Holley Ledbetter ’12 arrived in Germany three weeks ago — just in time for the soccer country’s quadrennial immersion in World Cup mania. But hers is a passion of a different sort. A former medieval and Renaissance studies major with a master’s in art history, Ledbetter is investigating ancient runes.
She is completing a six-week internship supporting the international RuneS project, which deals with “runic writing in the Germanic languages.” The project focuses on the runic script as a writing system within its historic-cultural context.
“Essentially, the project traces the earliest sound changes of the English language,” Ledbetter explains. “By studying the runic inscriptions on objects, linguists can see sounds change as they were actually occurring in the language. What’s so cool about this is the fact that the pre-Old English and Old English speakers probably didn’t recognize these sound changes … It is the historical linguists of today that are able to work backwards using the Old English literary corpus to understand how new letters and sounds were introduced into the English alphabet.”
RuneS is funded by the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and based at the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, and includes research centers at the universities of Kiel, Göttingen, Eichstätt-Munich (Institute for English Philology) and Munich (Scandinavian Department). Ledbetter is working mostly on the campus of the Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt.
According to the project description, Old English runes and runic objects found in Great Britain have rarely been analyzed as a writing system with different socio-cultural functions. The runic script as a system, the researchers argue, “evolved in various ways over the centuries, fulfilling various communicative functions within the different historical societies it was used in.”
So how does one become involved in interpreting these ancient relics?
“I connected with the project through Mary Blockley, my Old English professor at the University of Texas at Austin,” Ledbetter says. “Mary knew of my interest in Old English and Old Norse runes and introduced me to Professors Gaby Waxenberger and Kerstin Kazzazi, the co-directors of the RuneS project.”
The project has been funded through 2025 and consists of three modules — editorial basics, runic graphematics, and text-pragmatic and functional aspects of writing. Currently, researchers are tackling the first module.
“The bulk of my work over the next month deals with the publication of the project’s first volume,” Ledbetter says. “The first volume details the corpus of both pre-Old English and Old English runic inscriptions [and] currently consists of 97 objects with runic inscriptions.”
With her interdisciplinary background and love of languages, Ledbetter is a great fit for the internship.
“Because of my M.A. in art history, Gaby and Kerstin have assigned me the task of selecting the images that will appear in the first volume,” she says. “I spend most of my day looking over hundreds of images of runic inscriptions — how cool is that? After I finish selecting the images, I will start proofreading the volume. The two scholars I am working with are both hardcore historical linguists, so they are less concerned with finding the perfect image and using art historical terms, which is where I come in. Though my Ph.D. will be in English, my M.A. is in art history, so I am in a unique position to help the project at its current stage.”
At Sweet Briar, Ledbetter majored not only in medieval and Renaissance studies, but also in classics with a language concentration in Latin and Greek, and her undergraduate research included trips to England, Spain, France and Turkey. After studying early medieval art at the University of Texas, Ledbetter received a full scholarship to conduct her doctoral research at Western Michigan University, where she’ll start this fall.
Ledbetter says she’ll continue to interweave her different research interests.
“My thesis, titled ‘A Clear Token: The Anglo-Saxon Tacen and the Medieval Donor’s Model,’ argued for a new reading of medieval donor portraits through a framework developed from Old English poetry and its different uses of the word taken,” she explains. “I crossed disciplines with this thesis, creating a committee from both art history and English professors at UT. I chose this topic because I saw it as a way to combine my interests in both literature and material culture. This project also created a nice sort of bridge for my shift into literary studies. My Ph.D. in English … will likely continue to involve objects, so in a way I will never really leave art history.”But for now, Ledbetter is — virtually — living in the past.
“This is a really exciting opportunity for any medievalist,” she says. “We all hear about runes when we study Old English and Old Norse, but never get the opportunity to take courses in runology. Runes and runology aren’t often formally taught in the United States — there’s usually no one to teach it. Most scholarly interest in runes is nurtured independently. Having the opportunity to study with professors Waxenberger and Kazzazi is huge for this reason alone.”
And in between deciphering runic script, she has been able to enjoy some of Germany’s culture, both past and present.
“When Germany beat Portugal the other night [in the World Cup group stage], all of the students got in their cars and drove up and down the street honking their horns. It was very cool to see so much excitement! And I am learning so much about Bavarian customs — just today I visited Burghausen, the longest castle in Europe.”