An e-mail from Nick Jainschigg pointed me to this page (“5 Huge Mistakes Nobody Noticed for a Shockingly Long Time,” by Evan V. Symon for; it was headed “#1,” which sent me down the page to “#1. Scholars Mistake Random Cracks in a Rock for an Epic Poem”:

In the 12th century, a rock bearing what appeared to be slowly fading runic symbols was discovered in Blekinge, Sweden, because ancient Norsemen just wrote shit down wherever they could. The king of Denmark sent a team of skilled translators to figure out what it said, but they were all stumped, claiming that the Runamo Inscription (as it would come to be called) was written in a form of Viking that was just too obscure for them to read. The actual reason they were unable to decipher the inscription is because it isn’t an inscription at all — it’s just a bunch of random fissures in the surface of the rock.
[…]Then, in the early 1800s, an Icelandic scholar named Finnur Magnusson, who would eventually become famous for habitually identifying meaningless naturally occurring bullshit as authentic runic writing, translated the Runamo Inscription as an epic poem about warrior chieftain Harald Wartooth defeating the Swedish king in the eighth century. This was a potentially huge discovery, because at the time little was known about the famous battle, and the rock would serve as a genuine historical record. … Sweden sent its own scientists to verify Magnusson’s story, which they determined to be categorically false, much to the chagrin of hopeful historians and terrible Icelandic rune experts everywhere.

Not only was this amusing for its own sake, it immediately explained where Osip Senkovsky got the inspiration for the long Bear Island section of “The fantastic journeys of Baron Brambeus” that I described here; what I didn’t mention in that post is that the long hieroglyphic cave inscription Brambeus and his pal deciphered turned out to be natural outgrowths on the rock faces that they had mistaken for writing. Ripped from the headlines!


  1. Neat find – even though I study writing systems I had never heard of the Runamo inscription. Reminds me of the ‘methods’ of the late Barry Fell in _America B.C._ and his other books. “Look! Three sort-of straight lines in a row! Must be ogham! Or maybe Phoenician! Those crazy Celts have done it again!”

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I too immediately thought of Barry Fell. He was also fond of “Lybico-Berber” mixed with something else. I saw him on TV once “translating” a bunch of more or less straight lines on a cliff to a group of adoring fans. Of course ogham is not written on the face of flat rocks but on the edges of squared stones in very unnatural-looking patterns. Isn’t it strange that all actual writing ever found on stones and rocks doesn’t look at all like nature’s productions?

  3. I think it’s possible for people even today to “find” (or nudge into being with a little work) miraculous Arabic inscriptions inside of tree trunks, rocks, beehives etc. Somehow the Latin alphabet doesn’t seem to lend itself to this sort of thing as easily.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Kind of like the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary appears on tree-trunks (among other objects), especially where a large branch has been cut off and the oval scar left on the trunk looks a little like a human face shape, in which other vaguely human features may develop as the scar heals. Nobody notices the “miraculous face” until one person does, and then more and more people “see” it.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    AG: If this is happening in Arabic-speaking countries, the proliferation of different abstract shapes used in Arabic calligraphy, an art form developed in part because of the prohibition on reproducing natural shapes, may make it easy to confuse random natural lines with those of some Arabic letter variations.

  6. @ marie-lucie –
    I agree… and I think those sort of miraculous findings are probably an interesting commentary on the interplay among art, religion, writing system, culture, etc. Christians seem to look for human faces first, while Muslims would understandably see lines of calligraphy everywhere.
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything on the subject, but I assume it’d be pretty easy for Chinese characters to be “found” in natural lines. Especially the simpler ones like “human”, “mountain”, “sun”, etc. I wonder if that sort of “discovery” is common in China and Japan.

  7. Then there’s the Kensington Runestone, a runic inscription that somehow happened to be discovered in the most densely Scandinavian area of the US.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    I assume it’d be pretty easy for Chinese characters to be “found” in natural lines
    This occurred to me too, and like you I haven’t ever run into anything about it. One difference between Christian-Muslim and East Asian religions/cultures is that the former consider God (and people too to some extant) as separate from nature, so finding signs of God or religious figures in nature is something unusual although it may be hoped for by many humans. East Asian religions on the other hand are more likely to find the sacred within nature, and people would probably not be so surprised to discover such signs. See for instance the legend of the Korean alphabet first written on some leaves, without obvious agency, as opposed to the Ten Commandments carved on stone tablets given to Moses directly by God.

  9. Jeffry House says:

    Mormonism is based upon the “finding” of buried golden plates which were transcribed into English by Joseph Smith, who then “gave them to an angel” so no one can check on the translation….

  10. marie-lucie says:

    In the study of mythology (eg by Lévi-Strauss and others) there is a recognized phenomenon called inversion: we find the same general motifs between one people and another, but with some discrepancies which are also correspondences, as if the people adopted a myth but changed some of the details into their opposites, probably in order to differentiate themselves from their neighbours: land vs sea, flatland vs mountain, sky above vs underground below, etc. Similarly Mormonism inverts some of the motifs of the Judeo-Christian tradition: stone tablets from the sky/gold plates in the earth, given by God/discovered by man, etc.

