800-year-old message carved into Rune Stick Shows Ancient Code still used in Middle Ages

800-year-old message carved into Rune Stick Shows Ancient Code still used in Middle Ages

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An 800-year-old enigmatic message has been found inscribed on a small wooden stick which was dug out of the ground in Odense, Denmark. The delicate stick is marked with 13 th century runic inscription, and researchers work to decode the message.

Archaeologists have been digging beneath archaeological site Vilhelm Werners Square in Odense for years, but were about to stop excavations when they uncovered the three wooden pieces. In total, the stick is only 8.5 centimeters (3.3 inches) long and is thought to have been worn as a talisman or amulet.

According to ScienceNordic, Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark underscored the extremely fragile nature of the artifact, stating in a press release, ”The stick itself had the consistency of cold butter before it was conserved, and some little devil of a root has gouged its way along the inscription on one side, which is a bit upsetting.”

Researchers say the words are difficult to decipher, but the runic inscription refers to the stick’s owner as Tomme, and “Tomme his servant” names him a servant of God. The words “good health” are also carved into the wood.

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The stick had been found in an ancient fish market in an area known as ’Sildeboderne’ (or “the herring stalls”) as referenced in historical texts.

German manuscript illustration from the 15th century depicting market stalls, such as those located in Odense, Denmark.

German manuscript illustration from the 15 th century depicting market stalls, such as those located in Odense, Denmark.  Credit: (Tübinger Hausbuch Iatromathematisches Kalenderbuch die Kunst der Astronomie und Geomantie)

The market stalls of Odense undergoing excavation.

The market stalls of Odense undergoing excavation. Credit: Odense City Museums

The wooden stick and message are significant finds as they suggest a continuing and common use of runic script into the Middle Ages.

Similarly carved artifacts have been found around Scandinavia, and the written language was used throughout Europe, from the Balkans to Germany, and the British Isles. Inscriptions, composed of a number of different runic alphabets, were carved onto many loose objects, like small rune stones, bones, swords, pendants and wood. The earliest known codes date from the first century A.D. and very often the runes played an important role in magic and rituals.

This runic inscription has been carved into bone. Found in Sweden.

This runic inscription has been carved into bone. Found in Sweden. Wikimedia Commons

Norwegian culture site ThorNews writes that rune sticks were often used as messaging systems: they carried everyday notes, and could even feature tales of sex and scandal. However as culture changed, so did the writing system, and runes eventually faded from use.

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ThorNews reports, “In the 11th century, Christianity and the Latin alphabet arrived in Norway, but it would take a few hundred years before people started using the new alphabet. The main reason was the writing tools: The advantage of the runic alphabet was they were cheap and easily available. If you had a knife and a piece of wood or bone, you could start writing. The Latin alphabet, however, had a form that was difficult to carve into hard materials and it was best suited on parchment. This was both expensive and impractical for poor Norwegian farmers.”

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.

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

Runes were eventually replaced by the Latin alphabet after the Middle Ages, but the Odensa rune stick shows that not all had abandoned the ancient code and ritual practices.

Featured Image: Small wooden stick found in Denmark with runic inscriptions naming Tomme as a “servant of God”. Credit: Odense City Museums

By Liz Leafloor  

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