Communicating with the Past: Anglo-Saxons, Runes and Ale

Today’s guest blog is from Livia Roschdi and features one of our ‘star objects’, the Spong Hill Pots. Livia is an intern with Norfolk Museum Service’s Archaeology Department.

Communication problems: Understanding our Past through Signs and Symbols

As a historical linguist, I am often confronted with the question of how communication over centuries works. Scholars come up with many different readings and explanations of objects from the past and claim to know what they are, what they were used for and even draw (sometimes hasty) conclusions on the respective society. But do we actually understand our ancestors? Do we read the signs correctly or are we just interpreting from our modern point of view?

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist of the early 20th century and a key figure in the study of semiotics (the study of signs), a sign represents or stands for an idea of an object or an abstract entity. The word apple refers to the object “apple”, the word love, refers to the abstract idea of “love” and so on. This is a two-sided and also arbitrary relation, meaning each side evokes the other, but the sound given to the symbol alters in each culture and respectively language (apple in German is “Apfel”, in Spanish “manzana”, in French “pomme”, different names for the same concept etc.). But more importantly, the two sides are held together and restricted through convention. For instance, the meaning of a stop sign is clear to us road users all over the world, because we as a group once agreed on its meaning and continually taught it to all members. But its meaning might be completely non-transparent or opaque to the people of the Amazonas tribes, as they are not part of the group of road users and have therefore never been introduced to this symbol.

The same concept works not only on an international scale, but also nationally within each country and can cross through all social strata. Let’s have a look at the example of text message abbreviations, such as lol, xx, cu etc. They are mainly understood by a younger generation of mobile users as mobile phones have only been introduced c. 20 years ago, and unless you explain to your granny what it means, she will never know! This example is specifically interesting, because the factor of age and time becomes apparent. Same as your granny might not understand some of our modern conventions, equally we might not understand some of the conventions of her time. And it gets even harder the further we go back in time and into ancient history. Receiving a ‘text’ from the past, say our Anglo-Saxon past (ca. 450-1100 AD), therefore presents us with a huge challenge – we need to assess the signs carefully and try to decode their original meaning without getting too carried away with our interpretations stemming from a modern day background.

Communicating with the Anglo-Saxons: Reading the Runes

When looking at Anglo-Saxon inscriptions, the first obstacle in communication, which we have to overcome, is the script. We will find that some inscriptions are made using not the common Latin script us Westerners use but a Germanic script, the futhorc, more widely known as runes.

The Anglo Saxon futhorc row

The Anglo Saxon futhorc row

It is not an alphabet, as that would imply that the letters are in alphabetical order. The script is named after its first six letters f, u, th, o, r, c , therefore futhorc, and was invented and used by Germanic people, who lived in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. It was introduced to England with the Adventus Saxonum, the arrival of the famous three tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes in 449AD, as we know it nowadays from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Modern research has proven that some Germanic settlements and cemeteries, such as Spong Hill in Norfolk, predate Bede’s assumed arrival date. Nevertheless, it can still be accepted that it was those Germanic tribes who brought the script with them and continued using it until around the 11th century in inscriptions on stone (e.g. Ruthwell Cross and Bewcastle Cross), wood (e.g. St. Cuthbert’s coffin), metal (e.g Thames scramasax) and ceramic (e.g. Caistor-St. Edmunds pots, Spong Hill pots).  After the 11th century, the Latin script had taken over in all fields of communication, but the runes survived in a handful of English and many other continental medieval manuscripts, such as an antiquarian pastime or as a coding script. Same as when reading an Arab or Chinese text full of, for us, unfamiliar letters, decoding is the key to understand a runic inscription and also, personally, the most fun. Runes have to be “decoded” first into our Latin script (experts speak here of the process of transliteration) and is then translated from Old English (OE) into modern English (mod E). These two steps would not have been problematic for the rune-carver or the originator of the inscription, but might present a first communication obstacle for modern scholars. Have we decoded the letters/symbols correctly? Just one letter can change a word, even hint to an older language stage or to a foreign language influence. After having finished the transliteration, another problem arises in decoding the text and its meaning: what does the inscription say? and what was the intentions of its creator or originator?

From our own experience, we know that one sentence depending on its tone, pronunciation, punctuation and wording, can have entirely different meanings. Also, subtleties, such as irony, can easily be missed. But how do you find out the meaning when there is no one to ask for reassurance or confirmation? In the case of many runic inscriptions, their shortness is an even bigger problem due to the lack of additional helpful decoding information. There is an especially tricky case, which presents itself in the form of a runic stamp found on three burial pots from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill. In this instance, we are not given many clues as to what the inscription might have referred to, because we are only left with one word: “ale”.

Spong Hill and the runic stamps: tipsy ancestors or broken communication?

