Anonymous Artefacts and Revealing Runes, ch. 1

1. Introduction

The runic alphabet, frequently referred to as the futharkwas used in pre-historic Scandinavia since the Early Iron Age. The earliest finds with runic inscriptions are dated to the 2nd century AD (Snædal 1994:9, Sawyer 1992:5, Jesch 1991:43) . Rune stones were raised in Scandinavia during a brief period, 1000–1100 AD (Ljungkvist 2008:187f ). From the Viking period there are around 3000 runic inscriptions in existence, occasionally commemorating fallen champions or addressing questions of inheritance (Williams 2008:284ff). The majority of inscriptions on rune stones follow a uniform formula with slight variations: “X raised this stone in memory of Y” (Sawyer 2000:10) or “X (and Y) raised this stone in memory of Z, their relative” (Williams 2008:283). However , there are also non-monumental artefacts that carry inscriptions like amulets, kitchen utensils or jewellery made of precious metals. These inscriptions do not necessarily follow the same formulas as displayed on rune stones. Instead they contain poetry, writing exercises or names (Imer 2007a:240). Inscribed artefacts from the Viking Age are few and are found in a wide geographical area (Imer 2007:84). The majority are stray finds. The lack of context contributes to the complexity of the material with regards to chronology since it can be difficult to estimate when the artefacts were used (Imer 2007a:36).

In this paper, Scandinavian runic artefacts dated to the Viking Age will be examined, evaluated and classified. In this essay it is also suggested that runic artefacts studied as a whole can provide clues to who used them, how they were used and why certain artefacts carry inscriptions. Finally, the study investigates if any gender can be associated with the use of runic inscriptions displayed on Viking Age artefacts.

1.1 Purpose and problems

The main purpose of the paper is to analyse Viking Age runic artefacts and to classify artefacts and inscriptions by means of applying a gender perspective. Runic artefacts are both textual sources and archaeological artefacts. Because of this it will be important to order and classify runic artefacts, firstly with regards to the functional use of an artefact and secondly with regards to the inscriptions. This will be necessary to understand the multiple ways in which relationships between artefact and inscription can manifest. It is also important from an archaeological point of view to investigate in which contexts runic artefacts appear. The analysis will address the following questions :

  • Can runic artefacts be attributed to a specific gender during the Viking Age?
  • In which archaeological contexts do runic artefacts appear?
  • Did different types of artefacts serve different purposes?

1.2 Material and method

The archaeological material presented in this paper consists of 59 runic artefacts dated to the Viking Age by means of archaeological and/or philological methods. The majority of the artefacts have been previously examined by Lisbeth M. Imer (2007). Imer’s study focused on establishing chronology and to examine expressions of social status during the entire Iron Age. In contrast to Imer’s study this paper aims at classifying and describing artefacts from a gender perspective. A lesser amount of the artefacts examined in the analysis was found through archival research, literary sources and the Scandinavian Runic-Text Data Base (2012). The artefacts differ in type, material and degree of preservation. (For a more thorough presentation of the material, see chapter 3).

Categorising artefacts and texts into different groups is necessary to describe, classify and subsequently interpret runic artefacts. The material displays a high degree of complexity, considering the composition of several types of artefacts found in different geographical and archaeological contexts. It is therefore important to divide the runic artefacts into manageable categories. Several case studies are presented in the paper, using the categories established in the classification system. Comparative literature studies regarding interpretations of inscriptions and artefacts will also be important in understanding how earlier research has been conducted on similar material. The classification system was created by the author and is presented in chapter 3. All diagrams and charts were also created by the author.

1.2.1 Delimitation

The geographical and chronological demarcation of the source material is to examine artefacts found in Scandinavia dated to the Viking Age. Medieval towns like Lund have produced a number of runic artefacts, dated to the Middle Ages (Snædal 1994:18). To circumvent issues regarding chronology, artefacts from medieval urban centres have been excluded with one exception. Further chronological uncertainty has led to an omission regarding a number of encountered artefacts. Rune stones will not be studied in the analysis. Coins will not be analysed, since it is difficult to determine markings that might be a result of the artefact being in circulation for an extensive period of time. The archaeological material presented in this thesis is not extensive although this paper will concern all known runic artefacts to the author’s knowledge .

1.2.2 Source critique

Runic artefacts can appear in a wide variety of types and materials, in contrast to rune stones where letters are carved onto naturally resistant material. Only a few of the artefacts examined in the analysis are of stone and none in the size of rune stones. It is important to acknowledge and examine conditions for preservation when evaluating archaeological material and submitting it to source critique. State of preservation has been named the most important factor to why there are very few runic artefacts in existence, except the monumental rune stones (Sawyer 1992:5). Artefacts made of metal are also subject to several preservation difficulties, particularly corrosion. Gold and silver artefacts are less prone to corrosion than other metals while bronze artefacts can be heavily corroded (Bohm et al 2005:8ff). Preservation conditions of letters on gold are superior to those on alloys. Runic artefacts can appear to be limited to the upper social classes, merely because letters are better preserved on gold than on other materials (Imer 2007a:34).

Any attempt to ascribe an artefact to a gender should be preceded by and subjected to continuous consideration and evaluation to form a scientific basis for reached conclusions. Certain archaeologists specialized in gender theory have questioned the scientific base of using grave goods as indicators of either sex/gender at all (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:10). Bearing this in mind, several factors have been taken into consideration before attributing artefacts to either gender in this paper. The graves, one of the contexts discussed in the paper, have not been examined by the author and the information gained is based on earlier research and gender attributions. Philological interpretations of the inscriptions are not a focus point of this essay, considering the author’s limited philological experience. The inscriptions will nevertheless be discussed briefly, using the transliterations available via the Scandinavian Rune-Text Data Base (2012).

1.3 Definitions

The Viking Age or the Late Iron Age is a rudimentary appellation for the period between 800–1050 AD in Scandinavia. Philologists specialized in runes use a slightly broader spectrum for the Viking Age period, locating the era between 800–1100 AD (Williams 2008:285). In the present thesis, the former chronological definition of the Viking Age will be used. Female contexts will be defined and analysed, ranging from graves (biological determinations of sex and/or grave goods), hoards containing jewellery associated with females followed by an evaluation of artefacts that can be tentatively attributed to the feminine gender . The presence of names on runic artefacts will be examined. The results of the examination will be compared to artefacts that can be attributed to the male gender, following the same principles and variables as previous classifications, in the final discussion and analysis.

1.4 Theory

The theoretical aim of this essay is to apply a gender perspective to a group of artefacts. Generalized and stereotypical views on male and female artefacts are discussed and evaluated throughout the essay. The term “gender” is formulated by Arwill-Nordbladh:

Today gender is often understood as the social and cultural interpretations of biological
differences between women and men (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:30, translation by the
author of this work

The central aspect of gender theory is the acknowledgement that ideas regarding the construction of gender roles in pre-history are inevitably tied to the historical period in which they were produced (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:32, 1991:53). Gender theory strives to nuance the archaic notion that gender and gender roles are permanent or stagnant over time (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:10). Instead, gender is perceived as dynamic and continuing processes that are subject to transformations, transgressions and renewals within norms collectively dictated by a community (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:32f).