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Bone Of Contention? Six Letters That Could Rewrite Slavic History

Like many important discoveries, it happened by accident.

Alena Slamova, a Czech graduate student in archaeology, was routinely washing some bones that had been recovered from a dig in an early Slav settlement in southern Moravia when she noticed unusual scratchings on the surface of one fragment. So she decided to show it to her colleagues.

Her sharp-eyed intervention was not just fortuitous but momentous.

Her discovery sparked three years of meticulous research that has now resulted in a paper that has reignited historical controversies and shed new light on a murky period in Europe’s past.

“It was absolutely surprising for us,” says Jiri Machacek, head of the Department of Archaeology and Museology at Masaryk University in Brno. Machacek is the co-author of the groundbreaking report on the significance of the find uncovered in the Lany locality near the Czech town of Breclav.

According to Machacek, the engravings his student found turned out to be runic lettering, something he had never expected to see in an early Slav settlement.

Alena Slamova and Jiri Machacek with the fragment of cow rib that could change a lot of what we know about the early Slavs

Alena Slamova and Jiri Machacek with the fragment of cow rib that could change a lot of what we know about the early Slavs

It had long been believed that Slavs had not adopted a writing system until the ninth century, when they started using Glagolitic script introduced by the Christian missionaries Cyril and Methodius. But that is some three centuries after the inscription on the Lany bone, which has been dated using genetic and radiocarbon methods to around 600 A.D.

An Old Debate

The idea that Slavs had learned writing earlier than the arrival of these Byzantine proselytizers during the time of the Great Moravian Empire has long been a matter of debate.

As far back as the 19th century, some prominent Slavonic scholars had posited the idea that Slavs had already achieved a level of literacy in the pre-Christian era. One of the main cornerstones of their argument had been a text by a Bulgarian monk and scholar named Chernorizets Hrabar, whose work from around 900 A.D. made reference to a system of writing using “strokes and incisions” that he said had been adopted by the early Slavs.

Although Hrabar’s claim had been deemed plausible by some, it had fallen out of favor over the years due to the fact that no physical evidence had ever been found to back it up. The Lany bone could change all that.

“Our find is the first one after nearly 200 years of discussions to suggest that it is possible that the [early Slavs] had some script,” says Machacek.

There is a twist in the tale, however. The inscriptions were discovered to be in a runic script that has only been associated with Germanic tribes until now.

How an alien alphabet came to be adopted by these early Slavs poses some tantalizing questions about the so-called “great migration” of Slavic peoples, who appeared in this part of Europe in great numbers around the sixth century.

The rune bone was found near the town of Breclav in what is now the Czech Republic.

The rune bone was found near the town of Breclav in what is now the Czech Republic.

The most common mainstream view of how this process occurred is that Slavs moved farther west into this part of Europe after the lands were vacated by Germanic tribes emigrating south following the collapse of the Roman Empire. But the process, which took place over a relatively short period of 100 to 150 years, has never been satisfactorily explained.

“The Slavicization of Europe is really a little bit of a mystery,” says Machacek. “And the theory that it involved the migration of masses of people is not so easy to scientifically demonstrate…. Our discovery should be a small part of this discussion.”

One possible takeaway from the discovery of the Lany bone is that the cultural dichotomy between early Slavic and German people may not have been so clear-cut as was previously thought. The rune bone could also indicate that German tribes may even have played a significant role in the formation and emergence of these Slavs into a distinct ethnic group at this time.

“Right at the very beginning, in the second half of the sixth century, both these groups of people could have been more close or connected than we had thought or that we had archaeological evidence for,” says Machacek. “And it is possible that some part of the Germanic people took part in this process – in the ethnogenesis of these Slavs.”

New Avenues Of Research

As often happens with important archaeological discoveries, the Lany bone may shed light on old historical mysteries but also raises new questions that could open up enticing avenues of research.

One interesting puzzle facing scholars is to figure out why a German script ended up being used in a Slavic setting. According to Machacek, there are two possible explanations for how this early form of cultural appropriation might have occurred.

