Northernmost runic finds in the world

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Just coming across this now:

Report from The Siberian Times (7/4/18), "Boy, 11, finds ‘1,000 year old message’ written in runes on pendant made of mammoth bone":

This "jewellery" comes from the Namsky district in Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic.  The bone is inscribed with four words that are thought to be in the Orkhon-Yenisei type of runic Turkic.  Such writing is normally found on the rock art of Yakutia, but rarely on talismans, amulets, and ornaments.

Namsky district is close to Yakutsk, the coldest city on earth, and near the basin of the Yana River, which is the coldest place on the planet outside of Antarctica.

The Old Turkic script – also known as variously Göktürk script, Orkhon script, Orkhon-Yenisei script –  is the alphabet used by the Göktürks ("Blue Turks) and other early Turkic khanates during the 8th to 10th centuries.

The script is named after the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia where early 8th century inscriptions were discovered in an 1889 expedition by Nikolai Yadrintsev.  Orkhon inscriptions were published by Vasily Radlov and deciphered by the Danish philologist Vilhelm Thomsen in 1893.


Remarks by Peter Golden:

They are finding these things all over the place. Literacy in Turkic runic or Runiform, as Klyashtornyj contended some time ago, was probably more widespread than many thought. There are fragments of pots, bowls, and other items of daily use with Runic inscriptions on them. The alphabet shown in the picture can be Orkhon or Yenisei runiform (the latter only slightly different than the former). There were a number of such scripts circulating in the Turko-nomadic world of Eurasia. Usually, they are broken up into the Orkhon, Yenisei and Talas groupings, but the latter has a number of sub-branches (extending to the North Caucasus and Balkan Bulghar groupings). I.L. Kyzlasov’s Runičeskie pis’mennosti evrazijskix stepej (Moskva: Vostočnaja literatura RAN, 1994) remains a useful study of the different scripts, although more materials have appeared since then and some further refinements are undoubtedly necessary. Hatice Şirin User, Başlangıcından Günümüze Türk Yazı Sistemleri {Turkic Writing Systems from the Beginning to our Days} (Ankara, 2006, second printing Istanbul: Bilge Kültür Sanat, 2015 ) devotes some pages to the Orkhon, Yenisei, and Talas systems, before turning to other writing systems used by the Turks (e.g., Syro-Sogdian in its various forms (e.g. Manichaen), Brāhmī, etc.

I think there is lots more to come, with probably a few twists here and there.

As for the origins of the Central and Inner Asian runes, there are conflicting theories:

According to some sources, Orkhon script is derived from variants of the Aramaic alphabet, in particular via the Pahlavi and Sogdian alphabets of Persia, or possibly via Kharosthi used to write Sanskrit (cf. the inscription at Issyk kurgan).

Vilhelm Thomsen (1893) connected the script to the reports of Chinese account (Records of the Grand Historian, vol. 110) from a 2nd-century BCE Yan renegade and dignitary named Zhonghang Yue (Chinese中行说pinyinZhōngháng Yuè). Yue "taught the Chanyu (rulers of the Xiongnu) to write official letters to the Chinese court on a wooden tablet (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: ) 31 cm long, and to use a seal and large-sized folder". The same sources tell that when the Xiongnu noted down something or transmitted a message, they made cuts on a piece of wood (gemu). They also mention a "Hu script". At the Noin-Ula burial site and other Hun burial sites in Mongolia and regions north of Lake Baikal, the artifacts displayed over twenty carved characters. Most of these characters are either identical with or very similar to the letters of the Turkic Orkhon script. Turkic inscriptions dating from earlier than the Orkhon inscriptions used about 150 symbols, which may suggest that tamgas first imitated Chinese script and then gradually was refined into an alphabet.

Contemporary Chinese sources conflict as to whether the Turks had a written language by the 6th century. The Book of Zhou, dating to the 7th century, mentions that the Turks had a written language similar to that of the Sogdians. Two other sources, the Book of Sui and the History of the Northern Dynasties claim that the Turks did not have a written language. According István Vásáry, Old Turkic script was invented under the rule of the first khagans and that it was modelled after the Sogdian fashion. Several variants of the script came into being as early as the first half of the 6th century.


