By Master Robert of Ferness

Lady Maedbh standing at runestone

Fig. 1: Runestone, with Lady Maedbh ni Clerigh for scale (photo by Robert of Ferness).

After reading about runestones found in Norway recently, I realized that individual runes can be transcribed and simplified into smaller units of information. As you can see in the examples in Fig. 1, runes consist of long straight lines, long curved lines, short angled lines, and dots.

Once the individual letters are broken down into these elements, they can be perceived as paaaah, paaah, pah, and pa, respectively: in other words, the length of each rune segment, can be transformed into a rhythmic series of sounds in order to convey information.

Note that I am not suggesting that runes were not used as letters and not used as part of an alphabet, but that the shapes of the runes were formed so that they could also be understood in other contexts.

After thinking on this insight for some time, it seems clear that the Vikings – at least the infamous Norsemen – might have used these shortened rune letter-segments as a way to communicate between ships while on the open ocean.

Much like putting an ear to the ground or railroad track in order to sense vibrations of horses or trains, it might have been the case that sailors could put an ear to the hull of their ship in order to hear sounds transmitted via the water from another vessel.

Viking age ship hull

Fig. 2: The preserved substantial hull of a Viking Age ship (photo by Robert of Ferness).

It is well known that water carries sound better than air, and more than four times faster, so it should be feasible that a sailor using a heavy metal or wood implement, such as an oar or sword pommel, could tap out a message on the hull of one ship and have it perceived on all nearby ships. It would be a perfect method for organizing a raid or an open-water attack, or even just to keep ships organized as they traveled together.

The length of each tap (paaaah, paaah, pah, and pa) would specify the part of the rune being sent and the receiver would compose the message in his head as it arrived, putting together the lengths of the taps to form the final runes and then, ultimately, the entire message.

Anyone who has enjoyed a ride in a replica Viking ship knows that there is plenty of noise above the water: wind blowing, oars splashing, people talking or singing, seabirds crying, etc. All of those interferences would be bypassed via percussive message transmission using a code tapped out on the hull of a ship.

It is my intent to replicate this possible communications platform as soon as feasible once COVID restrictions are lifted. After I have worked out enough proper sequences for carrying messages, I intend to publish more about this method, to be called Norse Code.

Fig. 3: Replica of a small Viking Age vessel in use. One of the crew would be ready to tap out or listen for a message with little effort (Photo by Robert of Ferness).