Bronze Age Proto-Runes?

Aug 2018
Hoards of sickles from the middle-late Bronze Age excavated across central and northern Europe feature a range of cast markings on their blades and handles. An analysis of the Frankleben hoard (c.1500-1300 BC) from central Germany by archaeologist C.Sommerfeld found that particular markings on the sickles constitute a numeral system possibly related to a lunar calendar. According to the Halle State Museum of Prehistory:

“Many sickles carry line-shaped markings. The scope and order of these brands follows a defined pattern. This sign language can be interpreted as a pre-form of a writing system. There are two types of symbols: line-shaped marks below the button and marks at the angle or at the base of the sickle body. The archaeologist Christoph Sommerfeld examined the rules and realized that the casting marks are composed of one to nine ribs. After four left-hand, individually counted strokes there follows a bundle as a group of five on the right side. This creates a counting system that reaches to 29. The Synodic Moon orbit lasts 29 days or nights. This number and the lunar shape of the sickle suggest that the stroke groups should be interpreted as calendar pages, as a point in the monthly cycle.”

Other marks are also found on the sickles:

Analysis of the relations between different types of marks on the Frankenleben sickles:

The above sickles are called 'knob sickles' or 'button sickles'. Another type called a 'tongue sickle' (below right) features marks located on the handle or 'tongue':

Some of the types of marks found on tongue sickles:

Source: Symbolgut Sichel

In Gerätegeld Sichel (1994) Sommerfeld argues the marks found on Bronze Age sickles and other objects may constitute a type of 'proto-runic' sign system:

(excerpts, translated from German)

"Equivalent signs reminiscent of sickle marks have occasionally been embedded in bronzes, clay vessels, boulders and stone tombs.... Sickle marks have to do superficially with the casting of the device, because they are already considered in the casting mould and are not attached afterwards to the finished piece…. Even if sickle marks in the broadest sense should represent craftsmen's or workshop marks, one wonders why it is precisely sickles that are so easy to produce that are provided with such markings, but not those bronzes that are more demanding in terms of craftsmanship. Also the assumption of a quality mark has little for itself, if one considers that by no means all sickles, which originate from the same production, possess marks. Moreover, approximately half of all marked sickles have never been used as a cutting device. Marked sickles have obviously been deposited more often unused than unmarked sickles. Marked sickles have also almost always been handed down in their entirety; only very few sickle fragments show markings, mostly cast marks.

Sickle marks are undoubtedly of importance for the role of the sickle as a hoard good [...] The appearance of the bronze sickle starts with the beginning of the early Urnfield culture. The new stockpile is introduced in mass finds and shows from the beginning a complex character of the brands.[…] In addition, the coherence of the markings on knob and tongue sickles makes it probable that the markings apply to the sickle pattern in general and not only to certain types. Furthermore, analogous examples of sickle hoarding - above all the sickle mass finds - are to be found in different European regions (central Germany, Scandinavia, southern France, Carpathian basin and middle Danube area) and point to a pan-European phenomenon.[...]

Sickle marks and Runes

… runes represent not only their sound value but also a conceptual value corresponding to the rune name. Thus, for example, the h-rune can serve once for the consonant 'h', on the other hand for the term "hail, sudden destruction".

The idea that 'pre-runic’ signs of meaning were precursors of the runes was raised early on by rune research. With the question of origin the statement is always in the foreground that runes and non-runic signs can appear in close community, even combined on the same object. It is therefore possible to interpret rune-like single characters as runes as well. W. Krause brought this approach into discussion again some time ago. He should have his say:

