Brno archaeologists reveal early Slavs used Germanic runes prior to Glagolitic script

Germanic runes on an inscribed bone, photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno

Archeologists at the Masaryk University in Brno have announced a groundbreaking discovery. The researchers have found a fragment of an inscribed bone which proves that the oldest writing system used by the ancient Slavs were Germanic runes, not the Glagolitic script as it was previously thought.

Alena Slámová,  photo: ČTK/Igor Zehl

Researches working at a site near the town of Břeclav in southern Moravia found a fragment of an inscribed cow rib alongside other early Slavic artefacts dating to the seventh century.

The discovery was made back in 2017 and was subsequently examined by an international team of scientists from the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland and Australia.

Archaeology student Alena Slámová was the first person to hold the bone in her hands:

“There were dozens of bones that passed through my hands that evening, but I noticed some incisions on this particular one. When I examined them more carefully, I realized they were some kind of inscriptions. It was only later when I discussed it with my colleague that it occurred to me that they were runes.”

To analyze the bone, researchers used the latest genetic and radiocarbon dating methods. The seven signs inscribed on the bone are believed to be written in Older Futhark, a script used by Germanic-speaking inhabitants of Central Europe between the second and seventh centuries.

The seven signs inscribed on the bone are believed to be written in Older Futhark script,  photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno

The alphabet consists of 24 runes, the last seven of which are engraved on the bovine rib fragment. Archeologists say it is likely that the entire alphabet was originally written on the bone. Rather than a specific message, the inscription probably served as a teaching aid.

Until this discovery, the oldest writing system among Slavs was considered to be the Glagolitic script, brought to Moravia from the Byzantine Empire in the ninth century by Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Jiří Macháček, head of the Department of Archaeology and Museology at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Arts and leading researcher of the international team, says the discovery completely overturns our previous assumptions of the Slavic alphabet.

Although there are historical texts suggesting that the Slavs used some kind of writing system prior to the introduction of the Glagolitic script, archaeologists had no proof of that assumption until now, says Mr. Macháček:

Chrabr's text about Slavic writings,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

“There is a text about Slavic writings penned by monk Chrabr, who says that the Slavs uses some kind of incisions. However, his hypothesis was rejected, since there was no proof of script used prior to the introduction of the Glagolitic script. Now we have concrete scientific evidence that the report written by monk Chrabr is based on facts.”

Mr. Macháček says the discovery also casts doubt on whether the cultural differences between Germanic and Slavic Europe were as clear cut as it was previously thought.

The archaeologists from the Masaryk University have published their findings in the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science. Once they complete the examination of the site, they plan to exhibit the inscribed bone fragment to the public.

Photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno
Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Petr Tichý
run audio