The Real Story Of The Gandersheim Rune Casket

If you ever go to Braunschweig Germany (and you should, it’s a good base for the Harz and Quedlinburg), make sure to take in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. For me the most interesting exhibit is the so-called Gandersheim Rune Casket, an exquisite early mediaeval carved box of bone and brass.


In 1999, a Symposium was held at the Museum on the subject of the Casket (Das Gandersheimer Runenkästchen). Participants were principally academics and experts from the fields of art history and runology. The proceedings, which were published in 2000, run to 155 pages, some in German with English summaries, some in English, and contain a substantial amount of quality research and expert opinion.

Nevertheless, the official position today is that no one knows what the Casket was used for and no one can read the inscription. The notice on the display cabinet contains no translation of the inscription and no indication of the casket’s use.

Part of the problem is the poor interdisciplinary effort put in by runologists, which I have dealt with elsewhere. But it is also due to a lack of imaginative synthesis, a symptom of modern academic overspecialisation. It seems that, because there is no academic discipline whose job it is to read papers from across a number of disciplines and use critical reasoning to draw available conclusions, this task will never be undertaken.

I have already posted my reading of the inscription. In this post, I try to piece together the history of the artifact based largely on the data contained in the Symposium proceedings. Questions regarding the original purpose of the artifact and its decorations are the province of historians of art and religion and are difficult to answer. However, an application of standard critical techniques and data synthesis can reveal more about the subsequent use of the object at Gandersheim than the current fragmented state of research findings offers.

The Casket

The casket is of C7th or C8th Anglo-Saxon manufacture and is most likely a gift to members of the Saxon nobility connected with the Ottonian Dynasty. The occasion and date of the gift are unknown, but for dynastic reasons it is unlikely to have been before 919, when Henry the Fowler became King of Germany. The wedding of Otto I and Eadgyth of England, daughter of King Edward the Elder, in 930, seems one good possibility. [1]

The casket is made of some kind of bone, either walrus tusk or whale bone, enclosed in a bronze frame. The bone panels are decorated with exquisite intricate carvings of animals and plants.

The runic inscription is incised along the underside of the rectanglar base, with the text running clockwise along two neighbouring sides, then repeated on the other two sides. The middle rune of each side is the star rune ‘ior’, which therefore forms a cross.

Complicating matters is the fact that the brass base with the inscription is not part of the original casket. Hans-Werner Pape from the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin states that it is probably of 19th century construction (p. 33), although such a late date seems unlikely given that the museum had it from 1815.

Use Of The Casket

The casket may have been produced for another purpose before it was used as a reliquary. Nothing apart from the text on the separate base points specifically to a function as a reliquary. Comparisons by art historians at the Symposium point to an original purpose as a container for the host or for chrism oils.

If not already a reliquary, at some time it was repurposed as a container for material from the Virgin Mary’s clothing. This may have been before it was decided to gift it to the Saxons or at the same time. It is true that the Saxons might have even repurposed an earlier gift, but then the inscription would have to match the original purpose, as how and why would they have had a new one done in Anglo-Saxon runes? The inscription seems to fit the use as a reliquary, although this is disputed.

The fact that the base is a later addition means there is no requirement for the inscription to refer to the original purpose. There is no contradiction between an art-historical finding that the artifact was probably not originally constructed as a reliquary and the agreement between the later tradition and a probable reading of the inscription that it was subsequently so used.

Some commentators try to draw the opposite conclusion, that the casket was never used as a reliquary. Waxenberger states: “It should be noted that some of the readings and interpretations of the inscription are based on the silk fragments. Yet, even if the casket had originally been designed as a reliquary, these silk fragments could not have belonged to it because thay are of too late origin.” (Waxenberger 2003 p.147) This argument conflates three separate issues: (1) that belief in the use as a reliquary is only based on the late presence of cloth fragments; (2) that the late date of the Byzantine cloth rules out its use as a reliquary; and (3) that erroneous readings have been caused by the belief that the casket was a reliquary for the Blessed Virgin’s clothing.

In fact none of these objections stands up to scrutiny. That the casket was used to hold relics of Mary is shown by the museum’s tradition based on records going back to the time of the donation in 1815 and by the fact that Gandersheim possessed matching relics in the C12th. Secondly, the fact that the Byzantine cloth is of late production simply demonstrates it was not part of any original relics, not that there were never any such relics. The final issue is only a problem if the belief regarding the artifact’s use is incorrect but the evidence shows this not to be the case.