For the peculiarities of the runes, "perhaps there is an explanation: from the Bronze Age on, on Old Germanic soil, in rock carvings, on urns, weapons, jewellery and utensils, there are certain markings, mostly recurring in their form, which can be regarded neither as pictures nor as pure ornamental lines, but each of which possibly represents a ritual-magical concept, even if its interpretation is uncertain in detail. Given the abundance of such signs with mostly simple lines, it is not surprising that some of them resemble or resemble certain runes in their form ... In addition, there is the fact that on numerous runic monuments of the Migration Period, especially on weapons and bracteates, the runes appear in close association with those pre-Runic or non-Runic signs. The assumption is thus obvious that with this symbiosis the runes of younger age are influenced in one way or another by the older symbols. Such an influence could also have an effect on the use of runes as symbols. The fundamental difference, however, remains that the runes now have double validity, but that the pre-Runic signs only retain their own validity [...] Even the form of individual runes may be modified or transformed by these externally similar symbols, and two runes which cannot be derived from any Southern European alphabet, namely j and ng, could be entirely based on old symbols for the year and the fertility god Ing. Also the application range of the runes has obviously been determined by the pre-Runic period, insofar as the runes essentially belong to the world of cult and magic, at least during the Migration Period. The inscriptions of this oldest common Germanic rune period are throughout short expressions on amulets, cult weapons and devices as well as on the inside of jewellery, in order to bring luck and salvation to the owner”.

The approach, that in the formation of the runes primary signs of meaning and their conceptual contents were involved and some of them even flowed into the rune series, has been pursued only sporadically in recent times. One reason for this is certainly that primary signs of meaning are hardly verifiable; the interpretation of possible signs is even less so. For the question of the origin of the runic names and the formal derivation of the few signs for which no convincing letter models can be found in the Southern European alphabets so far, the thesis of a 'pre-Rune' use of signs and terms is of importance.

With the sickle marks, the archaeology of runology can now possibly offer an already largely systematized sequence of prehistoric conceptual signs, which is suitable for mediating between runes and pre-Runic symbols in two respects. On the one hand, we enter comparatively safe ground with the sickle marks when it comes to the question of the meaning and field of application of the signs. On the other hand, sickle marks seem to be close to certain 'peculiarities' of the runic character and runic systematics. Some convergences should be mentioned with reservation and caution:
  • Linear sign guidance predominates; rounded forms are rarer, but older forms of writing can also be found in runes;
  • There are formal similarities between certain sickle marks and runes (see below);
  • The conversion of the sickle marks from negative to positive may have correspondences in the left and right rotation of the runes as well as in the use of some runes as "turning runes"; possibly the vectorial change of direction of some sickle marks stands in relation to rune groupings, which are "characteristic", "varying" or "indefinite" for the not satisfactorily clarified arrangement of the runes in the Futhark, but are supposed to have meaning;
  • The fourfold numerical increase of certain marks perhaps accommodates the classification of the runes according to sexes;
  • The counting system of the casting marks and character-shaped marks may possibly reflect mathematical principles which cannot be denied in the rune application either.

Between some sickle marks and runic marks in early written form there are certain formal similarities, which we do not want to mention in detail. If one looks at the respective sign product, a structure of the runes from the basic forms as well as direction changing sickle marks can be seen. This is of course not surprising with simple signs from simple basic elements...

It is worth mentioning that it is precisely those runic characters for which some special features can be identified that are most likely to have similarities with sickle marks. For the runic characters j, ng (and probably also g) there are no correspondences in the Alpine alphabets; at the same time the runic characters j, ng (and also k) differ from all other runic characters by their smaller written form. Finally, the above-mentioned signs - which are largely identical in both sign systems - are more frequently found as so-called extra-runic signs together and in combination with unambiguous runic inscriptions. […]

"…during the discussion of the Meldorf fibula (Schleswig-Holstein), which shows a short rune-like inscription, K. Düwel discusses, among other things, whether the Meldorf fibula signs might represent "proto runes" as it were. If the idea of proto-runes - according to Düwel - should be taken up by the runologists, then the question for a template alphabet of runes would have to be discussed again. If the Meldorf signs are really runes, then the origin of the runic writing must be assumed in the first two centuries before the common era.

The temporal distance between sickle marks and the entry of early runes is immense and can only be bridged on a narrow ridge of speculative assumptions. We have already explained above how knowledge about sickle marks could have passed down into the Late Bronze Age. We expressed the assumption that the passing on - subliminally and regionally widely scattered - could have taken place in circles of exposed metal craftsmen. If this were true, it would also be conceivable that in the course of time different sign systems, which have their origin in sickle marks, have developed. It is possible that some of the late Bronze Age 'idea scripts' mentioned above can be traced back to such traditional strands. The engraved signs on the Iron Age boardwalk in Lengener Moor can also originate from such a system of signs. The character-type representations on these objects could thus possibly mediate between sickle marks and proto-runes.