  11. Heh! When the Chinese did find writing on old bones, they didn’t know what it was; they thought they were Dragon Bones!

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe, I understand that the discoverers were illiterate, or at least unable to read the ancient script. It took quite a while before a person able to read or at least recognize this script identified it on the bones.
    Some years ago, after I had learned about the existence of the divinatory practice in ancient China, I saw a TV program about the Inuit and was amazed to see an elder holding a scapula to a flame and moving it around, for the purpose of divination! This must have been the most ancient practice in China too, before the spread of writing.

  13. “the oval scar left on the trunk looks a little like a human face shape, in which other vaguely human features may develop as the scar heals. Nobody notices the “miraculous face” until one person does, and then more and more people “see” it.”
    Just yesterday, on Mason Neck (near DC), I was hiking with my dog in a wooded area where a sign invited me to see a human face (though not necessarily the Virgin Mary) in two scarred trees, which I barely managed to make out with a generous dose of imagination.

  14. dearieme says:

    I had a friend once who liked his soft-boiled egg a little overdone. It was his habit to slice the top off, stare at the yolk in fake fascination, and then declare “It is the Virgin Mary. Again.”

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Bill W, of course “who” you see depends on your (sub)culture as well as your visual imagination. Only “identified” faces, usually religious ones, make it into the popular press.
    When I was younger I could often see faces at the cut end of tree trunks (while walking in a forest where logging operations had been going on). At one time I decided to photograph them. Once the pictures were developed, they showed the cut ends of tree trunks, none of them looked like faces. I think that the “faces” needed the slight relief seen in the actual wood, and the photographs being flat did not show this relief.

  16. befuggled says:

    The Kensington Runestone is an entirely different issue, though. It has a clear, easily readable text written in one of the runic alphabets. Sure, it’s a fake, but there’s no ambiguity about it being a text.

  17. Phillip says:

    I saw the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast once, it was kind of cool.

  18. I’d almost completely forgotten about this. How embarrassing that it didn’t come to mind when you posted about the Bear Island story.
    I hate that I forget so much.

  19. I see the topic turned to the Blessed Virgin in the interim.
    The phenomenon is called pareidolia, and the best example is appearing in Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s shower curtain.

  20. Heh. Not only did I write about pareidolia back in 2004, I actually linked to the shower-curtain Lenin!

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Who wants cool toast?

  22. dearieme says:

    Ahoy, Hat. The distinguished scholar John Chadwick on p54 of his The Decipherment of Linear B: “… once spelt 38-03-31-06-37, and once …”.
    (The two-digit numbers stand for the syllabic signs in Linear B.)
    See: “spelt”! Neither Cambridge University Press nor Penguin Books seems to have objected.

  23. Why would they? They’re UK institutions and it’s a UK spelling.

  24. Who wants cool toast?
    The English, evidently, judging by their invention of the toast rack, a device evidently meant to cool toast as fast and efficiently as possible.

  25. I’ll show myself out …

  26. Adelfons says:

    I thought I saw Jesus in my toast once, but it was David Gates. (Release the bread puns!)

  27. dearieme says:

    The toast rack isn’t for cooling toast it’s so that it’s kepped crisp.

  28. I know that, Dearieme; I just enjoy repeating Aunchient Slanderes from time to time. “How many cigars can a Scotsman smoke at once?” Etc.

  29. All right, I’m going to have to know the answer to the Scotsman riddle.

  30. “Any given number.” Which apparently refers to the supposed excessive thrift of the Scots: they would make new cigars out of the shreds of old ones, a process that could continue indefinitely until in principle there might be bits of hundreds of original cigars in a third- or fourth-level “remanufactured” one. This slander is also applied to Southern Italians and perhaps other groups who are in general poorer than their neighbors.
    And don’t think I didn’t notice that over-regularized preterite there.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    The everlasting Scottish cigar reminds me of the legendary everlasting Parisian soup: the pot was never completely empty, and new ingredients were just added to it every day.

  32. Indeed, m-l. But the pot is merely additive, whereas the cigar is multiplicative: 1000 original cigars make 100 second-level cigars (assuming 10 butts = 1 cigar), which make 10 third-level cigars, which make 1 fourth-level cigar: when smoking that 1,111th cigar, our Scotsman is in principle smoking the original 1000 cigars simultaneously. You can’t do that with a pot.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Scotland: 999, Paris: 1

  34. Well, multiplicative versus additive may be a little misleading. It’s true that you wouldn’t save up the last bits of ten soups to suddenly put them all together some day and make a new soup–it’s a more gradual process–yesterday’s soup gets a bit more added to it to make today’s soup, and so on. Still, on the 1111th day you can be said in some sense to be eating a vast number of the soups of yesteryear.

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