Art Reviews, The Briefest Reviews
Leave a comment

The Briefest Art Review: Viking Graffiti

Viking inscription Hagia Sofia (Flickr / Vince Millet / CC BY-NC 2.0 (no change))

Halfdan travels to Constantinople during the Viking Age. He visits the Hagia Sofia and leaves his mark behind. Is he bored out of his mind? Is he feeling cheeky, or malicious? Does he do it secretly, or is he cheered on by his mates? What happens in the Hagia Sofia that he decides to make this inscription?

The Runic Inscription

The Hagia Sofia Halfdan walks in to, is the building that dates back to the sixth century. The original church, expanded and rebuilt into its sixth-century form, stands here as early as the fourth century. Its age will show or be felt in the stone walls and floors. (see Britannica).

Does Halfdan look around him in awe at this magnificent building? In any case, at one point he walks to the stairs and ends up on the top floor of the south gallery. Perhaps he leans against the balustrade, looking down. And then decides to carve deep lines into the marble.

The description on the glass plaque that covers the inscription now, dates the runes to the ninth century. Yet, the first researchers who discovered and studied these runes in the 1960s and 70s, date the inscription to the eleventh century. Elisabeth Svärdström deciphers the runes as the age-old one-liner: ‘Halvdan was here’. She notes the runes are mostly comparable with the 16-form alphabet known as Younger Futhark. Yet, she also sees elements of later medieval runes, too. Based on these observations, she carefully dates the inscription to the eleventh century (see Fornvännen Volume 65 (1970), pp. 247-249).

Who could Halfdan have been?

If the plaque is correct, and Halfdan lives in the ninth century, chances are he is an adventurer from northern Europe, passing through the city of gold on his travels. Has he come down the rivers of the eastern trade route? Is Constantinople his final destination, or will he travel onwards to Central Asia? So many questions and no answers.

Halfdan’s story is different if we assume he lives in the eleventh century. Perhaps he is a member of the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguard that many Scandinavians joined. For then he will have good reason to be in the Hagia Sofia. And if he is there around 1030-40, Harald Hardrada might have been his commander. That same Harald Hardrada later returns to Norway to claim the throne (see two fine articles on this topic on History Extra and Viking Archaeology Europe). It’s not a far stretch to imagine that Halfdan, who had the time and inclination to carve his name into the marble in the Hagia Sofia, might have been a member of Harald’s guard. But just as well, he might not have been.

Who knows… we only know he was there!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.