If we then understand the sickle marks as conceptual signs, and if it is not excluded by runology that rune names transfer prehistoric conceptual values, the rune names may give hints to the conceptual contents of the sickle marks. With all the uncertainty that such a circular conclusion contains, it must take place simply because the result meets our considerations of the content of the sickle marks and the function of the sickle as a harvesting device - which is at the same time hoard money - quite excellently.

If one therefore takes the basic forms of those sickle marks which are preferably used in combination (cross-shaped), which occur most frequently (arch-shaped) and which protrude most clearly from the canon of marks (circular) - these are, by the way, those marks, which also appear on the ‘Verlo’ stones mentioned at the beginning and at the same time also those which resemble such runic signs for which there are no correspondences in the Etruscan alphabets - and 'reads' them in the sense of the conceptual value of the corresponding runic signs, he gives himself the terms: "Gift". "(good) year" and "God of the fruitful year".

If one looks around for sign and pictorial, non ornamental representations in the extended lateral and spatial surroundings, it becomes clear that sickle marks are not to be seen as isolated. Some widely scattered objects also have pictorial signs which come into question as more or less coventionalized forms of expression of local and also supra-regional representation contents. This supports the assumption that sickle marks express conceptual values.

With the sickle marks we would like to present a system of prehistoric conceptual signs for discussion, which could possibly be of significance for the formation and for certain peculiarities of the rune series. It will not be easy to ignore the fact that sickle marks and the runic series of the older Futhark are broadly related.”


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More Frankenleben sickle images:

Distribution of sickle finds analysed by Sommerfeld:

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Aug 2018
Frankleben hoard:

Excerpts from another study on the same subject:

Symbolgut Sichel (Jahn 2013)

Bronze Age Sign Systems: 5.2 Characters in Central European finds

"As early as 1868 E. v. Sacken made reference to the negative marks on Hallstatt period bronze vessels and situlas. He pointed out the similarity to Etruscan and ancient Italian characters of the north Italian alpine area. ... Studies on stroke marks found on Urnfield rings have been made by H. Thrane, A. Müller-Karpe and M. Windholz-Konrad. After casting, these stamps are beaten into bronze and seem to transport information in the context of the Urnfield exchange of specific goods. On ceramics, too, there are combinations of markings described by F. Adámek as information units and interpreted by C. Eibner as a calendar. Sommerfeld compiles a long list of signs on the most diverse objects, which can be compared to a certain extent with the marks on knob sickles.

The Kelchalpe prehistoric mining area in the Kitz-büheler Alps is a find site where not only the processing but also the mining of copper can be demonstrated. Here, in connection with the mining of copper ores, signs appear which are very similar to the sickle marks, although they are found on a different carrier material.... The mining in Tyrol dates from the beginning of the Tyrolean Urnfield age, with a focus on the 12th-10th century B.C. This defines the time frame to which the notched wood objects found in this context can be assigned. The basic marks correspond to the patterns used on the tongue sickles.

Numerous examples are known from folklore which document not only the use of very similar symbols, but also the combination of signs and particular types of wood. In Switzerland these notched woods are called "Teßlen". In this context, they are referred to as "house signs", which, with the same basic elements as legal signs, have documented the ownership of the houses, but also of movable property, i.e. they represent owner marks. In the Middle Ages and early modern times, these marks had a wide distribution from the alpine region, southern Germany to northern Germany.

In the Eastern Alpine region we encounter a system of stamps on selected groups of objects during the Urnfield Period, which can be traced through to the Early and Late Iron Age. The question arises whether the sickle marks could also make a small contribution to describing the cultural relationship of the Carpathian Basin to Italy at the end of the Bronze Age. G. Kossack has taken up v. Merhart's assumption that at the end of the Late Bronze Age or at the transition to the Iron Age a shift of several metal workshops from the Carpathian Basin to the Eastern Alps and to Italy took place.

