The runic inscriptions of Maeshowe: reflections of a field runologist

By Michael Barnes – former Honorary Research Fellow at Institute for Northern Studies

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Norry Sclater, Michael Barnes and R.I. Page at the entrance to Maeshowe

A field runologist is a scholar who examines and documents runic inscriptions wherever they may be found. S/he works “in the field”. This is in contrast to desk-bound runologists, who elaborate ideas about runes and runic writing, but are less “hands-on”. As a field runologist I studied the Maeshowe inscriptions first-hand over a period of some six years – between 1987 and 1992. The product of these labours was a book entitled The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney, which came out in 1994. The following account explains why and how the study was undertaken and outlines important stages in the work from initial concept to final publication.

The Maeshowe cairn was excavated in July 1861 by the amateur archaeologist and MP James Farrer, in company with a number of prominent people gathered together for the occasion, and assisted by a group of local workmen. As the central chamber was cleared of rubble, a large number of runic inscriptions were found carved into its walls, a discovery that excited great interest. Farrer himself knew little of runes, so he despatched copies of the inscriptions to various specialists with the intention that they should produce readings and interpretations independently of one another. In the event he received detailed accounts from three of the scholars whom he had approached, and these formed the basis of his privately published work Notice of Runic Inscriptions Discovered during Recent Excavations in the Orkneys (1862).

The texts and explanations of the Maeshowe inscriptions found in Farrer’s book vary in their quality and accuracy. They nevertheless represent a solid effort, for in the 1860s the study of runes and runic writing was still in its infancy. Over the next hundred years or more many people tried their hand at interpreting these runic carvings, with differing degrees of success. They tended to do this in article form, however, concentrating on individual inscriptions or particular aspects of the texts. Farrer’s book remained the only attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the entire corpus. Thus the feeling arose that a new edition of the Maeshowe inscriptions was needed, one which (a) took account of all that had been written on the subject since 1862, and (b) offered fresh analyses in the light of the many advances that had been made in runic research in the intervening years.

With such an edition in mind, the Norwegian runologist, Aslak Liestøl, undertook preliminary investigations in the 1950s, examining each inscription afresh, making notes and taking photographs. This was part of a much wider study assembling material for a projected sixth volume of the Norwegian corpus edition Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer ‘The Inscriptions of Norway with the Younger Runes’. Liestøl’s work was interrupted, however, by the unearthing in Bergen of some 550 runic inscriptions, following a 1955 fire that destroyed four building complexes at Bryggen (the town’s medieval wharf). These new discoveries, many of them on objects that were extremely fragile, had to be given priority, and Liestøl thus temporarily put aside his Maeshowe project. As it gradually became clear that the Bryggen runic finds were going to consume the bulk of his time for the foreseeable future, he asked me (at some point in the 1970s) if I would undertake the editing of the Maeshowe inscriptions in his place. As a relative runic novice, I felt honoured by the confidence Liestøl showed in me, but also a certain amount of trepidation. Did I have the skills necessary to see the task through to a successful conclusion? Eventually I decided “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

The first step was to study Liestøl’s notes, drawings and photographs, to which I was given full access. It was clearly also going to be essential to spend lengthy periods in Maeshowe, examining the inscriptions for myself. With permission freely granted by Historic Scotland, I spent a number of weeks measuring, scrutinising, drawing, and generally trying to make sense of what I saw before me. My visits took place over the years 1987–1991. Access to the cairn was not so closely controlled back then as it is now, and the numbers of tourists were not so great. In addition I tried to come to Orkney out of season, and to do as much work as possible in the evening after the mound was closed to the public. I was thus often able to take sole possession of the cairn and move around unhampered. The Custodian and Historic Scotland Guide throughout the period of my labours was Norry Sclater. On each of my trips he and his family made me more than welcome and provided practical assistance wherever and whenever required. Norry, in addition, gave me much interesting information on the recent history of Maeshowe. He also directed me to his sister’s guest house in Stenness village, which offered excellent and homely accommodation close to the site. The only drawback was the walk along the A 965, particularly late at night: one had no choice but to jump off the road as cars, vans and lorries sped past.

A further important task, but one that could be accomplished either at home or at my place of work (University College London), was to locate and read all that had been written about the Maeshowe inscriptions since the excavation of the cairn in 1861. It was crucial – while developing my own ideas – to digest the views of earlier scholars on the genesis and content of the material, and to decide how far these views were based on dispassionate consideration of the evidence, how far on flights of fancy. 

Another essential piece of work was the photographing of all the Maeshowe carvings. There existed a number of images of individual inscriptions and drawings, but nothing like a complete record of the corpus. I also needed close-ups of particular segments of text to illustrate points I intended to make in the book. To my aid came Bengt Lundberg of the Swedish National Board of Antiquities. He had been developing expertise in the photography of runic inscriptions, and both he and the Board of Antiquities felt that a stint in Maeshowe, where conditions are so different from fields and forests of Sweden, would enable him to advance his skills. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1988 – in the midst of an almost continuous gale – he spent three to four days under my direction photographing the central chamber of the cairn, and each and every carving that it, the side chambers and the entrance passage contained. A great many of the illustrations published in The Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney bear testimony to Lundberg’s capabilities and dedication.

Others, too, assisted me in the documentation of the inscriptions. A group of five Scandinavian runologists were with me during my first sojourn in the cairn – a cooperative venture that generated much discussion and argument and gave me considerable food for thought. On subsequent occasions R.I. Page, doyen of British runology and foremost expert on Anglo-Saxon runes, and James Knirk of the Runic Archives, Oslo, joined me and offered much useful advice. They, and yet others, contributed in various ways to the scope and quality of the edition.

Production of the book itself was facilitated by the solid scholarly and technological know-how of the Swedish academic Svante Lagman. Having gained a doctorate in the field of runology, he diversified into typesetting, and as part of his work constructed a number of runic fonts. This made it much easier than it had been hitherto to reproduce runes in print. There was also a further clear advantage in employing a trained runologist to typeset the book: many possible misunderstandings between author and setter were avoided.

My work on the Maeshowe inscriptions proved in the end to be the start of a much more extensive endeavour. In collaboration with others I have since managed to document virtually all of the Scandinavian runic inscriptions of Britain and Ireland. The Runic Inscriptions of Viking Age Dublin (1997), the title notwithstanding, offers detailed accounts of all the (then) known runic inscriptions found in Ireland, while The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain (2006) deals with inscriptions in the Scandinavian tradition discovered in England and Scotland (including Orkney and Shetland but excluding, of course, Maeshowe; Wales has no certain example). With the recent publication of The Runic Inscriptions of the Isle of Man (2019) coverage can be considered more or less complete. Of course, since new discoveries continue to be made, no edition can ever be regarded as definitive. There will always be a need for updating and re-evaluation