03 Mar 2014

Translators Decipher Mysterious Viking Inscriptions

Translators have deciphered a mysterious Viking code written in enigmatic runes that date back to the medieval period.

K Jonas Nordby, from the University of Oslo, is the first person to crack the jötunvillur code, one of a number of Norse codes that have tested the translation skills of experts since their origins in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The roots of runes can be traced back to an Old Germanic alphabet from around the first century CE. It is not unusual for archaeologists working in Scandinavia and the British Isles to uncover ‘rune sticks’ on digs of Viking-occupied sites. However, few sticks have code on and fewer still feature the rare jötunvillur code.

Rosetta stone

The vital piece of the puzzle was uncovered at Bergen Wharf in Norway and dates back to the 13th century. It is one of only nine examples of the jötunvillur code to have ever been found.

Nordby, who is undertaking a PhD in cryptography in runic inscriptions, told Science Nordic that the keys to his discovery were two names, Sigurd and Lavrans, carved on to the stick in both standard runes and also in code.

By comparing the inscriptions, he realised that jötunvillur prompted the reader to substitute the rune sign for the last sound in the rune’s name, so for example the “U” rune, Urr, would be written as the rune for “r”.

However, this makes it quite difficult to decipher as a number of runes end in the same sound. In fact, the Bergen stick, which Nordby refers to as his Rosetta Stone, is the only place where experts can be sure the translation from jötunvillur is accurate.

This has led Nordby and others to theorise that the code was used as a type of game, possible to help youngsters learn the rune alphabet.

“It seems more and more clear that coded runes were not for keeping secrets, not for sensitive communications such as during the Second World War, or like for today’s secure communications. But that actually, they were used to get to know the alphabet, or rune names,” Nordby told the Guardian.

“What if codes were used like a game, playing with a system? With jötunvillur, you had to learn the names of runes, so I think codes were used in teaching, in learning to write and read runes.”

Ancient ‘text’

Rune sticks, such as those upon which the latest theory is based, were used as a casual means of communication back in the Viking era.

“They were used to communicate, like the SMSes of the Middle Ages – they were for frequent messages which had validity in the here and now,” Nordby said. “Maybe a message to a wife, or a transaction.”

Some of the messages even show that 13th century pre-occupations are not a million miles away from 21st century ones.

One example from Sweden written in a simpler code is thought to say ‘kiss me’, while another says ‘So much do I love another man’s woman that the wide mountains shiver. Wonderful ring-woman! We love each other so much that the earth explodes!’

Nordby says: “Rune sticks and bone was used for all kinds of everyday messages and writing practice, and there are lots of ordinary runic inscriptions from the 1100s to 1300s with romantic messages.”

The rune-writers were also not adverse to a bit of ‘showing off’, with an inscription from the Orkneys reading ‘these runes are written by the most skilled rune writer west of the sea’.

Many codes even offer a challenge to the reader to ‘interpret this if you can’.

Swedish expert on runes Henrik Williams, from Uppsala University, called the discovery ‘important’.

He told Science Nordic: “Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances.”


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