The discovery of an iron scythe (length 46.3 cm) from Sanzeno, which can be assigned to the Middle to Late Latène Period (LtC-D), can be understood as a late echo of the deposited sickles. The scythe is provided with an engraved mark (Fig. 5.27) at the transition from the handle to the blade. The repertoire of stamps and inscriptions in Sanzeno is extensive and varied. Some of the embossed or scratched characters can be read (UTITI, TINE, VALENTINVS), others remain incomprehensible. It cannot be ruled out that in Sanzeno different sign systems were used one after the other or also in parallel, during a period which extends from the transition from the late Hallstatt period to the early Latène period to the first two centuries after Christ…. it would be worth considering subjecting the Iron Age brands of the Alpine region and Italy to a more detailed study, taking into account the sickle marks. Can it be ruled out that among the ancient Italian scripts an Urnfield period substrate and Carpathian moment can also be grasped?

6.2 Sickles as symbolic good of the Urnfield period

For the tongue sickles the function as symbolic material is conceivable in two respects: on the one hand form (moon) and agricultural use are to be understood as symbols of fertility and the cyclic return of the course of the year, on the other hand the sickles of the Urnfield Period are also bearers of stamps, which function in their strictly applied formal syntax as a prescribed sign system and thus communicate meaning contents at the same time as symbol and symbol bearer....

The analysis of central German knob sickles by C. Sommerfeld has shown that further levels of function and meaning can be combined with the bronze sickle beyond its primary function as a harvester. This also applies in a similar way to the numerous tongue sickles handed down in the European deposit finds and the systematics of the manifold and widespread casting marks on the sickle handles. The distribution of the tongue sickles extends from the northwestern Black Sea region to the Irish Sea and from southern Italy to southern Denmark and can be traced from the Middle Bronze Age to the most recent depositions at the transition from the Urnfield Age to the Iron Age.

The analysis of cast tongue sickles indicates that the production of these object groups took place on a local level with a limited geographic exchange radius. The production and use of the sickles must not have taken place far apart. Nevertheless, the systematics of the casting marks on knob and tongue crescents seem to have supra-regional validity.

Another possible parallel between knob and tongue sickles is the potential pre-monetary function. In order to achieve this monetary character, an analysis of the weight distribution of the delivered sickles is required…. The average weight for complete tongue crescents of the older Urnfield period is 135g. For the complete sickles from the Lake Balaton deposit, a common weight unit of 9.4 can be determined, which is also known from Mediterranean weights.

The casting marks on the tongue sickles - as well as the marks on the knob sickles - are composed of a limited selection of basic elements and are presented simply, repeatedly and in combination with other basic elements. In the overwhelming majority of the hoard finds examined here, this system is remarkably uniformly adhered to, in which a limited number of character combinations is realized from a repertoire of basic elements. Despite the number of traditional knob and tongue sickles, the used "character set" remains manageable and shows a regularity within an astonishingly large geographical framework (Fig.4.41-4.67). This sign system essentially remains limited to knob and tongue sickles in the Urnfield age and communicates object-related meanings in the context of Urnfield period depositions. From the early Hallstatt period onwards, trademarks in Italy and the Alpine region also appeared on a broad spectrum of devices, vessels and weapons (Fig. 5.26). In Late Bronze Age Central Europe and the Mediterranean region, brands appear on tools and ingot bars frequently in the mining industry. The combination of brands and ingot function is reminiscent of the Mediterranean Minoan ingots, which also occasionally appear in Central and South-Eastern Europe. It is conceivable that the idea of marked ingots and characters from the Mediterranean region was taken up in Late Bronze Age Europe and given new meanings in the context of the Urnfield period's deposition custom. ... In connection with the use of Mediterranean weight units, the sickles are assigned the role of standardized pre-monetary values in the profane and sacred realms."

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More marks found on tongue sickle handles:

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Aug 2018
Similar marks on other Bronze Age objects:

Iron Age scythe, northern Italy:

Hallstatt culture, early Iron Age: