Germanic runes on a pre-Cyrillic Slavic bone stir a debate

« previous post | next post »

Article in Sunday's NYT:

"A Scratched Hint of Ancient Ties Stirs National Furies in Europe"

"Czech archaeologists say marks found on a cattle bone are sixth-century Germanic runes, in a Slavic settlement. The find has provoked an academic and nationalist brawl." Andrew Higgins (5/16/21)

The opening paragraphs lay out very clearly the reasons why the find is of such exceptional significance:

LANY, Czech Republic — In a region long fought over by rival ethnic and linguistic groups, archaeologists in the Czech Republic have discovered something unusual in these turbulent parts: evidence that peoples locked in hostility for much of the modern era got along in centuries past.

A few yards from a Czech Army pillbox built as a defense against Nazi Germany, the archaeologists discovered a cattle bone that they say bears inscriptions dating from the sixth century that suggest that different peoples speaking different languages mingled and exchanged ideas at that time.

The bone fragment, identified by DNA analysis and carbon dating as coming from the rib of a cow that lived around 1,400 years ago, was found in a Slavic settlement in 2017, said Jiri Machacek, the head of the archaeology department at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno. But in what is considered a major finding, a team of scholars led by Dr. Machacek recently concluded that the bone bears sixth-century runes, a system of writing developed by early Germans.

“It shows that they were trying to communicate with each other and were not just fighting all the time,” Dr. Machacek said.

It is unclear whether the runes were inscribed by a person of Germanic origin living alongside Slavs or engraved by a Slav who knew Germanic runes. (Slavs did not have their own system of writing until three centuries later.)

Czech archaeologists say marks found on the cattle bone are sixth-century Germanic runes. Credit: Akos Stiller for The New York Times

[A] graduate student in archaeology, Alena Slamova, noticed unusual scratching on [the Lany rib bone], prompting three years of investigation that led this past February led to a groundbreaking article by Czech, Austrian, Swiss and Australian scholars in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The scratching, according to the Masaryk University team, turned out to be runic lettering, an ancient alphabet that was used by Germanic tribes before the adoption of the Latin script.

Inscribed on the bone are six of the last eight runes from a 24-letter alphabet known as Old Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet used by Germanic tribes during the first half of the first millennium.

Unlike Germanic tribes, who used runic lettering as early as the first century, speakers of Slavic tongues in places like Moravia, the site of an early Slav polity known as Great Moravia, were not thought to have had a written language until the ninth century.

“Suddenly, because of an archaeological find, the situation looks different,” said Dr. Machacek. “We see that people from the very beginning were connected, that Slavic people used runes” developed by early Germans, or at least had contact with them.

That Slavs also used or intermingled with people who used Germanic runes long before the arrival of the Greek monks who created Cyrillic, he added, upsets a conviction entrenched over centuries that Slavic culture developed separately from that of Germanic peoples and rests on its unique alphabet.

For various reasons, I found reading this article to be a painful experience.  In the first place, it is full of contentious vocabulary that I believe unnecessarily emphasizes the antagonistic aspects of the case.  The facts of the matter speak for themselves.  The marks on the bone are the last eight runes of the Old Futhark.  Since they are merely listing the letters of an alphabet, we cannot say that they are being used to spell a word or words in any particular language.

Next, the writing is clumsy.  For example, "that" occurs four times in the second clause of the second sentence, making it hard to follow the train of the author's thought.

About five years ago, after giving a series of talks at Charles University in Prague, I went on a weekend excursion to a large archeological dig not far from the excavation site of the 6th-century cattle rib bone with runes.  There I scrambled over the ruins of old Slavic city walls that look like the one pictured in the article and had lunch at a restaurant in the nearby town of Zbraslav.  The name of the restaurant is Škoda Lašky ("Wasted Love") after the title of a song by the composer Jaromír Vejvoda (1902-1988) who lived there most of his life.  Reworded as "Beer Barrel Polka" in English and  "Rosamunde" in German, and performed by many of the most famous musicians of the day, this was perhaps the most popular song in the world during the 30s and 40s.

Here are the titles of "Beer Barrel Polka" in twenty different languages:

  • BasqueGora ta gora beti
  • Chinese啤酒桶波尔卡/啤酒桶波爾卡
  • CroatianRozamunda
  • Czech (original): Škoda lásky
  • DanishHvor er min Kone
  • DutchRosamunde (ook wel 'Rats, kuch en bonen')
  • FinnishTonttujen joulupolkkaBöömiläinen polkka
  • FrenchFrida oum Papa
  • GermanRosamunde
  • HungarianSej-haj Rozi
  • ItalianRosamunda
  • Japanese: ビヤ樽ポルカ
  • LatvianRozamunde
  • NorwegianHvor er min kone
  • PolishBanda or My młodzi, my młodzi, nam bimber nie zaszkodzi…/Szkoda miłości
  • Portuguese (Brazil): Barril de chope
  • RussianРозамунда
  • SpanishPolka del BarrilPolca de la Cerveza or Barrilito de Cerveza
  • SwedishUt i naturen
  • UkrainianНе вернуться роки мої молоді

I mention this celebrated, schmaltzy song and the pub-restaurant that commemorates it because they are testimony to the non-nationalistic spirit of the age that bookended WWII.

