Runes Found on Seventh-Century Cow Bone Could Change Slavic History

The Germanic writing suggests Slavs used an alphabet more than 200 years earlier than previously believed

Germanic runes inscribed on seventh-century cow bone
Historians have long thought that Slavic peoples did not develop an alphabet until the ninth century—but the new findings suggest otherwise. Masaryk University

A Czech graduate student has discovered unusual markings on a bone that may upend accepted beliefs of Slavic history. The find is also stirring up nationalistic sentiment about how early European tribes interacted some 1,400 years ago.

Archaeologist Alena Slámová noticed the scratches on a seventh-century A.D. cow bone recovered during a dig in Lany, near the Czech town of Breclav. When researchers studied the item further, they realized the markings were actually Germanic runic letters—a startling find, as historians previously thought Slavic peoples did not develop an alphabet until the ninth century. The team’s findings are newly published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“It was absolutely surprising for us,” lead author Jiří Macháček, head of archaeology at Masaryk University in Brno, tells Coilin O’Connor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

No one knows who carved the letters on the bone fragment. But Macháček and his co-authors suspect that it was either a Slav who learned the German runic alphabet or an individual of Germanic origin living in Slavic territory.

The discovery’s significance stems in part from longstanding tensions between Slavic and German peoples. During World War II, the Nazis targeted Eastern Europe’s Slavs, whom they viewed as inferior, much as they did the continent’s Jews.

As Macháček tells Andrew Higgins of the New York Times, the runic writing indicates that the two groups “were trying to communicate with each other and were not just fighting all the time.”

Other scholars disagree with that assessment. Florin Curta, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Florida who was not involved in the study, is certain the marks are Germanic runes and refers to them as a “very important discovery.” But he refutes Macháček’s contention that a Slav carved them, telling the Times that they were probably made by a local who spoke and wrote an early Germanic language.

An international team of Czech, Austrian, Swiss and Australian scientists dated the cow rib fragment to 600 A.D. using genetic and radiocarbon testing, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Robert Nedoma, a philologist from the University of Vienna, identified the inscription as Elder Futhark runes, which were used by German-speaking inhabitants of central Europe between the second and seventh centuries. The alphabet included 24 symbols, the last seven of which were scratched onto the broken bone.

Runes Found on Seventh-Century Cow Bone Could Change Slavic History
A graduate student spotted the runes inscribed on the surface of a seventh-century cow bone. Masaryk University

“It is likely that the entire alphabet was originally inscribed on the bone,” note the scholars in a statement. “The bone was not inscribed with a specific message. Instead, it seems to be a learning aid, an idea that the several mistakes in the inscription lend weight to.”

While the discovery is potentially revelatory, it is also inflaming nationalistic pride in Europe. Enmity between the German and Slavic peoples has been strong for centuries; during World War II, historian Per Anders Rudling told Smithsonian magazine’s Meilan Solly earlier this year, the Nazis waged “a war of racial extermination” on the Eastern Front.

“Hitler made it very clear that it was a different conflict than what they called the European ‘normal war’ in the West,” where the Nazis were more concerned with keeping conquered countries dependent on Germany than in waging a campaign of total annihilation, Rudling explained.

As the Times points out, Slavs view runes “as particularly toxic” because Nazi SS troops wore stylized letters from the alphabet on their uniforms.

“If we Czechs have a culture, it must never be said that we have it from the Germans, but it must be said that we have it in spite of the Germans,” wrote “self-declared patriot” Stanislav Jahoda in a recent online discussion hosted by a Czech newspaper, per the Times.

Historians have long held that Slavs lacked an alphabet until the ninth century, when Christian missionaries introduced Glagolitic script, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But some scholars argue that the Slavic-speaking world achieved a level of literacy before then. Per RFE/RL, these researchers cite a text dated to around 900 A.D. by a Bulgarian monk who described “strokes and incisions” used by early Slavs.

“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,” Macháček tells RFE/RL.

Macháček thinks the team’s discovery will lead to more finds regarding runic lettering. Speaking with RFE/RL, he says he hopes it will “open our mind a little bit, so we can think about our common history and culture” and change the way people think about each other.

“Nobody was interested in looking for inscriptions on these bones because we had no idea that something like this could be here,” Macháček says. “So perhaps now that we have this first find, we and other archaeologist colleagues will attempt to look for more.”