During an excavation near the small Czech Republic village of Lány, a graduate student discovered a section of a cow’s rib bone that had some strange carved markings on its surface. She didn’t know what they were, but she could tell they were man-made. Alena Slámová, who is pursuing her archaeology degree at Masaryk University in Brno, gave the curious item to her colleagues for further analysis. They eventually confirmed that the carvings were German runic letters, common to an alphabet that was used by Germanic peoples in the second through seventh centuries AD.
While the runic letter cow bone discovery was remarkable, the biggest surprise came after the radiocarbon testing results. Researchers dated the cow bone to 1,400 years in the past, to approximately 600 AD. This is more than two hundred years before the Slavic descendants of modern-day Czechs were supposed to have begun using their own written alphabet.
A closeup of the cow rib bone showing the runic letters on it. ( Masaryk University )
German Runic Letters On Cow Bone Could Change History
An international team of researchers from the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and Australia participated in the original excavation and the subsequent study of the cow bone and its runic letter carvings. They published the results of their analysis in the March 2021 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science . “It was absolutely surprising for us,” lead author Jiří Macháček , who runs the archaeology department at Masaryk University in Brno, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty .
Macháček and his colleagues have two theories that might explain how the cow bone with runic letters on it was created. The first is that the bone was carved by a person of Germanic descent who was living in Slavic territory in the seventh century. The second theory, which Macháček seems to favor, suggests the bone was inscribed by a Slav who’d learned the German runic letter alphabet and wanted to record it for posterity, or to help others learn it.
Either way, Macháček believes what his team has recovered represents a sign of friendly relations.
“It shows that they were trying to communicate with each other and were not just fighting all the time,” Dr. Macháček said in an interview with the New York Times .
If this conclusion is true, it would represent a significant departure from current theories on modern European history . The Slavic people were the subject of a ruthless extermination campaign at the hands of Nazi Germany. That was a traumatic time for residents of the Slavic countries , and it created a rift between Slavic peoples and Germans that may take a long time to completely heal.
Norse or Viking runic letters, known as Elder Futhark, on red wooden discs and you can immediately recognize letters from our modern alphabet. ( PhotoChur / Adobe Stock)
The Official History … Now in Need of Revision?
The official creation story says that the first uniquely Slavic alphabet was invented by Saint Cyril , a Greek monk who frequently represented the Byzantine Empire as a Christian missionary.
In 863 AD, Cyril and his brother Saint Methodius were dispatched by the Byzantine emperor Michael III to spread Christianity throughout Slavic lands. To encourage more advanced religious study among his new recruits, Cyril decided to translate important Christian literature into the local written language.
Supposedly, the Slavs had no written language at the time. So, the ambitious monk created the Glagolitic script, which was meant to represent the spoken dialect of Slavic tribes living under Byzantine rule.
As the oldest form of Slavic writing, the Glagolitic script , acted as a foundation for the Cyrillic script and alphabet, which is still used to this day. The Cyrillic system, which was created in Bulgaria in the late ninth century, mixed elements of the Greek and Glagolitic alphabets. The Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts were essentially rivals, and it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Cyrillic alphabet fully replaced the Glagolitic script in all Slavic territories.
But the runic letters on the seventh century cow’s rib bone bore no resemblance to ancient Slavic script. It was identified by University of Vienna philologist Robert Nedoma as belonging to a type of runic writing known as Elder Futhark . This runic system was widely used in northern Europe up until the seventh century AD. It was unquestionably Germanic in origin, having no connection with any known Slavic style of writing.
There are 24 letters in the Elder Futhark runic letter system. What was found carved on the bone was not a word or words formed from these letters, but representations of the last seven letters of the Elder Futhark alphabet.
“It is likely that the entire alphabet was originally inscribed on the [complete] bone,” the researchers explained in a press release issued by Masaryk University. “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.”
If true, this conclusion raises fascinating possibilities. Could an individual of Germanic origin have been trying to teach the runic letter system to Slavic students? If so, it could mean friendly relations did exist between at least some Germans and their Slavic neighbors in the long-distant past.
Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript from approximately 1300 AD containing one of the oldest and best-preserved texts of the Scanian Law, is written entirely in runes. (Asztalos Gyula / Public domain )
Alphabet Diplomacy in First Millennium Central Europe
Slavic and German peoples both have a history in central Europe. The ancestors of the Slavic people arrived in the area in the first century AD, and found Germanic peoples occupying the territory at that time. The official history says the Slavs eventually drove the Germans out , displacing them as the dominant people in the region after the Roman Empire fell.
But perhaps relations between Slavic emigrants and the original German inhabitants were not as hostile as previously believed. Some Germans may have continued to reside, presumably peacefully, in Germanic communities that remained untouched within the boundaries of Slavic territory.
Florin Curta, a professor of history and archaeology from the University of Florida who was not involved in the cow bone study, has stated that there “can be no doubt” that the marks on the artifact are Germanic runic letters, and that this is undoubtedly a “very important discovery.” But he believes there is no way it could have been carved by a person of Slavic descent. It is much more likely, he asserts, that the creators of the artifact were locals who communicated in a Germanic language.
If indeed surviving German communities were trying to teach their written alphabet to their Slavic neighbors, it seems their efforts did not meet with success. As of now, the cow bone featuring the mysterious runic letter markings is a singular and wholly unique discovery. Unless similar artifacts are unearthed in the future, there is no good reason to dispute the official version of how the first-ever Slavic alphabet was created.
Top image: The fragment of a longer cow bone found by the Czech grad student, on which ancient runic letters were inscribed. Source: Masaryk University
By Nathan Falde