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Reading the Runes – to understand identities?

This October, I am starting my PhD project with the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall. I moved up here all the way from Southern Germany because Orkney has plenty of a certain thing that absolutely fascinates me – runes. But it is not the symbols per se which I am going to research. I am going to look at what runes can tell us about perceptions and expressions of identities in the Viking diaspora.

Simply “reading the runes” is often a fairly straightforward exercise, just like reading any other alphabet. What makes these inscriptions so special is that they were carved centuries ago by people who we still do not fully understand.

For some reason, at the beginning of what is now called the Viking Age, Scandinavians spread out all over the North Atlantic, raiding, trading and settling. Over the following centuries, they established a wholly new culture in their diaspora. We have different sources to research this diaspora, for example archaeology, linguistics, place-names, DNA analysis or the sagas. But here comes the problem: None of these sources can tell us exactly how these people thought about themselves, and sometimes there is rather conflicting evidence. Did they consider themselves still connected to their Scandinavian homelands, even after generations? Was there even such a thing as a shared Norse identity? And what about the previous inhabitants, Gaels and Picts? The only written sources these people themselves left are the runes, so to try and answer these questions, it makes sense to analyse them.

In the past, it was often thought that once the Vikings came and settled the North Isles, the original population was all but enslaved and extinct. However, nowadays academics have a somewhat more complex view of the process. Particularly the Gaels left distinctive traces, both in DNA and the Norse language and folklore. Again, runes also tell us something. The amazing Hunterston Brooch, for example, is a beautiful Celtic style brooch with a runic inscription in Old Norse – but the Gaelic name “Melbrigda” on it.

Another baffling question is: Why use runes at all? Many runic inscriptions in the diaspora date from the Middle Ages rather than the Viking Age. Recently, a fragment of an inscription appeared in Naversdale, and it turned out to be a part of the paternoster prayer, all in Latin. However, runes are not particularly suitable to spell out Latin, so the carver had to spell “silis” instead of “caelis” for heavens. Obviously, I am asking myself, why the extra bother? After all, there is a specific Latin alphabet which would have been much easier. Were the runes a conscious choice? And if so, what perception of identity do they express?

The plan for this PhD project is to look at the 308 known Viking Age and Medieval inscriptions from the Norse diaspora in the West and see if they express a specific Norse diaspora identity. The project is in cooperation with Orkney museum which houses some amazing inscriptions. By the end, we hope to shed new light on these artefacts and what they can tell us about the people who carved them. And who knows, looking how many new inscriptions have been discovered in this century, I think there is a good chance that there will be a few more runes to study before the project is completed.

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