Anonymous Artefacts and Revealing Runes, ch. 5-7

5. Result

The main problem with studying inscriptions and their relationship to the artefact is the possibility that the result might have been different if scholars had been able to interpret the unintelligible inscriptions. An estimation of how much the absence of them distorts the end result is difficult, since inscriptions are only part of what makes a runic artefact. Eight of the unintelligible inscriptions were found in graves; seven belong to biological females and one to a biological male. While a runologist might be unable to interpret the inscription, an archaeologist can study the context and the artefact itself . The use of grave goods as gender indicators has been questioned (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:10 ) but when taking into account several variables, like a female name paired with a deceased biological female, it is difficult not to arrive to the conclusion that the individual is a representative of the feminine gender as well as a being a biological female. One must keep in mind, as evidenced by the different interpretations of the inscription on artefact no.42, that inscriptions can be understood in a number of ways. In an attempt to limit such problems, the names that could not be attributed to either gender were excluded from the analysis in chapter 4.4.1. Interestingly enough, runic artefacts can have a narrative quality without following the rune stone-formula. The system of using more than one variable when gender attributing artefacts has proven successful, although it produced an unexpected result that will be discussed in the following paragraph:

Textile tools have been linked to feminine work for a long time, by several authors (e.g. Magnus & Gustin 2009:20f;48, Larsson 2008:184, Ljungkvist 2008:186, Dommasnes 1991:71, Jesch 1991:19;22, Hjørungdal 1991:98, Graham-Campbell & Kidd 1980:82 ). Throughout the examination it became evident that three inscriptions (out of seven) on textile tools contain female names (57%) (fig. 4). In addition , two out of seven artefacts were grave goods belonging to biological females (29%). By combining these two variables the analysis suggests that context and names connect five out of seven artefacts to the feminine gender, without resorting to traditional typological methods of gender attributed items (71%). To arrive at this number while disregarding traditional opinions of pre-historic work division in archaeology is staggering. Nevertheless , textile tools are not only found in female graves (Jesch 1991:19), nor do all runic textile tools have female names on them.

Names are frequent in the inscriptions. The analysis showed that 39% of the female names were mentioned as a probable owner, while the male owners amounted to 21%. More men were mentioned as makers (25%) as opposed to female makers (4%). The total sum was that 43% of names in the inscriptions belonged to the female gender, while 46% belonged to the male gender.

Figure 16. Artefacts from graves. [Figure not shown]

With regards to the grave goods, there were nine items from seven female graves and two items from two male graves. The result of the analysis suggests that runic artefacts are more common in female graves than in male graves (F = 75 %, M = 17 %, M/F = 8 % ) (fig.16).

Neil Price has criticised the fact that archaeologists tend to regard grave goods as a true testament to how the Viking Age society really functioned (Price 2010:131). Instead he proposed to acknowledge that Viking Age burials were dramas acted out in material ways (Price 2010:147f ). Judith Jesch has also discussed a similar topic, that what archaeologists excavate and label as “grave goods” perhaps should be interpreted as symbolic and not actual fact (1991:21f). Regarding textile tools, Hjørungdal has come to the conclusion that the presence of spindle-whorls might allude to Urd, one of the deities who spun the life thread (Hjørungdal 1991:105). Domeij proposes that the presence of weaving swords in graves, like artefact no. 17 from Engstad, might have been a metaphor for warfare (Domeij 2007:40).

The word “rune” can among other things mean “secret” (Ellergård & Peterson accessed 120517). This has induced a number of scholars to propose a magical dimension in the use of runic script, not least because of the connection to Odin and his experiences in Hávamal (Snaedal 1994:12). Others have argued that interpreting runes as magical scripture has more to do with modern ideas that runes are often considered magical (Imer 2007a:250). The weaving tablet from Lund (artefact no. 34) has been interpreted as a curse (Imer 2007a:234, Jesch 1991:46). The connection between women and the magical use of runes has been made by a number of authors (e.g. Kilger 2008:333f, Price 2002:144, Sawyer 1992:73).

Older inscriptions from the Iron Age sometimes allude to magical use of runes, containing words like “protection” or “luck” (Snædal 1994:11), Viking Age inscriptions can be interpreted to be less exuberant since a majority of the inscriptions express profane opinions or names rather than invoking magic (with some exceptions, see chapters 3.1.4 and 3.2.1). This shift in use has lead Imer to believe that runic script became common knowledge during the Viking Age (Imer 2007a:121; 250). While literacy in the Viking Age is beyond the scope of this paper, the sheer number of inscriptions on everyday items suggests that it might have been a shift in mentality regarding the use of runes and the ability to interpret them sometime during the span of the Viking Age.

