Reading the Runes

Runes were the common way of writing in the Nordic countries for several centuries, during the Viking and Middle Ages. Around 660 runic inscriptions, most of them cut into wooden sticks, have been found during archaeological excavations at Bryggen in Bergen. Many of them have served as letters or messages, and are genuine archival documents. They give us glimpses of trade and work, but also of beliefs, culture, and daily life. The three runic sticks presented here are all from around 1300.


The first to be presented is a 25 cm long stick, with a text on four sides. It is a trade letter which reads:
"To Havgrim, his fellow, Tore the fair sends God's and his own greetings, true fellowship and friendship. For me much is missing, my fellow. I have not managed to get hold of the beer, neither the fish. I want you to know this and not put any claims on me. Ask the peasant to come south to us and see how we live. Encourage him to do so, and don't claim me for anything, and don't let Torstein the long one get to know. Send me some gloves. If Sigrid needs anything, then offer it to her. Promise not to beat me because of my helplessness." (translated after reading by Ingrid Sannes Jensen) (Institute of Archeology, Universitety of Bergen, kept in Bryggens Museum, BRM 0/21919, Photo: GSJ)
This runic stick is definitely of a less formal nature. It is a small, flat stick of 9 cm, bearing the inscription "gya:sæhir:at:thu:kakhæim", meaning "Gyda tells you to go home". We think this Gyda must have been a woman of some authority, telling her husband in this way that he has spent enough time drinking beer with his friends. Other runic sticks give, with a little imaginative help, a vivid picture of social life at the Wharf (Bryggen), Bergen: "Now there is (too) much noise and fighting", "High stakes in dice playing can give all sorts of results ....", "My darling, kiss me", "Ingebjørg loved me when I was in Stavanger" (BRM 0/18959, Photo: GSJ).
This beautiful document is of quite another type. Cut into a flat, uneven stick, 25 cm long, is a picture of 48 long ships, most probably the national coastal defence force. The picture is not without artistic merit, it may present a rather successful rendering of perspective made in a time when the scientific principles of perspective drawing were not known. On the other hand, there is a also a strong possibility that the differences in size are due to difference in importance or hierarchy, a technique not unknown from this and other periods. (BRM 0/12274, Both photos: Bryggens Museum/ unknown (upper), and Per Eide (lower)/GSJ)