Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The First Word in English

In 1929 an RAF crew took aerial shots of the site of the old Roman town of Venta Icenorum around the church of Caistor St Edmund near Norwich. The photographs revealed an extensive road network and soon the archaeologists moved in. During their excavations they came across a large early Anglo-Saxon cemetery with burials dating from the 5th century.

In the cemetery they found some cremation urns as well as pots with possessions in. One of these was full of bones – but they were not human remains. Most were sheep knuckle bones and probably dice or other game pieces. But amongst them was  a bone that was and still is of historical importance.
It was a bone from a Roe deer and upon it there were runic inscriptions:
The runes were old German/ old english runes and spelt this word:
Which means Raihan. What is Raihan?  Well the ‘an’ in old German meant  ”belonging to or from” and the Raih is believed to be a very early version of the word ROE. So this inscription which has been dated to circa 420 AD means “from a roe”.
It is not uncomon in the Saxon period to find similar bones from other animals with writing telling us which beast it is from.
So what we have here are the possessions of a man or woman from the VERY first years of Anglo-Saxon settlement of East Anglia buried in a cemetery that would have been very new within or close to a decaying Roman town. What we also have is the VERY FIRST word written in what would one day become England in the language which would one day be called English.
What we see here are the scrapings of one of the first of the mercenaries who crossed the north sea on hearing the call from the Britons for fighters to help protect Britannia from the Picts and Irish. He and thousands like him stayed on to carve out a nation.
There is more on this word and 99 other ones that form part of our history in The Story of English in 100 words by David Crystal. Its a fascinating book and I very much recommend it.
I find this evidence of the first written word in English fascinating and quite romantic really. I write novels about the early Anglo-Saxon period - always striving to bring back to live people who died 14 centuries ago. This to me is a tangible relic of one of those people.  To find out more about my books click here.


  1. It makes you wonder what else may lie buried under our feet.

    I also enjoyed DAvid Crystal's book. It's fascinating. I wonder what would have been in the book had he written it 50 years ago (or 50 years in the future.

    Martin Lake

  2. Enjoyed this blog, Richard. I was surprised that they'd bother to label something like this -- seems a lot of effort, particularly since they had their own deer. I would understand it better if it was an animal they weren't familiar with.

  3. One can only surmise, but perhaps he/she had a particular use for this piece of bone and named it as a reminder should he/she ever need to get another one. Of course, assuming the man was a pagan then the bone might have a ritual purpose.'Ritual', being archaeologist's shorthand for sorry, I haven't a clue.
    Purely in the interest of self-promotion, I'd like to direct you to my blog where I have a couple of articles on the "little known" Ionian runes:

  4. Interesting! thanks for sharing!

  5. It's always difficult to claim "the first" as new discoveries seem to crop up with increasing frequency, pushing back dates or adding complexities. The proximity to the Roman settlement makes one want to know so much more about these owners of a roe bone. And David Crystal's book sounds like just the sort of thing I'd love to be reading. Thank you Richard, I'll go shopping for it now!


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