Knut Høiaas, historian and museum educator, Bergen City Museum

The excavations following the 1955 fire at Bryggen resulted in archaeological finds of such a great variety, and of such sensational amounts, that they have influenced the whole of medieval archaeology till this day, both in Norway and internationally. It is therefore hard, almost impossible, to pick a favourite find from this overwhelming amount of material.

Still, one group of artefacts stands out in many ways. Inscriptions in medieval runes, mostly carved on simple wooden sticks, are voices from medieval Bergen, speaking directly to us. Over 600 runic inscriptions have been found on Bryggen, and among them we find trading licences, name tags to show ownership, receipts, magic spells, religious writing, Norse poetry, poems and literary references in Latin, secret messages, sexual innuendo, drunken blabber and, so far, unintelligible texts.

Most of these messages were not meant for our eyes. They were carved into any available piece of wood using a knife, handed over to the recipient, (hopefully) read, and then thrown away. The recipient might have been a sweetheart, who cherished the message and kept it for a while, but mostly, these messages are comparable to modern day mobile phone text messages. When they had served their purpose, they were obsolete, and could be thrown away or deleted.

The cultural deposits beneath the extant buildings at Bryggen are sure to contain many more of these runic inscriptions, probably more than have already been found in Bergen. Of all the vulnerable objects in these deposits, the runic inscriptions are perhaps most at risk if we are not successful in halting the process of decay. The runes are not cut very deeply into the wood, and if the outer layer of the surface disappears, the writing may be lost forever.

So even though we are just dealing with the words of one young man bragging to another, many centuries ago, and even though the piece of wood was just thrown on the rubbish heap after having been read and enjoyed, it is both exciting and poignant to see that the world has not changed all that much over the centuries. Even in the middle ages, a young man would feel the need to impart the following:

Ingebjørg made love to me when I was in Stavanger!

Photo: Tore Klyve. The details of the woodwork are clearly visible, even though the inscription in almost illegible. The perishable nature of the inscription is clear to see. It reads: “Rome, capital of the world, I was there yesterday. In Latin”