“The person who wrote this inscription could have been a person of German origin, but they would have lived among Slavs,” he says, citing the fact that there are historical records from around this time of German “emigrants” living among Slavic peoples, which lends credence to this idea. “But the other possibility is that it was written by Slavs who learned it from the German people.”

Unfortunately, given that the Lany bone is the only physical evidence to date of writing among early Slavs, it is too early to confidently posit ideas about what purpose this language had in nascent Slavic society.

The deeply engraved runic inscriptions on the Lany bone are authentic and have been confirmed using optical and electron microscopy.

The deeply engraved runic inscriptions on the Lany bone are authentic and have been confirmed using optical and electron microscopy.

However, Robert Nedoma, an expert in comparative literature and language studies at the University of Vienna, has categorically identified the Lany etchings as Elder Futhark, the oldest known form of runic lettering used by Germanic-speaking inhabitants of Central Europe from the second to the seventh centuries.

This ancient system consisted of 24 letters. Given that the Lany bone fragment contains six of the last letters of this script, Nedoma believes the original artifact may have comprised the entire alphabet at one point and could have been used as a learning aid, especially as it contains some obvious mistakes.

“The person who engraved these six runes has omitted two of the last eight of the Elder Futhark,” he says. “There are two letters missing, so in this respect I think this is a writing exercise that renders the last part of the older Futhark in a slightly incorrect manner.”

More Exciting Discoveries?

The Germanic tribes were known to have used Elder Futhark for magical and religious purposes, but it is still impossible to say definitively whether it had similar uses among early Slavs until more examples of their early writings are found.

This also raises the intriguing question as to why no other samples of early Slavic attempts at writing have surfaced before now.

“The explanation could be that, in these Germanic areas, the runes were usually incised on metal objects, like fibulae and other jewelry, weapons and so on, or on stones,” says Machacek. “But in the Slavic areas, their material culture was much more simple. We have these cremation graves — no jewelry or weapons or anything like this. Only a few burned bones and pots [and so on]. We have no medium on which we could find such a script. If the Slavs used it and it was much more common in this society, they would have incised it on wood or bark or on bones.”

Excavation is set to continue at the Lany settlement for several more years. It's hoped that there may be more archaeological treasures hidden beneath its soil.

Excavation is set to continue at the Lany settlement for several more years. It’s hoped that there may be more archaeological treasures hidden beneath its soil.

It’s quite possible that any organic materials the Slavs used for writing are missing now because they have decayed and decomposed over time. The discovery of the Lany bone could pave the way for more exciting finds at Slavic dig sites, especially as researchers now have a better idea what they are looking for.

“Nobody was interested in looking for inscriptions on these bones because we had no idea that something like this could be here,” says Machacek. “So perhaps now that we have this first find, we and other archaeologist colleagues will attempt to look for more. We have many bones from such settlements. It’s a very normal kind of waste from a common life, like how we have normal refuse in the kitchen and so on.… There are thousands of animal bones, and this writing could also be on some of these.”

Machacek suggests that the discovery of the Lany bone could eventually resonate far beyond the halls of academia.

“This period at the very beginning of the Middle Ages is a very important era,” he says. “It is the period of the establishment of these nations and states in Europe that exist until now. They are our roots, and therefore, it is a very sensitive period.”

Sometimes, this enigmatic era in European history has given rise to simplified and chauvinistic origin myths, which have proven problematic in the past. Some Futhark symbols were coopted by the Third Reich as symbols of Teutonic superiority.

Jiri Machacek at the Lany dig site

Jiri Machacek at the Lany dig site

In a small way, Machacek says, the ongoing research at Lany could “open our mind a little bit, so we can think about our common history and culture.”

“This mystery of runes was really abused in the late history, in Germany by Nazis and so on,” he says. “It is a very sad history, but now we can perhaps show that this script and these runes could have been more common among various groups and various nations. And they are perhaps not only connected with Germanic mythology and Germanic history but could be part of the common heritage of Central European people generally.”

Machacek says his team has received funding from a Czech research agency to continue excavating at Lany and other sites for the next five years. He is hopeful their archaeological work — combined with elements of cultural, linguistic, and genetic anthropology — could help “paint a very complex and deep view of this old history and these processes of ethnic and social-group building.”

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