there are many inscriptions in Orkney which are clearly anything but magic. They can indeed be quite mundane. They can, for instance, spell out the classic memorial formula “X raised this stone in memory of Y”, like OR 14 from Tuquoy or OR 18 from Skaill Home Farm. Others, like OR 15 from Earl’s Bu, are possibly runic jokes: This piece of cow rib has an inscription that says “This bone was …” (carved?). There is not much scope for interpreting such words as any form of magic.

Other inscriptions in Orkney are slightly less self-explanatory. Could magic be the solution? Orkney has quite a few runic inscriptions that are very difficult to make sense of. In many cases, that is because of their preservation condition, so the runes are so worn that it is difficult to distinguish them, as for example on the church ruin at the Brough of Birsay, OR 16. That does not mean that these inscriptions were never legible, just that now we will never be able to read them any more.

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OR 16, Brough of Birsay: Only some faint staves remain visible, the inscription is illegible – but that does not make it magic

Another class of inscriptions that Orkney yields are those where the runes are discernible but appear not to make any lexical sense. There is, for instance, the lead weight from Quoys in Deerness (OR 22), which appears to say in line A: “…rasab…”. This does not make any sense in Old Norse and could have been interpreted as “alphabet magic”. However, an equally valid explanation has been put forward recently by Michael Barnes (Futhark Journal 6, 2016): In Latin, this line could say “iras abi”, which means “Go away!”. So while the purpose of the text could indeed be magic, as in banishing or sending away an unknown entity, the runes do not make the magic, the actual words make it.

On the whole, there is not a single inscription from Orkney where the runes are inherently magic symbols, while some inscriptions could possibly have served to such a purpose. Obviously, I am still very much at an early stage of my research but from what I’ve seen so far, I would not say that runes in Orkney were seen as inherently magic during the Viking Age and later medieval period. They could, however, be a means of expressing such magic, just like any magic spell, for example the famous “Avada Kedavra” from Harry Potter can be written in Roman letters – yet, that does not make the Roman letters themselves inherently magic.

Your chance to hear me talk about runes

Some of my esteemed readers might spend their summers on distant shores, not so the budding runologist: I’m busy preparing two talks for upcoming conferences, obviously about runes and Orkney. And here’s the best thing: You can attend one of my talks, there are still some tickets left!

I’ll be talking about women and runes in Scotland at the “Wild Women, Strong Ale and the Walking Dead” conference in Inverness on the 25th of August. You can find more information here: Inverness Conference

I’m sure it will be a great day, and looking forward to seeing the Valhalla exhibition at the museum there, too.

A guest post for SGSAH

Recently, I wrote a guest post for the blog of SGSAH (Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities) who are funding my PhD through their Applied Research Collaboration Studentship programme. In this post, I explain how PhD-ing in Orkey is somewhat different to doing it in, say, the Central Belt.

You can find the post here: PhD-ing in Orkney Enjoy, and make sure to check out the rest of their blog in case you haven’t yet, it’s one of the best resources on everything Arts/Humanities/PhD-ish in Scotland.

Another new (modern) Orkney inscription

Recently, I returned to the Neolithic chamber tomb of Unstan at the shore of Stenness Loch, intending only to show a visitor this often-overlooked amazing site. It holds many inscriptions from Antiquarian times after the cairn was re-opened in the 19th century. One set of “runes” was even registered as an official runic inscription, “OR 2 Unstan” for a while before it was shown to have been carved after the tomb was excavated.

To my surprise, when I entered the tomb this time with my visitor, who happens to be interested in epigraphy, too, we almost instantly saw a runic inscription on the opposite wall. I had never noticed it before and it was very clear, not overgrown with algae or moss, so it seems impossible I had overlooked it at my last visit, and thus I would, just from the circumstances, judge it to be very recent.

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Picture copyright: C. Johnson

Indeed, a closer inspection showed that the runes are Anglo-Saxon with the diagnostic double- barrelled “H”. These runes were not used in Viking Age or medieval Orkney, so that would have been another giveaway for a modern origin. On a portable object, which could have traveled via trade routes from Anglo-Saxon England, they would have been slightly more plausible, but then I read what they said: “ANNETTE:PHILIP:HELLIN”.

So it appears that some people simply carved their names into the tomb, as travelers have done for millennia.

However, I would like to stress that, despite me enjoying a little runic riddle from time to time, damaging ancient and protected monuments with modern carvings is not acceptable. In Orkney, we are lucky that we can access many sites unsupervised and at any time we want. I would ask both locals and tourists to respect these monuments so that future generations can enjoy this privilege, too. There are plenty of other options for carving one’s name in runes that are less damaging to Orkney’s heritage.