The word "rune" is a distinctively Germanic term:

The runes were in use among the Germanic peoples from the 1st or 2nd century AD. This period corresponds to the late Common Germanic stage linguistically, with a continuum of dialects not yet clearly separated into the three branches of later centuries: North GermanicWest Germanic, and East Germanic.

No distinction is made in surviving runic inscriptions between long and short vowels, although such a distinction was certainly present phonologically in the spoken languages of the time. Similarly, there are no signs for labiovelars in the Elder Futhark (such signs were introduced in both the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and the Gothic alphabet as variants of p; see peorð.)

The term runes is used to distinguish these symbols from Latin and Greek letters. It is attested on a 6th-century Alamannic runestaff as runa and possibly as runo on the 4th-century Einang stone. The name comes from the Germanic root run- (Gothic: , runa), meaning "secret" or "whisper". In Old Irish Gaelic, the word rún means "mystery", "secret", "intention" or "affectionate love." Similarly in Welsh and Old English, the word rhin and rūn respectively means "mystery", "secret", "secret writing", or sometimes in the extreme sense of the word, "miracle" (gwyrth). Ogham is a Celtic script, similarly carved in the Norse manner. The root run- can also be found in the Baltic languages, meaning "speech". In Lithuanianrunoti means both "to cut (with a knife)" and "to speak"] According to another theory, the Germanic root comes from the Indo-European root *reuə- "dig". The Finnish term for rune, riimukirjain, means "scratched letter". The Finnish word runo means "poem" and comes from the same source as the English word "rune"; it is a very old loan of the Proto-Germanic *rūnō ("letter, literature, secret").


Old English run, rune "secret, mystery, dark mysterious statement, (secret) council," also "a runic letter" (runstæf), from Proto-Germanic *runo (source also of Old Norse run "a secret, magic sign, runic character," Old High German runa "a secret conversation, whisper," Gothic runa), from PIE *ru-no-, source of technical terms of magic in Germanic and Celtic (source also of Gaelic run "a secret, mystery, craft, deceit, purpose, intention, desire," Welsh rhin "a secret, charm, virtue"). Also see Runnymede.

The presumption often is that the magical sense was the original one of the word, and the use of runes as letters was secondary. However, this derivation is questioned by some linguists: "[T]he obsession with magic of many runologists can be explained more from the psychology of the scholars than from the intrinsic contents of the inscriptions. … [F]or almost all [of these scholars] the aura of mystery which they ascribe to the fuþark was a supplementary attraction in an otherwise austere field of labor" [French scholar Lucien Musset, quoted in Elmer H. Antonsen, "The Runes: The Earliest Germanic Writing System," in "The Origins of Writing,"University ogf Nebraska, 1989] .

The word entered Middle English as roun and by normal evolution would have become Modern English *rown, but it died out mid-15c. when the use of runes did. The modern usage is from late 17c., from German philologists who had reintroduced the word in their writings from a Scandinavian source (such as Danish rune, from Old Norse run). The runic alphabet is believed to have developed by 2c. C.E. from contact with Greek writing, with the letters modified to be more easily cut into wood or stone.


Word History: Among early peoples writing was a serious thing, full of magical power. In its only reference to writing, the Iliad calls it "baneful signs." The Germanic peoples used a runic alphabet as their form of writing, using it to identify combs or helmets, make calendars, encode secret messages, and mark funeral monuments. Runes were also employed in casting spells, as to gain a kiss from a sweetheart or to make an enemy's gut burst. In casting a spell the writing of the runes was accompanied by a mumbled or chanted prayer or curse, also called a rune, to make the magic work. These two meanings also appear in Old English rūn, the ancestor of our word. The direct descendants of Old English rūn are the archaic verb round, "whisper, talk in secret," and the obsolete noun roun, "whispering, secret talk." The use of the word to refer to inscribed runic characters was revived by Danish writers who adopted it from Old Norse toward the end of the 1600s and used it in discussions of Germanic antiquities.

(Source:  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.)

Aside from the fact that the Turkic runes have a vague, "scratchy" resemblance to the Germanic runes, I do not know why, when, how, or by whom the term "rune" came to be applied to them.



  1. Vladimir Belyaev said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 2:16 am

    Thank you for sharing! It is an interesting find.
    Are there attempts to read the inscription?
    My diletant version is below (turn bone to the left).
    baš č :
    ök/ük/kö/kü/k o/u b :
    a/ä g :
    b o/u l :

    It will be interesting to see professional reading and interpretation.