The Spong Hill cemetery is located in North Elmham, Norfolk, and is the only completely excavated pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery in England. The excavations took place between 1979 and 1984 and were carried out by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit. They brought to light more than 2500 burial urns, most of which are now stored at the Gressenhall superstores. Only three of the burial pots are decorated with this extraordinary runic stamp, two of which are on permanent display in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking gallery at the Castle Museum in Norwich. The third pot consists only of fragments and is therefore too fragile to be displayed. The three pots, as Hills describes them, are globular to biconical in shape. They have relatively large, comparatively smooth, dark surfaces with thin well-fired walls. They were not found together, but are interrelated by the runic stamp, which might originate from the same dies (stamping object), which unfortunately, has not been found. These pots are unique because, despite the fact that stamped pottery was common in Anglo-Saxon England and in Frisia, these pots are the only known example of their kind.

Spong Hill urns 1224 (back) and 1564 in the Study Room at the Castle Museum in Norwich

Spong Hill urns 1224 (back) and 1564 in the Study Room at the Castle Museum in Norwich

One word leaves much room for interpretation and sometimes imagination. When the runes were first discovered, scholars interpreted the inscription as reading OE tiw, apparently referring to the god Tiw from Norse mythology. Thisinterpretation fits into the pagan Germanic context and might have been chosen for decoration, to connect the dead with the heroic warrior glory of the god. But after having a closer look at the runes, the forms alternate too much from the correct forms: they are upside down and have too many side twigs. This suggests that wishful reading of the runes might have influenced the interpretation. Later, another reading was suggested: rather than accepting the “corrupted” forms in favour of a good reading, it was assumed that the runes were mirrored along the stave as an axis, which allowed a reading from the left and the right side. The new reading was OE alu, which triggered many possible modern renderings, such as ‘ale, magic, ecstasy, intoxicating drink etc.’. It could also simply refer to the mineral alum, used as medicine or a prophylactic well into the Middle Ages.

Close-up on the runic alu stamp on urn 1564. The runes have to be read from right to left and are upside down.

This complex word-field cannot be as easily explained as an intended appraisal of a pagan warrior god. So, what do we do with a possible reference to beer, an intoxicating drink or even a mineral on an Anglo-Saxon burial urn? Was the urn used as a container for beer? Was the lately deceased a friend of the odd drink? Was he even a drug user?

Fortunately, these urns are not the only objects with this specific runic stamp and looking for parallels helps to assess the objects in many different ways. The one-word-formula alu is in fact a frequently used word in Scandinavian inscriptions and can be found on stones and bracteates in Scandinavia as well as in Northern Germany. It is said to obtain a “magical” character and may refer to religious activities, initiation rites or a death-cult. It could even symbolize the transitory state between the worlds of the living and the dead.  In connection with the manufacture of bracteates, which also bear stamped runic legends, alu may be taken as a word indicating some type of cult or ritual, in which the use of ale may have played a central role. And where beer is, the Germans are not too far away: an alu-stamped bracteate, the Heide-bracteate, was found in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, and so reconnects Anglo-Saxon England with the old fatherland of our English ancestors.

Heide Dithmarschen bracteates, drawing.

Heide Dithmarschen bracteates, drawing.

People claim to be able to read the past in many different ways. There even exists the field of psychic archaeology, as I recently learnt – although this does seem to be a risky method and is not highly recommendable. What I am trying to explain is that we need to be careful in our assessment of the past and remember that signs, whether in a text or as the object itself, are bound to convention. In the case of the runic stamped urns, the alu inscription (if we have decoded it correctly and managed to jump over the first linguistic communication hurdles) might point to an Anglo-Saxon convention of death and burial rites, which we are still rather unfamiliar with. These conventions must have been obvious to the group of people who stamped alu on the pots, but are rather unclear to us as their detached future descendants with an entirely different culture and language. Understanding the communication of the past seems difficult, even one-sided at times, and we might not always get the answers that we want to hear if at all. Often we are only left with a hypothesis, but we should keep on trying to interpret their communication, even if this means to sometimes hold the line. Why? Same reason applies to granny’s hilarious stories about infamous family incidents. The story of our ancestors is, in the end, family history – sometimes enigmatic and unfamiliar, but nearly always “intoxicatingly” fascinating.

For further information on Spong Hill consult the EAA reports on the excavations by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy. A good introduction to Anglo-Saxon runes is R.I Page’s An Introduction to English Runes or R.W. Eliliott’s Runes: An Introduction. Or just come and visit the Castle Museum! There are many exciting runic objects to discover in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking gallery.

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10 Responses to Communicating with the Past: Anglo-Saxons, Runes and Ale

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  2. Pingback: The Archaeology Department’s Repacking Project | Shine A Light Project

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  4. Reblogged this on archaeodeath and commented:
    An interesting take on the runic pots from Spong Hill


  5. Alan Cannon says:

    I would like to trace to movements of the Angel-Saxons and Jutes from when they arrived any literature with answers would be helpful.


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