1,200-year-old comb holds clues to Viking runes

Story highlights

  • Comb gives clues to development of newer runic alphabet
  • "We are seeing the birth of something major in Scandinavian history," says archaeologist

(CNN)A 1,200-year-old comb, discovered in Denmark, is shedding light on the mysterious birth and development of the Viking alphabet.

When a team of Danish archaeologists first discovered the fragments of a comb in December, they thought nothing of it. Combs are some of the most common archaeological remains from the Viking Age. They scooped it up in a pile of soil and sent it to the conservation lab, as is procedure.
    It was only when the conservationist called saying that there was something unusual about it, that they rushed back to the lab to inspect. The comb had several lines etched into it, spelling out a word in runes, the ancient Viking alphabet.
    The comb's runic inscription
    On one side of the comb was written the word "comb," and on the other side the verb "to comb." It might not seem like a big deal, but archaeologists say the find is of great significance, giving clues to the spread of literacy during the Viking Age, and the link between writing and urbanization.
    As one of the earliest examples of Viking runes, the comb provides evidence of the birth of the new runic alphabet that came into use around 800 AD. Previously, the Vikings used a more complicated alphabet known as the 24-character futhark. This was reformed in the 8th Century to include just 16 runes. The simplified script spread rapidly across the Viking world, and continued to be used for hundreds of years, long after the Viking heyday.
    "We are seeing the birth of something major in Scandinavian history," says archaeologist and excavation leader Søren Sindbæk, from Aarhus University, Denmark. "It's a very rare discovery... We were a bit embarrassed that we hadn't even thought about cleaning it a little."

    Why did the Vikings write?

    The comb, discovered during excavations of Ribe -- an 8th Century settlement that can lay claim to the title of Denmark's oldest town -- dates to around 800 AD. It was found alongside a small plate made from bone or antler, with another short runic inscription.
    Archaeologists are still unsure of the meaning of the second inscription as it is incomplete, but suspect it could spell the Viking name, "Tobi."
    A fragment of a plate with a yet undeciphered inscription
    What matters most for Sindbæk is that these artifacts show a variety in the usage of runes. There are only four examples of early runic inscriptions from Ribe -- including the two recent discoveries -- and all suggest a different purpose.
    "While the comb shows some scribbling," says Sindbæk, "the other inscription has very formal runes, that were clearly part of the decoration of the object."
    Sindbæk suggests that the labelled comb could have been used for teaching, sharing, or experimenting with the skill of writing.
    Gareth Williams, a Viking specialist from the British Museum, agrees that this is possible. "A lot of runic inscriptions on objects look like practice pieces," he says. "It may just be that someone was practising and chose to use words inspired by the object itself."

    A sign of sophistication

    The finds demonstrate the spread of literacy. "As more finds like this are discovered," says Williams, "it becomes more likely that a significant proportion of the population in the Viking Age could read and write."
    "In terms of popular perceptions of the Vikings today, that is quite surprising," he adds, "but perhaps no more than the fact that Viking combs are extremely common, indicating that the Vikings liked to keep their hair neat and tidy."
    Archaeologists inspect the geological layers at the Ribe excavation site
    The location of the runes is also significant. Lisbeth Imer, rune expert from the National Museum of Denmark, who was invited to study the artifacts, says that though they may not display long messages, "the fact that two messages have been found in close proximity to each other (and just a few meters away from an 8th century inscription discovered back in the 1970s) tells us that runes were very much used."

    The heart of the Viking Empire

    It may also confirm that the script was tied to Viking towns, says Sindbæk. This is an exciting prospect, he says, as it "re-outlines an old pattern that we know as far back as Mesopotamia, that early writing and early cities seem to go together. It's the fact that becoming an urban community creates a need for sending and recording messages with an alphabet."
    Ribe was the center of power in the Viking Age. "Ribe kickstarted the sailing and trading business that made the Viking Age the Viking Age," says Sindbæk.
    Judith Jesch, a rune expert from Nottingham university, encourages caution with this theory. Runic writing exists outside of towns as well, and she warns that there could be bias in the evidence, as archaeologists excavate towns far more often than rural areas. However, Jesch acknowledges there is a pattern, particularly from the 9th-12th Century, of finding runic inscriptions in towns. Plus, "Ribe is a place where we would expect to find new ideas, new impulses, new changes happening there before anywhere else," she says.