whalebone staff with runic script

It was not until 1989 and after this object had been in the Fries Museum’s collection for over a century, that it was discovered that the ‘decorations’ on this whalebone staff were, in fact, runic characters.

Runenstaf van walvisbeen, 8de of 9de eeuw

Whalebone staff with runic script, 8th or 9th century

The fine lines and dashes are part of an ancient Germanic written language and are known as runes. Runic script is awfully hard to decipher, as some characters can have more than one meaning and sometimes the words are not clearly separated. What makes it even more difficult, the script varied with the area where it was used.

However, the code has been cracked, and the text reads: “Tuda, choose a witness you, Tuda” – but what these words exactly mean is obscure.

The staff may have had a function in the administration of justice. Or did it belong to the English bishop Tuda, perhaps?

If ever there were mysteries, this is certainly one of them …