Germanic runes in the Prague-Type Pottery culture

Recent paper (behind paywall) Runes from Lány (Czech Republic) – The oldest inscription among Slavs. A new standard for multidisciplinary analysis of runic bones by Macháček et al. J. Archaeol Sci (2021).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

To date no archaeological find is generally accepted as evidence for a direct contact between Germanic tribes and Early Slavs in Central Europe (Brather, 2004). Here we report a novel archaeological find in support of a direct contact: a rune-inscribed fragment of a bone from the late 6th century found in a Slavic settlement. Runes are an alphabetic script, called fuþark, used among Germanic tribes (…).

The reported bone fragment, a rib, originates from Břeclav-Lány in South Moravia, Czechia. It was a typical example of an Early Slavic settlement of the 6th-7th century AD according to the definition of M. Parczewski (2004) and was continuously inhabited until the 9th century, as attested by direct dating and typological continuity in the archaeological record (Macháček et al., in press).

Distribution of South Germanic runic inscriptions from the 6th and 7th century AD, location of the Germanic tribes around 568 AD and the Early Slavic settlements. Marked is the site of the rune bone in Břeclav-Lány. Image modified from Macháček et al. (2021).

The rune-inscribed bone fragment was uncovered in the top section (0–25 cm) of Pit 25 (depth 70 cm), next to other animal bones and pottery of the Prague type (Fig. 1:C). This pit cannot be excavated fully because of full-grown trees. It was most probably a rest of a sunken-floored hut. The archaeological finds from the pit consist of handmade pottery and clay pans, which have been associated with competitive feasting and the rise of political leaders among those known from the written sources as Sclavenes/Slavs (Curta, 2017).

We dated the bone inner section (Poz-99473) containing 7.1% collagen with AMS and OxCal v4.3 to 585–640 AD (68.2% CI, 95.4% CI 555–650 AD). We confirmed the dating of the pit using two cattle bones without inscriptions from slightly lower levels of the fill (Poz-98266: 68.2% CI 540AD – 601AD; Poz-98267: 68.2% CI 536AD – 604AD), making the pit the oldest 14C-dated Early Slavic feature within Czechia and Austria (Jelínková, 2012). The rune-inscribed bone is thus clearly contemporary with the Early Slavic settlement on this site and does not originate from the previous Migration Period.

Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon data. Data was used from Lombard and Early Slavic sites excavated in the Czech Republic (CZ), Austria (AT) and Pannonia (Pann: Slovakia and Hungary) and of the rune-inscribed cattle bone from Břeclav-Lány.

We further used OxCal on available radiocarbon data to investigate the chronology between settlements of early Slavs and Lombards, which are believed to have been the last Germanic tribe in East-Central Europe with their exodus to what is today Italy in 568 AD historically described and supported by ancient DNA (Amorim et al., 2018). (…) Our estimates, which are highly concordant with previous estimates on partially different data (Kaizer et al., 2019), indicate that the Lombards abandoned their burial grounds prior to 566 AD (CI 68.2%), in line with their historically known departure in 568 AD, and that the Slavic settlements appeared in South Moravia after 556 AD (CI 68.2%). This cultural transition thus predated the making of the rune-inscribed bone fragment.

About the Runes

The runes (tbemdo) render six of the last eight runes of the older fuþark (tbemlŋdo), suggesting that the bone originally exhibited the whole abecedary, but it is unclear why the carver omitted the l and ŋ runes. Remarkably, this is the first find containing the final part of the older fuþark in South-Germanic inscriptions as none of the other extends after the l-rune (Düwel and Heizmann, 2006).

The runes of the older fuþark (normalised forms), third group of eight runes. The division in three groups of eight runes (called ættir in Old Icelandic) is old-established. The items in the 4th row are for enumeration only: as far as can be seen, the runes had no numerical value , asterisk * indicates a reconstructed form. Image modified from the supplementary materials of Macháček et al. (2021).