Imer suggests that the erecting of rune stones is the source of the decline of runic inscriptions during the Viking Age in comparison with previous eras (Imer 2007a:35). While Demonstrativethis might have some truth to it, the fact remains that most runic artefacts dated to the Viking Age are utility items for everyday use (Imer 2007a:239)[/annotax] . Earlier runic inscriptions are most common on bracteates or weapons (Snaedal 1994:9ff). Imer states that runes last better on gold and other metals (Imer 2007a:34) which coincidentally is the material bracteates are made of (Snædal 1994:11). Just because there is an apparent decline in runic artefacts does not mean that there has not been more, since conditions for preservation of runes on organic material is poor in comparison to gold (Imer 2007a:34). Runic artefacts from the Middle Ages are plentiful, preserved in stratigraphical layers in cities (Snædal 1994:18, Spurkland 1994:77ff), indicating that the use of runes did not decline as greatly as Imer suggests.

During the Viking Age runic artefacts originate from different contexts (fig. 17). In “closed” contexts they appear most frequently in graves of different gender attributions. The majority of the artefacts are stray finds, once more confirming the detrimental effect it has on an artefact to be removed from its context (Imer 2007a:35). Seventeen percent of all artefacts examined in the analysis come from closed contexts attributed to the female gender, while only 3% can be said about closed contexts attributed to the male gender. While these two figures are modest in comparison to the corpus, the gender distribution is nonetheless significant in relation to the problems stipulated for this paper.

Figure 17. Contexts containing runic artefacts. [Figure not shown]

It has proven difficult to attribute specific items to either gender while staying true to the theoretical standpoint formulated in the introduction. Because of this fact , the end result is clearly just a suggestion of how similar examinations can be performed. Masculine and feminine gender has formed the base of this discussion but it is important to remember that gender is not necessarily limited to these two variables . Masculinity and femininity are however the least difficult types of gender that can be studied by an archaeologist focusing on Viking Age material, even though generalized views on the relationships between gender groups tend to be cemented rather than questioned.

Since there is a high correlation between biological sex and stereotypical gender attributed items (Gräslund 1980:81, Jesch 1991:14), figure 18 shows how the runic material manifests when using the most common types of gendered artefacts (weapons and pennanular brooches in green for males, pendants, other types of brooches and textile tools in blue for females), without regards to context.

Figure 18. Traditional gender division of artefacts. [Figure not shown]

While the result produced in figure 18 is not contradicting previous results of the analysis, it lacks the dynamic structures and nuanced relationships Restrictive clausesthat manifest on the runic artefacts .[/annotax] Studying these artefacts as part text and part artefact can benefit in the study of actual human relationships behind the artefacts, something that archaeology can only hope of doing, since archaeological materials sometimes appear silent (Jesch 1991:42). Based on this conclusion, an archaeologist should not simply overlook the fact that there is actual contemporary evidence that can tell scholars about the people behind the artefacts who used them and made them, on the basis that the information happens to be transmitted in text. With hopes for the future regarding similar research, I leave the word to Cathy Lynne Costin:

Yet we should not read cautions about the limitations of gender attribution as justification to shun gender attribution altogether. Gender is a major structuring principle in social life, and our engendered past must make use of this concept to understand social process and social change in ways analogous to ways we use class and social status. Thus, while we might successfully explore gender theory and gender relations without associating specific genders with particular features in some contexts, I suggest it is more critical to make specific gender attributions in others. In fact, there are important anthropological questions that likely can only be addressed if one is able to ascribe gender with a relatively high degree of explicitness and confidence. Studies of the division of labor and social relations of production constitute one such domain of inquiry. (Costin 1996:112)

6. Further Work

This study should preferably be perceived as the humble beginning of future examinations of material of similar character. What remains to be done is plenty, especially in producing results to form a basis for comparison with the artefacts discussed here. One idea would be to study and quantify runic artefacts from the Middle Ages or the early Iron Age and compare them to the material described and analysed in this paper.

7. Summary

The aim of this paper is  to examine a group of 59 Scandinavian artefacts carrying runic inscriptions dated to the Viking Age (800–1050 ). The analysis strives to determine which, if any, gender can be connected to the use of runes. The material is systematically divided into collections of inscriptions and types of artefacts, and then further subdivided into different types of text and artefacts. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods are used and discussed throughout the analysis and in the result. Furthermore , contexts where runic artefacts appear are evaluated and examined. In addition , the paper treats how gender attributions have been performed in the field of archaeology. The analysis shows that runic artefacts are more common in female graves than in male graves during the Viking Age. It also shows that while there is little difference in the quantity of names, male names appear frequent as makers or carvers of artefacts while female names are more common as ownersIt is proposed that a majority of tools for textile production with runic inscriptions can be ascribed to the female gender through presence of names or contexts.