A new study has solved an intriguing historical mystery involving treasured Danish artifacts that are now more than 1,000 years old, having been made during Scandinavia’s Viking Age in the 10th century AD. Thanks to this fresh research by archaeologists affiliated with the National Museum of Copenhagen, it has been revealed that the ancient rune-inscribed rock slabs known as the Jelling Stones were carved by a runesmith known as Ravnunge-Tue, who was active creating stone monuments that celebrated the life of a popular Danish queen.
The large Jelling Stones can be found perched in front of a 900-year-old Christian church in the village of Jelling in western Denmark, at a spot they’ve occupied since the time they were created. The monumental stones contain carved human images and several sentences written in the ancient Germanic runic alphabet .
These writings reveal that the smaller of the two stones was erected by King Gorm the Old in honor of his late wife Queen Thyra , while the larger stone was installed by Gorm and Thyra’s son (and king of both Denmark and Norway) Harald Bluetooth sometime later in the 10th century. In the latter instance the messages on the standing stone paid tribute to the memory of Harald’s parents, but also referenced his accomplishments as king including his conversion of Denmark to Christianity.
3D scan of one of the Jelling Stones. ( National Museum of Denmark )
Tracing the “Fingerprints” of the Mysterious Runesmith of Jelling
While the age and origin of the Jelling Stones has never been in doubt, what had remained unknown until now was the identity of the runesmith or carver who had inscribed the heavy rocks with the messages and images they contained.
To identify this individual, the team of National Museum of Copenhagen archaeologists used 3D scanning technology to take detailed images of the runic markings on the Jelling Stones’ faces. What they were attempting to analyze were the physical characteristics of the carving tracks, which can function like fingerprints that are unique to the runesmith that made them.
During the Viking Age runesmiths were in heavy demand, being frequently called upon to carve messages on monuments that honored dead heroes and other important deceased figures, including kings and queens and other aristocrats. Since each of these professional stonemasons held their chisels at particular angles and swung their carving hammers with varying forces, a detailed analysis of their carving style makes it possible to link specific runic stones with the carvers who created them.
The Jelling Stones were closely studied by Danish archaeologists to conclude that they had been inscribed by the same individual. ( National Museum of Denmark )
3D Imagery Reveals Who Carved the Jelling Stones
After studying the 3D images of the two Jelling Stones closely, the Danish archaeologists were able to confirm that they’d been inscribed by the same individual. And most significantly, the identity of this runesmith was quickly discovered, because the same unique carved “fingerprints” had been found on another inscribed rock slab located approximately 19 miles (30 kilometers) to the southwest of Jelling, in the village of Vejen.
Known as the Laeborg Runestone, this particular monument actually names the artist who inscribed it. “Ravnunge-Tue carved these runes after Thyra, his queen,” it states matter-of-factly. This is the same man who carved the monuments found at the church in Jelling, as the new 3D scanning study has conclusively proved.
The references to Queen Thyra in all three of the now-matched stones had actually generated some controversy in the past. Researchers couldn’t be sure that the Thyra named by Ravnunge-Tue on the Laeborg Runestone was the same person mentioned in the Jelling Stone inscriptions. They suspected as much, but some experts objected to any definitive conclusions being drawn.
But the question is now settled: Ravnunge-Tue carved the inscriptions in all three stones, and did so in honor of the Queen Thyra who was married to Gorm the Old and gave birth to Harald Bluetooth, the person supposedly responsible for establishing Christianity as the official religion of Scandinavia.
“The discovery in itself is interesting because it can link another person to the Jelling dynasty, but it is especially interesting because the realization brings with it another startling revelation,” said Lisbeth Imer, runologist and senior researcher at the National Museum of Copenhagen, in a statement translated from a video on the Museum’s website.
“It is an absolutely incredible discovery that we now know the name of the rune maker behind the Jelling Stone, but what makes the discovery even wilder is that we know Ravnunge-Tue’s boss. It is Queen Thyra from Jelling, i.e. Harald Blåtand’s mother, there can no longer be much doubt about that, and that puts the discovery in a completely different light.”
One of the Jelling Stones. ( National Museum Denmark )
Who Was Queen Thyra and Why Was She So Famous?
It is now clear that Queen Thyra must have been a highly revered figure in her time. As the spouse of Denmark’s first officially recognized king, her profile would have been quite large among 10th century Danes. There is evidence to suggest she may have led an army into battle against Germany at some point, which would have made her popular during the Viking Age when military exploits were widely celebrated by Scandinavians of all ranks and stations.
Thyra died a few years before Gorm the Old, possibly around the year 950. To honor her memory, the bereaved king ordered the creation and erection of the original Jelling Stone , which in its inscription referred to the deceased Queen as the “Pride of Denmark.”
Given the fact that Thyra was mentioned on four ancient runestones in total, which was more than any other figure from the Viking Age, she has to be considered an historically significant figure. To explore the mystery of who the legendary Queen Thyra really was, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) is sponsoring a new TV series entitled “ The Riddle of Thyra ,” which is currently streaming on the DR website.
Top image: Detail of one of the Jelling Stones. Source: National Museum Denmark
By Nathan Falde