Runes in Orkney – A Millennium of writing

Andrea setting up the exhibition

We invited Andrea Freund PhD student currently studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands to write a guest blog on her research and exhibition into Viking runes.

Andrea continues the story……….”I am currently in my final year of a PhD at the Institute for Northern Studies. My research is funded through an “Applied Research Collaboration” by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities in a partnership between UHI and Orkney Museum.

This relatively new kind of studentship gives the PhD student a non-academic partner and a practical, public engagement project. In my case, that is a temporary exhibition at Orkney Museum from 9 – 30 March 2019.

When it came to find a topic for my exhibition, it was clear to me that it would be about runes in Orkney, which is the central focus of my entire thesis. However, as often with such cases, the devil is in the detail. Namely, the location of many runic inscriptions from Orkney. Many early finds are now part of the permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and I knew from the start it was unlikely that I would be able to show them. Then there are the 33 inscriptions inside the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe – rather difficult to get to the museum, so they could not be the main focus.

Another consideration, which has fascinated me from my first visit in Orkney was the way runes are still an inspiration for artists and designers here, which I never saw anywhere else to such a big extent. I felt it was important to reflect the ongoing importance of runes in and for Orkney in the exhibition because that throws up many aspects of how runes, and with them the Norse, are received in modern Orkney.

Therefore, the exhibition is called “A Millennium of Writing”, making the connection from the approximate time (sorry, I cannot guarantee that it is exactly a millennium, but “About 1025 years of writing” or so wouldn’t look good on a poster) that runes were first used in Orkney to the present day.
In putting together the exhibition, I was very lucky in various regards. Orkney had a new find of a runic spindle whorl in 2017, and this is the first time it can go on display. Inscribed bones from Earl’s Bu have also recently been moved to Orkney Museum and are going on their first ever display, too. In addition, it has been possible to secure loans of objects that have never been at Orkney Museum and that have never formed part of the same exhibition, alongside with loans from artists and designers, to tell a more comprehensive story about runes in Orkney.

Fragment of cattle rib excavated at Earl’s Bu, Orkney

One thing I personally like in museums is a hands-on experience, and I wanted to try and recreate that. This means that visitors can try themselves at carving their names in runes – made slightly easier than the Norse original technique by replacing stone with flower foam and sharp knives with wooden cuticle pushers. The runic spindle whorl is also available as a digital 3D model, created by Jim Bright, so visitors can enlarge and turn it as they wish even though the original is in a glass case. Finally, visitors are asked for their own suggestions what the rather mysterious lead amulet from Deerness might say on its inside – which we may never discover because it can neither be unfolded nor X-rayed.

I hope that visitors will enjoy the exhibition just as much as I have enjoyed the process of planning and putting it together, that it appeals to Orcadians and tourists alike and makes people reflect on Orkney’s runic heritage and how it is portrayed and used today.”