The following are excerpts translated from German, from the recent Die Runeninschrift auf dem Rinderknochen von Břeclav, Flur Lány (Südmähren, Tschechische Republik), by Macháček & Nedoma (2020):

  • Rune No. 1: Probably originally t, it looks like the upper part of a staff and a curved staff leading from its tip to the bottom right.
  • Rune No. 2 b with spaced hooks, characteristic of the south Germanic runic inscriptions.
  • Rune No. 3: ᛖ e, with a left-slanting branch starting below the tip of the left staff.
  • In the lower area of ​​runes 2 and 3 run two parallel transverse lines have a profile very similar to the rune incisions, but their function is unclear.
  • Rune No. 4: ᛗ m, whose left staff is longer. Diagonals do not start at the tips of the staffs and their point of intersection is far to the left; the carver started three times on the left-sloping diagonal.
  • Rune No. 5 ᛞ d is slightly broader than the other runes, and its diagonals – the right one cut twice – reach neither the upper nor the lower ends of the staffs.
  • There are short vertical lines on either side of the upper end of the left staff, the function of which is unclear. One might be tempted to assume a small (approx. 3 mm high) on the left and an even smaller one (or even; approx. 2 mm high) on the right; however, the hypothetical branches are shallower and likely just material damage. The short vertical lines may indicate that the carver started three times on the left staff.
  • Rune no. 6 is a fairly regular ᛟ o.

Rune inscription of Lány. Photo: Vojtěch Nosek, Institut für Archäologie und Museologie, Masaryk-Universität Brno. Modified from Macháček & Nedoma (2020) to superimpose the six runes of the older fuþark on the rune bone, as published in Macháček et al. (2021), and to add rune numbers below them. Please note: The image is a modified version of the originals, which are published as separate images (photo and marks).


The authors seem to depart from the idea that the carver was inexperienced, and that the text represents a writing exercise, discarding thus any magical purpose, since:

  • Rune proportions were not kept.
  • Different carvings suggest multiple unsuccessful attempts.
  • It is supposed to represent the last part of the futhark “abecedary”, but the carver omitted two runes.
  • There are two smaller ×-like flatter structures on the other side of the bone fragment.

Their main hypotheses include two potential ways of direct interaction between Germanic and Early Slavic peoples:

a. A Langobard who did not join the migration into northern Italy in 568.

Given the cultural significance of runes to Germanic people but not Slavs, it appears unlikely that the bone was brought by Germanic merchants. Instead, the runes may have been incised by people of Germanic origin that remained in the region after the departure of the Lombards, or later immigrated. However, there is only anecdotal evidence for rare immigrants (Haury and Dewing, 1914–1928) and no convincing evidence for the survival of Germanic elements in Slavic territories, except in Pannonian Basin, where Slavs and Germanic peoples lived among other ethnolinguistic groups in the Avar khaganate (Koncz, 2015).

b. A Slav who learned and used the Germanic script.

If runic knowledge was transferred from Germanic peoples to Slavs, it must have happened in Central Europe as judged by the rune shapes. Or it may have persisted in the region as a result of population continuity between Lombards and Slavs. In contrast to other places (Brather, 2004), the Germanic and Slavic settlements followed each other closely in the region and the different ethnolinguistic groups could have merged towards the end of the Migration Period (Koncz, 2015). This is thought to have happened in the Balkans, where locals and non-locals cannot be archeologically distinguished and the term “Slavs” may have been used as an umbrella term for groups living on the frontier of the Byzantine Empire (Curta, 2001).

The authors conclude that the findings of direct cultural contact challenge the sharp dichotomy between Germanic and Early Slavic peoples, and that Early Slavs possibly used Germanic runes as a writing system, following the “lines and cuts” to which 9th century monk Hrabar refers in his treatise On the Letters:

Прѣжде ѹбо словѣне / не имѣахѫ писменъ ·
Being still pagans, the Slavs did not have their own letters,

нъ чрьтами и рѣꙁаньми / чьтѣахѫ
but read and communicated by means of tallies and sketches.

