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Sensational Find at the ZBSA: oldest Evidence of the West Germanic Language

Sensational Find at the ZBSA: oldest Evidence of the West Germanic Language

Comb with runic inscription from Frienstedt

Since 2009 the ZBSA is analysing data of an excavation near Frienstedt, City of Erfurt, completed in 2003. It is a joint project with the Thuringian State Office for Historic Preservation and Archaeology which is funded by the Fritz-Thyssen-Foundation. A runic inscription on a comb has been discovered at the ZBSA. This discovery is a scholarly sensation. Dating to around 300 AD this is not only the oldest known Germanic script in central Germany and the southern most evidence for runes at this time, but also a missing link for Germanic linguistics: the first certain evidence of a West Germanic language group.

Frienstedt comb, detail

Magnification shows that the runes were cut after polishing the comb, i.e. after it was finished. It is questionable, however, whether it was added soon afterwards by the craftsman or years later, possibly at a different location.

The comb with the newly discovered inscription is made of deer antler. It had been broken into several pieces and was found in a potential ritual pit. Nonetheless, it has survived nearly complete and bears the runic inscription KABA. These letters are to be read as “Ka(m)ba”, that is “comb”. Evidence for the masculine ending –a is a sensation for historical linguists. Due to its early date it is the missing link in the development of Proto-Germanic to West Germanic, a family which includes German, Dutch, Frisian and partly English – after all language branch that is used as the “lingua franca” of half the population world wide.

The Germanic culture is mainly non-written. The first runic inscriptions on Scandinavian objects feature from 150 AD onwards, but it is not for another 300 years until longer inscriptions to appear, such as dedications or wishes. Until c. 500 AD runes are mainly used in Scandinavia. After that point they appear briefly in southern Germany, the Netherlands and the British Isles. Therefore the knowledge of runes at such an early stage as in Frienstedt would have been a rare privilege. Objects with runes would have seemed very valuable to a contemporary individual, even if it was only the word “comb” on a comb, which today might not be very exhilarating.

Frienstedt, ritual pit

Ritual pit Bf.215 in cross section. The iron lance head and the comb with the runic inscription were found in a layer rich in animal bones.

Only two other finds from this early period have been found outside Scandinavia: Two lance heads from Dahmsdorf east of Berlin and from western Ukraine. This does not point to a widely spread active knowledge of the runic script. However, this newly discovered inscription has been found very far south, chronologically close to the oldest evidence. It is now much more likely that distinguished individuals used the runic script independently in the West Germanic language area and perhaps also in central Germany. Such a distinct West Germanic writing tradition would further mean that 6th-century runic finds from southern Germany do not have to originate from Scandinavia. The theory of the Thuringian kingdom acting as a cultural barrier between the regions and first had to be destroyed for the south to gain access to Nordic traditions is therefore much less likely.

Were Thuringia’s inhabitants already 1,700 years ago literate? They would have at least valued this cultural good highly.

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