Hidden Histories

Undley Runes, Lakenheath

In 1981 on Undley Common near Lakenheath, a gold bracteate, a type of thin gold pendant was discovered in a grave. Its design was based on Roman coins struck for Constantine I between 324 and 330 A.D. [1] with the bracteate itself dated to 475 A.D. On its surface a runic inscription reads, from right to left ᚷ‍ᚫᚷ‍ᚩᚷ‍ᚫ ᛗᚫᚷᚫ ᛗᛖᛞᚢ g͡æg͡og͡æ mægæ medu that has been described as what ‘may be the earliest writing in the English language’ [2]. The runes, 42 visible (and 2 or possibly 3 hidden) hand‐stamped spear‐headed symbols are Anglo-Frisian, an Anglic, English and Scottish and Frisian variety of West Germanic languages where the Anglo-Frisian dialect changed the ‘a’ vowel sound to ‘æ.’ [3]. The bracteate was made in Schleswig-Holstein or southern Scandinavia before being brought to England by an Anglian settler [4].

Undley Bracteate © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The imagery on the bracteate across its 2.3 cm diameter depicts the profile of a helmeted head, a bearded youth [5] with two eight pointed stars and a ring dot, possibly the sun above a she-wolf, suckling Romulus and Remus, the mythical twin brothers and founders of Rome. The late Antique kings of the 5-6th Century claimed to be direct descendants of Woden / Odin, the truth seeking wandering shamanic god, in their genealogies, placing Caesar as Odin’s son [6] which all supported these kingly elites attempts in trying ‘to look Roman’ [7]. Odin’s endurance is tested in the mythical tale where he hung himself on the sacred World Tree Yggdrasill for nine days and nights suspended between the living and the dead in an entranced ordeal of endurance in order to receive the wisdom of the runes. Sacred trees had the potential to become portals to alternative realms is a widely held universal concept and a fundamental narrative in most shamanistic based societies, an important aspect of such visionary journeys [8].

Runes have names for mnemonic and/or symbolic purposes [9] and as well as being alphabetical letters, runes can be charms and constellations of concepts and were in use up until the 11th Century in Britain where their simple form continued to portray mystical symbolic and complex meanings, used for divination and talismanic magic [10]. Runes have been described as primal letters with their historical development beginning in the second or third Century, adapted from the Roman or Greek alphabet [11]. The word rune originates from words meaning ‘secret’ with runes themselves conveying multiple meanings, connecting us through their natural form to a time of the first forests of ancient Europe where symbols carried a signature of both symbol and sound [12].

The runic inscription on the bracteate may be read, as one might suspect given what we have just discovered, as having a variety of meanings. It may be is says ‘howling she-wolf’ and ‘reward to a relative’ [13] alluding to mead for the kinsmen. Another interpretation is that the bracteate reads ‘this she-wolf is a reward to a kinsman’ or that the meaning is more of a magical formula, like ‘abracadabra: to a kinsman this reward’ [14]. The word gægogæ appears to be some form of magical invocation or battle cry [15].


1. Briggs, D. (2014) An emphatic statement: Undley ‐ a gold bracteate and its message in fifth‐century AD East Anglia. Briggs in Sekunda (ed.), Wonders Lost and Found. A Book to Celebrate the Archaeological Work of Professor Michael Vickers. Monograph Series Akanthina, Gdańsk.

2. https://www.suffolkinstitute.org.uk/suffolk-s-story-11

3. Palmer, S.B. (2005). “Gægogæ Mægæ Medu”, in: What Planet is This?

4. British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1984-1101-1

5. Palmer, S.B. (2005). Ibid.

6. Owen, G.R. (1981).

7. Blair, J. (2018) Building Anglo-Saxon England.

8. Tolley, C. (2009) Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic. 2 vols. Helsinki

9. Looijenga, T. (2003) Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions.

10. Hussey, L.E. (1989) Northern European Shamanism: A Preliminary Reconstruction.

11/12. Berk, A. (2002) A Rune with view.

13. British Museum. Ibid.

14. Palmer, S.B. (2005). Ibid.

15.  Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undley_bracteate