Prague-Type Pottery culture

The nature, origins and development of the Prague-Type Pottery culture (PTPC) are much discussed among the different archaeological schools of Central and Eastern Europe. The authors of this paper cite Florin Curta more than once, but his writings suggest that his interpretation of the same findings might have been completely different, challenging the identification of this type of pottery with any single ethnolinguistic group; or even the concept of a common PTPC itself.

The authors assume the traditional picture of the PTPC emerging in the east during the 5th century as an offshoot of the Kiev culture, and spreading during the 6th century by replacing the late phase of the Migration Period (i.e. the Merovinginan culture). This account of central- and left-bank Dnieper origins relies in turn on the traditional association of the PTPC with “West Slavic”, at the same time as Kolochin and Penkovka groups would represent the expansion of “East Slavic” and “South Slavic”, respectively. Today it seems much more likely that Kolochin represented a Baltic-speaking culture, whereas Penkovka was probably associated – at least around the steppes – with Turkic-speaking peoples.

The distribution of archaeological cultures in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries AD. 1 the border of the Byzantine Empire; 2 important early Byzantine centres (Dulinicz 2006, 18, Fig. 3). Modified from Messal & Rogalski (2013).

Still, the wide-ranging influence of the PTPC puts this culture as the main archaeological candidate for Early Slavic expansion. Main features include (Profantová 2012):

  • Cultural changes suggesting the presence of bearers of a certain culture rather than cultural diffusion or interaction:
    • Regression in variability and quality of hand-made pottery.
    • Economic and technological innovations, such as the use of rotatory querns; common wheat instead of emmer wheat; and stone ovens.
    • Short-term innovations like metal casting pans, which replaced melting pots (crucibles).
  • Transformation of settlement dynamics:
    • Emergence of intensive settlement in southern Poland and Saxony, preceded by significant depopulation (decades-long settlement hiatus).
    • In Bohemia, however, estimates of population decrease are much lower.
  • Continuous development of the PTPC:
    • Settlement and cultural continuity with historical Slavs from the Early and Middle “Hillfort” periods (8th-10th century), well documented in Bohemia and Moravia.
  • Common worship of particular gods (Perun, Svarog) and rituals; identical toponyms over a vast territory.
Distinguishing features of the PTPC, as documented in various regions with respect to cultural continuity in Bohemia and Moravia. Only the presence of relevant phenomena is documented. In fact, none of the registered phenomena turns up in the later phase of the Migration Period, with the sole exception of bow fibulae, which nonetheless vary in shape and size. A newly identified feature is represented by pits with narrowed necks, similar to the so-called pits of pear-shaped sections, the only example being pit 1553 at Březno. These small pits had an economic function and were archaeologically sterile so that their chronology is uncertain. A Circle indicates the occurrence of the phenomenon both breaks. After N. Profantová 2009. Image modified from Profantová (2012).

On the other hand, one could say that the simultaneous occurrence of hand-made pottery, sunken dwellings or cremation graves, also attested among other cultures during the Migration Period, offered the right group to be identified with Early Slavs…only for those who were looking to find a tribal migration of Early Slavs into Central Europe during these ‘dark’ centuries (Profantová 2012).

The reality of Slavicization of East and Central Europe was, however, much more complex than can be assumed by looking at summary maps with some added arrows. Simply put, there was no single, homogeneous population massively migrating into depopulated areas from the same unitary homeland, but a cultural model that was transferred and adapted from a shared cultural horizon, with different small-scale population movements whose succession remains chronologically uncertain.

