Early Vikings Revealed Through Two Rare Artifacts Inscribed With Ancient Runic Texts

Detail of a runic inscription on a Viking sword found in 1825. Wikimedia Commons

Two rare artifacts inscribed with ancient letters, or runes, could be the key to a mysterious era of Viking history when they suddenly abandoned their old alphabet and transitioned to a new one.

Archaeologists discovered a comb and a small plate while excavating an ancient Viking marketplace in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark today and a powerful hub during the early Viking Age, according to ScienceNordic.

Runes are sets of symbols comprising an alphabet in which each character represents a specific sound. Traced back to northern Germany, it remains a mystery how early runic systems made their way to Denmark, according to Atlas Obscura. They became widely used throughout Scandinavia.

"These are the runes we've been missing," excavation leader Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist from Aarhus University, Denmark, told ScienceNordic. "We've waited generations to be able to dig into this."

The comb dates to around 800 A.D. and is inscribed with two Viking words for "comb," one of them referring to the noun and the other to the verb. The plate, which was carved from antler or bone and discovered alongside the comb, was inscribed with what might be a Viking's name: Tobi.

Only a handful of runic texts from that age have been recovered; this discovery alone doubles the number of runes found in Ribe, according to ScienceNordic. Experts have long known that such runes existed, but their purpose and the context in which they were commonly used has remained a mystery, which means that access to new runes from the transitional time period is invaluable. The experts hope further study will reveal whether the inscriptions on the comb and plate represent the old alphabet or the new one.

"This is quite a leap for our understanding the writing of the Vikings," Sindbæk told International Business Times U.K. "Was [runic text] developed as a tool for magic? For labeling property and other business in trading towns? Or for sending messages over long distances? This is hard to know if you only have a handful of inscriptions to go by, so even two more inscriptions makes a lot of difference."

Unique #Viking runes discovered in Denmark. One of just a handful of examples of Viking Runes in #Denmark spells the world "comb" and perhaps the name "Tobi." https://t.co/4Ic7w1lGVw @Nationalmuseet @AU_Archaeology @archaeologymag @smithsonian @WorldArchaeo @Archaeology_Top pic.twitter.com/nqxgx06wL3

— ScienceNordic.com (@ScienceNordic) January 15, 2018

Early Vikings used a complex runic system called a futhark. It gets its name from the sounds made by the first six of its 24 characters: f, u, th, a, r and k (not unlike how our own alphabet got its name from the Greek letters alpha and beta). Each rune had its own name and represented its own sound, Lisbeth Imer, a runologist from the National Museum of Denmark whom the archaeologists called upon for assistance, told ScienceNordic.

Over time, as the language evolved and grew more complex, it became too hard to remember which sound was associated with each rune, and eventually the Vikings abandoned the system.