  2. András Róna-Tas said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 5:19 am

    Concerning the Old Turkic Runiform Script I may call the attention to those who have not read it
    Róna-Tas, A. (1987): On the Development and Origin of the East Turkic „Runic” Script. In: Acta Orientalia Hung. XLI. Pp. 7-14.
    Helimskij was present at the original lecture given in Taskent, he later wrote me, that he forgot this and came to the same conclusion. This is OK, priorities are not important.
    Of course there came to light a lot of new data. Today I see the impotrtance of a royal (kagnal) court in the history of the development of the East Old Turkic Runiform Script as of vital importance. The various West Old Turkic Runiform scripts were not unified in a central court.
    What we would need is a corpus with reliable photos, descriptions. The technical quality of the current material is not acceptable. Until we have only "redrawings" made on the desk, we will not get ahead.

    with best wishes


  3. Phillip Helbig said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 8:39 am

    Germanic root run- (Gothic: , runa), meaning "secret" or "whisper"

    As in many German(ic) names, such as Gudrun, Sigrun, Heidrun, etc.

  4. Marcel Erdal said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 4:45 pm

    This particular object looks fake to me because the characters are far too regular: They look like the font in handbooks, not at all like what we actually see on the rocks.
    The division into Orkhon, Yenissei and Talas is, I think rather irrelevant. Beside around one dozen inscriptions of the Türk and Uyghur empire elites taken together, there are many more inscriptions in Mongolia which are much more similar to the ones in Southern Siberia (Tuva, Khakassia and the Altai Republic) than to these. All in all perhaps 500 Turkic runiform inscriptions have turned up till now (I am working on two new ones at present) and there are many many more types than "Orkhon, Yenissei and Talas". The opinions of Kyzlasov aren't very helpful as he is an archaeologist and not a Turcologist and can't understand the meanings of the letters. The interpretations of the late professor Kljashtornyj are often not convincing either.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 12, 2020 @ 11:14 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    I concur with the last post, the object is most likely a fake.

    By the way, due to the ban on the ivory trade, there is now
    a frenzied trade in fossilized mammoth tusks, with attendant
    damage to the environment and to archaeology.

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    February 15, 2020 @ 2:15 pm

    I realize that expecting linguistic accuracy from operas is probably unwarranted, but I was always annoyed by the line in La Bohème where Colline is excited to find "a runic grammar" in a used book stall. Surely the grammar wouldn't be dependent on what writing system is used, and it would more relevant to know what language the grammar was for.

  7. Allan from Iowa said,

    February 16, 2020 @ 11:05 am

    Comments are closed on posts where this would be on-topic, but it does concern a far northern part of the world. Some of you will like this cartoon that turns the words-for-snow trope around:

  8. R. Fenwick said,

    February 17, 2020 @ 3:22 am

    Aside from the fact that the Turkic runes have a vague, "scratchy" resemblance to the Germanic runes, I do not know why, when, how, or by whom the term "rune" came to be applied to them.

    "Rune" has gained fairly widespread usage in modern English to refer to any writing system that has been developed primarily for ease of carving on hard material and therefore composed of mostly straight strokes (which are easier to manage cleanly with a chisel). "Ogham runes" returns a number of Google hits as well. I suspect the usage might be due to attempts dating back to Wormius (d. 1654) to see the Germanic terms as arising from an earlier term meaning "cut, furrow", attempts that have continued since (see Morris 1985 for one recent attempt).

    As for the Old Turkic system, it's been referred to by many as "runes" since before its decipherment, which seems to have been in part as a result of hypotheses suggesting a historical link to the Germanic runes. Vilhelm Thomsen, the decipherer of the Old Turkic writing system, wrote as such in 1896:

    D'autres ont comparé [cet] alphabet aux anciennes runes du Nord et pensé qu'il a pu trouver son origine dans ces runes et venir d'Europe par le Nord de la Sibérie. Beaucoup d'autres aussi ont simplement appliqué à ces caractères turcs le nom de runes ("runes de Sibérie", "runes de l'Iénissei"); mais l'on ne saurait trop prémunir contre cet usage.

    One also can't help but be reminded of the use of "hieroglyphs" for the Maya writing system.

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