It is conceivable that the Germanic population left behind during the migration became assimilated, and that Germanic soldiers returned to their homeland (Messal & Rogalski 2013). In fact, these returning Germanic-speaking peoples could have already come into contact with Early Slavic-speaking peoples from the Danube region, where Curta (2020) assumes lies the core of the Slavonic community.

Map of Prague-Type Pottery Culture pit houses with stone ovens (square) and clay ovens (circle), or lacking an oven (star). After N. Profantová 2009, obr. 6. The territories of Slovakia, Romania, and Moldavia are after G. Fusek. Image modified from Profantová (2012).

Complex Slavic ethnogenesis

Regarding the emergence of runes in the site of the earliest attested “Slavic” Prague-Type Pottery culture settlement from the region, the two hypotheses laid out by the authors make sense. Genetic data has suggested for a while a complex Early Slavic ethnogenesis, with strong interactions and admixture with neighbouring populations:

  • Two available (mother-daughter) Late Avar samples from Szólád, potentially belonging to the first Slavic polity, show the greatest affinity among modern populations to Poles and Ukrainians (Amorim et al. 2018), suggesting that the 6th century population closest to modern Poles and Ukrainians was found in the Carpathian Basin, under eastern influences.
  • On the other hand, two Early West Slavs from Bohemia show a wide cluster, roughly within the limits of the earlier Langobards from the same site, which attests to at least partial genetic continuity with them and/or with preceding Central European Iron Age groups.
Eurasian PCA with relevant samples marked and labelled. See Eurasian PCAs with samples divided by period.
  • In fact, the genome published to date that more closely represents the (Pre-)Proto-Balto-Slavic community comes from Bílina, a Věteřov Bronze Age sample (ca. 1192-1005 calBCE) belonging to the (post-?)Proto-Lusatian horizon. The sample shows an ancestry closest to the Únětice-Bohemia_BA/Poland_BA cluster, and basal hg. R1b-L151*(xA8053>FGC37100; xP312, xU106), compatible with the variability among East Bell Beakers expanding to the north and east from the Upper Danube, probably part of “local” Bronze Age Central-East European lineages that eventually disappeared under later marked bottlenecks.

It is quite likely then that the Lusatian culture, the most likely vector of Balto-Slavic expansions, will show a bottlenecked population featuring more eastern ancestry and less variable haplogroups as it spread to the east and admixed with (and partially replaced) the Trcziniec-Circle-like population that predated it in the region, in a process that continued with the succeeding Pomeranian and West Baltic Kurgans culture.

Y-DNA reported from Europe during the Late Bronze Age. See full maps.

Therefore, from the data published until now, only a simplistic glimpse into the prevalent Y-chromosome haplogroups of Early Slavs is possible:

NOTE. For detailed information on these samples, check the Ancient DNA Dataset. You can explore them visually in the ArcGIS Web App by period, but also in the easily searchable Haplotree Ancient DNA (by haplogroup or age).

R1a-M458: I considered it the main haplogroup spreading with Balto-Slavs in their eastward expansions, due to its modern distribution and late TMRCA. Preliminary data on Vikings suggested, nevertheless, that some lineages might have spread in part through elite domination among Northern Slavs during and after the Viking period. On the other hand, a closer look into Viking Y-DNA and ancestry suggests a connection of most R1a-M458 samples with Central-Eastern European ancestry, in line with the also complex ethnic development of Vikings. Furthermore, its presence in a sample from France Iron Age (La Tène) supports that it was part of a western European community, hence likely to have expanded with Urnfield and thus also with the related Lusatian culture. The most relevant recent data, however, comes from a sneak peak into medieval cemeteries from Yaroslavl and Tver’: more than 50% of sampled East Slavic peoples show hg. R1a-M458, which supports its main role in the expansion of Early (Northern) Slavs.

Y-DNA reported from Europe during the Early Iron Age. See full maps.