The same creative, eclectic spirit is attested to in the writing systems that developed in Eastern Europe, from the Neolithic (6th to 5th millennium BC) Vinča symbols (sometimes known as the Danube script, Vinča signs, Vinča script, Vinča–Turdaș script, Old European script, etc.) to the medieval runes — be they Germanic, Slavic, or Turkic.


Selected reading

"Northernmost runic finds in the world" (2/10/20)

"The origins of graphic communication" (11/21/15)

"‘Roll Out the Barrel’ composer Jaromír Vejvoda" (4/13/14)

"Is the Danube Valley Civilization script the oldest writing in the world?" (2/15/14)

"Nagyszentmiklos Treasure:  Runic Inscriptions", Hungarian Rune Project

​​Script:  Western Old Turkic, local Avar variant (no front-back distinction in consonants; synharmony determined by choice of vowel , either back vowel /a, o, u, l /  or front vowel /e/, /i/ /ü/, /ö/, if unmarked, default /a/).
Language:  Late European (Pannonean) Avar, an extinct, hitherto unknown KIrghiz-Kipchak-related Turkic dialect

Summary of the deciphered inscriptions (all runic texts are read right to left)

VHM:  For those who are interested in the history of Turkic runes, from Siberia to Hungary, I cannot recommend this website highly enough.  The inscriptions, which are on long, narrow bone objects such as needle cases and bowgrips, are surprisingly lively and informative about culture and society, with the words being drawn from many languages.  Here are some examples:

Vessel/ Inscription:  II/ 15:

Pictogram of two "choom"s — Portable tent dwellings used by Siberian nomadic peoples for thousands of years.  These are not Mongolian [ger] or Cuman yurts.

Note:  The row of small notches represent the number of tents in the settlement.  I count 25 notches, so this settlement had about 25 tents or about 150 people. According to Walter Pohl, (The Avars, 2018: 206) this is about one half of an average Avar settlement of 50 tents.  Also note that the avar unit of settlement was called a tent.


Vessel/ Inscription:  VIII/ 1:

+ kondu + guk( l )n + gu(k)(:)küüi + r(a)y 'guk settlement of Kondu Guk (is) paradise '

Notes:  turkic küü 'small, rural settlement' is of middle persian origin; kondu 'sage, wizard, seer' is of middle persian origin; ray 'paradise' would be a slavic loanword of ultimate persian origin;  middle persian wak 'frog' > 'gwak' ~ baka 'frog'? > turkic guk 'frog' is attested and is a presumed middle persian loanword.


Vessel/ Inscription:  XXIII/ 3:

​kuy(u)m : kenti  '(the) city of gold jewelry' (kent 'city' is a Sogdian loanword)


Plain Translation:  'She seeks to take a Greek or Byzantine as a companion!'

Notes:  Sound change for turkic is 'companion':   -s < -sh.

Side II/ Line 2 of the inscription, read from Rona-Tas drawing 20 to 31 (right to left) including [1 to 2] (right to left) of Side I/ Line 3 to complete Line 2 (in brackets).

Bil(i)s : s(l)na : s(a)nch(a)y : k(i)nd(i)[r  ök]!

Literal Translation: 'Acquaintances testing (and) jabbing (she) incites (or provokes).' Whoopee! (hungarian csuhaj)!'

Plain Translation:  'Testing and prodding acquaintances she incites (or provokes) [them to do it, that is, sleep with her]!'

These are but a few samples of the amazing runic inscriptions found in Hungary.

[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Frank Lichtenheld said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    The whole discussion seems absurd. We know that humans had trade networks all over Europe thousands of years before, don't we?

    So obviously peoples that live in such "close" proximity compared to that would have contact and cultural exchange. Only the degree of that would be an interesting question, I would have guessed.

    Is this really all just stupid nationalism or is there actually something revolutionary about the find?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    Sigh. Is the New York Times unaware that Dr Macháček's name requires four diacritics — prof. Mgr. Jiří Macháček, not Jiri Machacek as printed ?

  3. E. Harding said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 6:13 pm

    There weren't any Slavs in Czechia in the sixth century. Slavic migration to the area is a seventh century and later phenomenon.

  4. ohwilleke said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    Why should it be surprising to find Germanic runes dating to the "migration period" when we know that large Germanic tribes were roaming through the region?

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 7:02 pm

    Even now, in the electronic era, newspapers such as the (US) Times and the Post don't use even italic (for example in scientific names). It's hard to believe that's because the writers and editors are unaware.

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 20, 2021 @ 9:26 pm

    Off topic, but I find the onomatopoeic Iranian form *wak (apparently also *waz) “frog” interesting when compared to Chinese 蛙 whose two Middle Chinese reflexes suggest the influence of onomatopoeia.

