The records of OE writing embrace a variety of matter: they are dated in different centuries, represent various local dialects, belong to diverse genres /'ʒɒnrəz/ and are written in different scripts .The earliest written records of English are inscriptions on hard material made in a special alphabet known as the runes. The word rune originally meant 'secret', 'mystery' and hence came to denote inscriptions believed to be magic. Later the word "rune" was applied to the characters used in writing these inscriptions.
There is no doubt that the art of runic writing was known to the Germanic tribes long before they came to Britain, since runic inscriptions have also been found in Scandinavia. The runes were used as letters, each symbol to indicate a separate sound. Besides, 63 a rune could also represent a word beginning with that sound and was called by that word, e.g. the rune denoting the sound [θ] and [ð] was called "thorn" and could stand for OE porn (NE thorn); the runes stood for [w] and [f ] and were called wynn ‘joy’ and feoh ‘cattle’ (NE fee).
In some inscriptions the runes were found arranged in a fixed order making a sort of alphabet. After the first six letters this alphabet is called futhark /'fu:θɑ:k/
The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic alphabet, not to be found in languages of other groups. The letters are angular; straight lines are preferred, curved lines avoided; this is due to the fact that runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, bone or wood. The shapes of some letters resemble those of Greek or Latin, others have not been traced to any known alphabet, and the order of the runes in the alphabet is certainly original. To this day the origin of the runes is a matter of conjecture.
The number of runes in different OG languages varied. As compared to continental, the number of runes in England was larger: new runes were added as new sounds appeared in English (from 28 to 33 runes in Britain against 16 or 24 on the continent).
Neither on the mainland nor in Britain were the runes ever used for everyday writing or for putting down poetry and prose works. Their main function was to make short inscriptions on objects, often to bestow / bɪ'stəu/ on them some special power or magic.
The two best known runic inscriptions in England are the earliest extant / ek'stænt/ OE written records. One of them is an inscription on a box called the "Franks Casket" /'kɑ:skɪt/, the other is a short text on a stone cross in Dumfriesshire near the village of Ruthwell known as the "Ruthwell Cross". Both records are in the Northumbrian dialect.
Agate /'ægət/ ring with runic inscription (1/1).
The Franks Casket was discovered in the early years of the 19th c. in France, and was presented to the British Museum by a British archeologist, A. W. Franks. The Casket is a small box made of whale bone; its four sides are carved: there are pictures in the centre and runic inscriptions around. The longest among them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket is made.
The Ruthwell Cross is a 15ft tall stone cross inscribed and ornamented on all sides. The principal inscription has been reconstructed into a passage from an OE religious poem, THE DREAM OF THE ROOD, which was also found in another version in a later manuscript.
Many runic inscriptions have been preserved on weapons, coins, 'amulets, tombstones, rings, various cross fragments. Some runic insertions occur in OE manuscripts written in Latin characters. The total number of runic inscriptions in OE is about forty; the last of them belong to the end of the OE period.