E1b-V13: Sampled first among “Scythians” of likely Thracian or Gepid origin, it appeared also among Visigoths in Iberia and among Langobards from Hungary, as well as – much later – among Early Hungarians. This pattern strongly suggested a connection of Early Slavs with their linguistic homeland around the Eastern Carpathians and the Lower Danube, neighbouring Gepids and Thracians. The leaked information about this haplogroup among Early Iron Age Thracians apparently confirms the ancestral origin of Visigoths with an ultimate origin in the East Germanic Chernyakhov culture, but it doesn’t fully constrain its origin and relevance among Common Slavs, who expanded later. Among Early Slavs, it is going to be found in all early dialectal groups, and is currently found in samples from Rügen in the west, from the Carpathian Basin in the south, and early and medieval East Slavic samples from Russia. Its distant origin might lie in the Balkan Bronze Age, suggesting (at least partial) genetic continuity with Palaeo-Balkan peoples in the area.

Y-DNA reported from Europe during the Late Iron Age. See full maps.

I2a-L621: When it first appeared associated to Early Hungarian Conquerors I assumed it formed part of the Proto-Hungarian community. However, the likely early dates for samples leaked from Poland and Serbia – roughly contemporaneous with Magyars – suggested that it might have been part of the Early Slavic expansions, as does its presence among medieval samples from Germany to Russia. On the other hand, a good quality sample from the same Magyar branch has recently appeared to the north of Lake Baikal, clearly predating the expansion of East Slavs to the region, and featuring a fully “East Asian” ancestry. Its subclade is thus compatible with an expansion of the haplogroup with Iron Age and medieval steppe cultures, mostly identified with Iranian- or Turkic-speaking peoples (see here). The most likely situation is that, somehow akin to hg. N-Y6058, different lineages spread with different steppe-related expansions. As for more distant origins (such as the leaked L621?? from Bulgaria EBA), it is impossible to say anything reliable at this point.

Y-DNA reported from Europe during Antiquity. See full maps.

R1b, I1, I2: Prevalent among the published Iron Age and Early Medieval samples from Central-Eastern and Eastern Europe, most reported R1b-U106 and I1 samples seem related one way or another to Germanic peoples, whether from the Migration Period or the Viking expansions. On the other hand, there is continuity of specific I2 subclades in Northern European Bronze Age groups closely associated with the Lusatian culture, and the origin of R1b-U106 (like that of R1b-L151 lineages) lies ultimately in the Yamnaya from the Carpathian Basin and their expansion with East Bell Beakers – evidenced by one of the earliest R1b-U106 samples found, a Bohemian Old Únětice sample. Therefore, it is unlikely that the distribution of many of these haplogroups throughout Early and Modern Slavic-speaking territories can be simply explained as “acculturated Germanic-speaking locals”, since no single haplogroup will be associated with either the Proto-Slavic or the Common Slavic ethnogenesis. Still, it will be interesting to see if the population from Lány shows an uninterrupted chain of specific Langobard-related Y-DNA despite cultural change.

Y-DNA reported from Europe during the Middle Ages. See full maps.

R1a-Z280: While basal clades have been found in Srubnaya and are likely to have spread quite early to the west into the Central-Eastern European Bronze Age and to the east with Abashevo up to the Altai, some specific subclades can be more evidently pinned to specific expanding ethnolinguistic groups:

Y-DNA reported from Europe during the Early Modern Period.

All data taken together supports that Early Hungarian Conqueror elites shared haplogroups associated with the most likely populations that partook in the Proto-Hungarian ethnogenesis, and that – similarly – Early Slavic-speaking peoples represented an amalgam of the also complex populations that preceded them in their ancient settlement areas.

Most likely, different assumed “Early Slavic” settlements of the PTPC and derived groups will show different bottlenecked elite groups and heavy admixture with locals, similar to the previous (Balto-)Slavic linguistic stages. The finding of an early Germanic writing system in a paradigmatic Early Slavic archaeological settlement is but the tip of the iceberg in their complex ethnolinguistic development.


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