The Relics

In 1879, the casket was referred to in a now lost card note regarding enhancements to the collection in 1815 that said it housed relics of the Virgin Mary’s clothing (“ein Stück vom Hemde der heil. Jungfrau und ein Stück von ihrem Kleide” p. 141). A 12th century register of relics at Gandersheim refers to several relics “De vestibus sancte Marie matris Domini”.

A piece of mediaeval cloth is now exhibited with the casket, although we can’t be certain that it was ever inside it. The cloth is of 10th century Byzantine manufacture. Gandersheim Abbey has another larger piece of the same cloth. It is possible that the cloth formed part of the dowry of the Byzantine Princess Theophanu, who married Emperor Otto II in 972. We know that the dowry was deposited at Gandesheim.

The cloth displayed with the casket is 10th century Byzantine, so not contemporary with the casket’s manufacture. The fact that Gandersheim Abbey holds another piece of the same cloth indicates that the cloth was brought together with the casket at a date after the arrival of the reliquary in Saxony. If the casket already held Mary relics before leaving England, what was the role of the piece of Byzantine cloth? The answer is to be found in a 1909 article by Theodor von Grienberger (von Grienberger, Th (1909), ‘Drei westgermanische Runeninschriften. 3. Der Braunschwiger Reliquienschrein’ Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 41, 431-437). According to von Grienberger, the 1897 catalogue stated that the cloth relics were missing. He tells us that the museum director advised him in a letter that the piece of Byzantine cloth , which had been used as a cover for the relics, was subsequently located by museum staff.

The inscription contains the word ‘liin’, cloth, and the runic letters MU, which may stand for Maria Virgo, which are consistent with the story on the catalog entry. See my reading here.

The Base and Inscription

Although the brass base with the inscription is not part of the original casket, it seems unlikely to be a forgery. It is true that the necessary knowledge of runes and Old English was available on a limited scale in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Hickes’ Old English Grammar and Thesaurus containing inter alia a list of runes was published in 1705. The far superior Grammar by Rask was not published until 1817, but the knowledge on which it is based would have been in existence for some time before that. I set no great store by the supposed Anglian forms as a reason to rule out forgery (see Looijenga & Vennemann, p. 111), as they could just be spelling errors. But it is hard to imagine who would go to the trouble of forging a christian runic inscription on a reliquary at a late date. Cui prodest? It is therefore probably a copy.

If the runic inscription is a copy, it is almost certain from the positioning of the star runes that the original text was also arranged in a rectangle. This speaks against Marth’s suggestion that the original text was contained on a piece of parchment inside the casket. The original must also have been inscribed in something which lasted long enough to be legible to the late copyist, so in addition to parchment, it could have been ivory, metal or stone. Waxenberger’s suggestion of an interim copy of an inscription from an original base (Waxenberger 2003 p. 160) is possible, but might not be necessary.

As to why an earlier base might have had to be replaced, we get a clue from the piece by Zahlten (p. 139). In 1627, we find recorded at Gandersheim a ‘scrini[um] auro et ebore ornatum’ (casket embellished with gold and ivory) (p. 141), which could be the casket with an original golden base. We have records of sales of gold from the Gandersheim collection in 1627, 1697 and 1705. It is reasonable to speculate that the original base of the casket was in gold and this was replaced with a replica in brass to allow the gold to be sold. If this is right, there would be no need for an interim copy.

As it has been suggested that the casket may have originally rested in a recess (Pape p. 32), another possibility is that the inscription was in the stone of a recess. A copy would then have been made when it was moved from its original location, because the recess could not be removed. This is less likely, as it implies that the original Anglo-Saxon inscription was made on-site in Saxony.


In summary, the most likely scenario is as follows:

  • The casket was constructed in England, in the C8th or C9th, probably not originally as a reliquary
  • The casket was subsequently converted to a reliquary by adding a gold base with a runic inscription
  • The casket was used as a reliquary for two pieces of the Virgin Mary’s clothing
  • The casket with relics was gifted to a member of the Ottonian dynasty some time in the C10th
  • The casket was held at Gandersheim from an early date, probably earlier than the C12th
  • The casket has been in the possession of the museum in Braunschweig since 1815
  • The relics were missing from the casket in 1879
  • The relics were enclosed in a piece of C10th Byzantine silk
  • The inscription is a copy from an original rectangular gold base which was sold in the C17th or C18th

[1]Weight is added to this possibility and to the likelihood that the casket was already a reliquary at the time of the gift by a further interesting fact. It has been reported that Eadgyth’s half-brother, King Æthelstan, who gave her away to Otto, was “a connoisseur and avid collector of sacred relics”. [Finberg, H.P.R., ‘The Formation of England’, Granada 1976, p. 154]


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