ᚱᚨᛇᚺᚨᚾ raïhan

The roe deer's [or "from the roe deer"]


This inscribed roe-deer’s astragalus (ankle bone) is the earliest non-Latin inscription found in England, and one of only ten extant objects that are traces of the Pre-Old English language. Pre-Old English is the West Germanic language spoken by the first people from the North and West of the continent to settle in England, and is the very start of the long history of the English language.  The astragalus was found in an early Anglian cemetery among other urns and grave goods, in a 5th c. cremation urn  also containing smaller and uninscribed pieces of sheep bone, other objects, and human ash.  The bones may have been game-pieces or counters. It witnesses one of the earliest settlings of continental West Germanic speaking people in an area that was inhabited by Celtic speaking populations, some of whom would also have known Latin, and that was already linguistically rich.

The Roman occupying forces in Britain included people from many Germanic tribes. By 407 when the majority of the Roman military had left, the country and its Romano-British people remained culturally varying and open to continuing and additional incursions from abroad.  Archaeologists find in this cemetery the evidence of “an overlap of perhaps a hundred years between the first Anglo-Saxon arrivals, which may have been on a very small scale, and the end of Romanized life” in this district (Myers and Green 13).  Some such early arrivals may have been  the sea-raiders from different parts of the north German plain and southern Denmark who often harassed the Romans in this part of England, and whom the Romans referred to as Saxons (eg in the c. 395 Notitia Dignitatum).  Their previous incursions are likely to have increased and changed in character; by 449, they were coming over by invitation, to help the indigeneous Britons against other long-term attackers (Picts and Scots); perhaps the owner of this astragalus was one of these, or an earlier Anglian, for use of the cemetery has been dated as far back as the 4thc. These Germanic groups eventually settled in different parts of England, and the different varieties of West Germanic they spoke form the origins of major regional differences of  Old English, and perhaps of some differences in British English to the present day. The habit of cremating, rather than burying, bodies clearly identifies these people as early West Germanic peoples, for the Christian British and Roman-British populations of this time, and later Anglo Saxons who had converted to Christianity, buried their dead. Runic writing had been used in Scandinavia since at least the 3rd c. CE -- but not in the British Isles, where (with perhaps only one exception (the 2-3rd c. CE  tombstone of a merchant’s wife from Palmyra)   up until the 5th c. CE all extant inscriptions are in Latin and written in Latin script, The local inhabitants in East Anglia would have been both Romanized and some non-Romanized descendants of the indigenous Iron Age Britons, people called the Iceni or Eceni for whom Venta Icenorum (near Caistor St Edmund) became, in the 3rd c., the administrative capital.  Although there are earlier archaeological traces of these people, and they had minted their own coinage before the Roman invasion (including coins inscribed with ECEN), there is no textual writing in the Celtic language in England from this or any earlier period, and few archaeological objects left by East Anglian Britons after the departure of the Roman military,  because they were Christians who did not bury objects with their dead.  Thus, even though Britons most likely ruled this area until the 6th c CE. we have few records of their lives and almost none of their language.  As for the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and other visitors, they started to settle (and be buried) in parts of England in the period to which this bone is dated, and it is often felt that their earliest settlements must have been in this region, but no evidence of such early communities have been found near the Caistor-by-Norwich cemetery, and 5th-6th c Anglo-Saxon archaeological findings in the district are also relatively scanty.  More than a century later Norwich was established by the Anglo-Saxons, and there are plentiful remains from that period onwards. The runes of this inscription shows some differences from later Old English runic writing; most notable is the single-bar shape ᚺ, which is characteristic of Older Futhark runes and of Old English runes only in the 5th - 6th c. Later Old English runes show the double-bar ᚻ. This letter may have indicated a sound somewhat resembling the ‘ch’ in the Scottish word loch.  Another important difference concerns the neighbouring a and ï runes ᚨᛇ, which together indicate a sound like ‘ai’ that would later change into a simple long ‘a’ sound, in Old English.


The runes are clearly etched on one side


Elizabeth Shepherd PopescuNorwich Castle: Excavations and Historical Survey, 1987–98. Part I: Anglo-Saxon to c.1345NorwichHistoric Environment, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Gaby Waxenberger"The Yew-Rune and the Runes Haglaz, Gyfu, Ior, and Is in the Old English Corpus" «Stoklund, Marie; Nielsen, Michael Lerche; et al. (eds.). Runes and their secrets: Studies in Runology»CopenhagenMuseum Tusculanum Press,2006385–414

Gaby WaxenbergerA Phonology of Old English Runic Inscriptions with a Concise Edition and Analysis of the GraphemesMunichLudwig Maximilian University of Munich. Unpublished Habilitationsschrift2010

Gaby Waxenberger"Appearances are Deceiving: The Caistor-by-Norwich Astragalus (ca. AD 425-475) «H. Sauer & R. Pfeiffer-Rupp (eds). Ihr werdet die Wahrheit erkennen – Ye shall know the truth"»TrierWVT202047-56

J. N. L. Myres and Barbara Green.The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Norwich and Markshall, NorfolkLondonThe Society of Antiquaries of London1973

James Campbell, Eric John, Patick WormaldThe Anglo SaxonsOxfordPhaidon1982

John AlgeoThe Origins and Development of the English LanguageBoston (MA)Wadswoth2010

R. I. Page, R. I.RunesLondonThe British Museum1987

Richard Hoggett The Archaeology of the East Anglian ConversionThe Archaeology of the East Anglian ConversionWoodbridgeThe Boydell Press2010

Richard M. HoggIntroduction «The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 1: The Beginnings to 1066, ed. R. Hogg»CambridgeCambridge University Press19921-25

The Caistor-by-Norwich Astragalus

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