  7. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 4:23 am

    E. Harding :

    The report indicates the bone was found with pottery which is clearly identified with the slavic culture:

    But how these artefacts came to be associated is a matter pure speculation.

  8. Peter Grubtal said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 4:24 am

    …of pure speculation.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 6:06 am

    Big newspapers tend to have very expensive fonts custom-designed for their needs. Every glyph costs extra, so they're limited to ASCII or very close.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 8:45 am

    That is an interesting, and almost certainly valid, point David. The web font show as "NYT-Imperial" and the copy that I then downloaded and installed has only 192 exposed glyphs (others may be hidden). Of these, none is r-hacek. On the other hand, I don't think that the NYT is so impoverished that it could not afford to invest in a font that would support at least the European scripts, even if covering all the world's scripts is technically (and economically) infeasible …

  11. OvV said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    Missing diacritics: could it be possible that this is an act of America-centricity, or how do I have to call this?
    Like: We don't have no diacritics, so if we encounter them, they should be removed.
    Diacritics are like burrs, they must be filed away.
    Some time ago I gave a link to one of the many JavaScript tools that are capable of deburring texts, i.e. converting every Latin letter with a diacritic to a Latin letter without.
    NYT must have used such a tool as a service to the common American reader, I guess.

  12. Twill said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    @OvV It's an interesting way of framing the question, that diacritics totally foreign to English are being filed off as unwanted slag. I'd respond by asking why the expectation in English is that any Latin-based alphabet should be represented as-is and certainly not transcribed or transliterated as we do with every other script. It's a convention as arbitrary as latinizing and subsequently anglicizing names as was the fashion a few centuries before.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    "I'd respond by asking why the expectation in English is that any Latin-based alphabet should be represented as-is […]". Because we can.

    "[…] and certainly not transcribed or transliterated as we do with every other script". Because we have no need to.

    My Êüř 0,02.

  14. Twill said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 12:04 pm

    @Philip Taylor The ability of the uninitated English speaker to produce something which at least resembles the original pronunciation would be one benefit that Mr Macháček, whose name is not Jerry Matcha-sec, might appreciate, though I suppose that's a question of phonetic vs orthographic fidelity.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2021 @ 1:08 pm

    OK, so I suppose in that context I have to class myself as an initiated English speaker rather than an uninitiated one, but given Jiří Macháček as a starting point, I would do considerably better that starting from Jiri Machacek, although I am sure that you could produce an alternative orthography that would allow the uninitiated to at least approach the correct sounds … I also think that there are many parallels with Victor's assertion that fluent readers of Hanyu pinyin do not need the tone markers, whilst relative novices such as myself find them indispensable.

    OK, I have the benefit of having travelled widely, and have a passing familiarity with the majority of European languages (as well as some more exotic) but for me (and perhaps for others) seeing a name, or a word, written in its native script, usually gives me a better feel for the sound model that it is meant to invoke then seeing the same word transcribed into pseudo-phonetics. Would Yirzhi Mahaacheck convey the right sounds to an uninitiated speaker ? I suppose that it would, but for myself I prefer to to read all European languages (and some more exotic) in their original scripts. I particularly dislike the pseudo-phonetics that can be found in Scots Gaelic phrase books — they seem so far off the mark (at least, those I have seen) that I really do think that the IPA ought to be mandatory in any text claiming to inform the reader how a foreign language should sound.

  16. George said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 6:07 am

    I'm very much in Philip Taylor's camp here.

    Faced with a non-English name written using diacritics in the original language, there are three options:

    1) Write it as it is written in the original language, with the diacritics;
    2) Remove the diacritics;
    3) Do some sort of 'phonetic' transcription using the standard set of letters available to us to write English.

    Removing the diacritics will almost inevitably lead people to 'hear' something that is very different to how the name is actually pronounced.

    Attempting a phonetic transcription without using the IPA is very hit-and-miss, particularly given the enormous pronunciation differences between different varieties of English. (For example, UK publications frequently seem bizarrely unaware that non-rhoticity is far from universal, even among their own readers.)

    So that leaves option 1. Now, obviously, for most readers the diacritics won't be of any use in helping them to understand how the name ought to be pronounced. But they do convey one very important piece of information: This name isn't pronounced in the way you might think it is if these funny squiggles weren't here. And that piece of information has, at the very least, the merit of not sending the reader off in the wrong direction.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    May 27, 2021 @ 12:07 pm

    Thank you for those observations, George. I wasn't planning to come back in on this issue, but as a result of some e-correspondence over the past three days, I have become aware of a situation which helps to exemplify the problem.

    I have two Greek friends/colleagues, Βασίλης Π**********ς and Βασίλης Γ***ς. The former transcribes his given name as "Vasilis", the latter as "Basilis". Most L1 English speakers would pronounce these two differently, (/væsɪliːs/ v. /bæsɪliːs/), yet both are in fact pronounced identically.

    OK, not every educated Briton can read Greek (tho' there was a time when most could) but I still feel that the use of the untranscribed form would at least ensure that both names were pronounced identically, albeit in all probability wrongly.

RSS feed for comments on this post