‘The dream stone of all runologists’ that can potentially provide clues to the origins of Western writing has been discovered in Norway. A runestone with inscriptions dating back to the earliest known days of runic writing – between 1,800 and 2,000 years ago is likely the oldest runestone found to date. This stone provides exciting new insights into the development and use of runic writing during the early Iron Age in Scandinavia.
The Dream of All Runologists
“Having such a runic find fall into our lap is a unique experience and the dream of all runologists. For me, this is a highlight, because it is a unique find that differs from other preserved runestones,” says runologist Kristel Zilmer, Professor of Written Culture and Iconography at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.
“This find will give us a lot of knowledge about the use of runes in the early Iron Age. This may be one of the first attempts to use runes in Norway and Scandinavia on stone,” she added.
Professor Zilmer has been working extensively at this site over the past year. She has worked extensively on investigating and interpreting the inscriptions on the runestone and was quoted in a detailed press release by the MCH, University of Oslo. She describes it as “the most sensational thing that I, as an academic, have had.”
The full runestone has a variety of runic inscriptions. (Alexis Pantos/KHM, UiO)
Discovering the Oldest Runestone
Named ‘Svingerudsteinen’ or ‘Svingerud Stone’ after the location it was found, the splendid discovery was made in the autumn of 2021, when the world’s oldest dated rune stone, carved by someone on a 31×32 cm (12.2×12.6 inches) block of reddish-brown Ringerike sandstone.
Archaeologists at the MCH, University of Oslo, had been investigating a grave field in Hole near Tyrifjorden, Eastern Norway.
Radiocarbon dating and other analysis performed on the age of the grave, burned bones, and charcoal date it to 1-250 AD. So the runestone is taken to be the same age.
Previously, the oldest confirmed examples of runes date from around 150 AD.
Professor Zilmer provided that the tip of a knife or needle was likely used to carve the runes.
Close up of one runic inscription on the oldest runestone found to date, believed to be 2,000 years old. (Alexis Pantos/KHM, UiO)
The Roman Connection: Development of Runes
This nascent time period of the Common Era, known as the Roman Iron Age, saw the Scandinavians or Norse come into contact with the Romans. This was primarily through trade and encounters with the notorious Roman legions . As in other phases of history, in all parts of the world, two different cultures and people coming together led to the birth of something new in the realms of tradition and customs, organization, and a written culture.
Like the foundational blocks of the modern alphabet across languages in Europe, the runic alphabets were inspired by the classical alphabets, like the Roman alphabet. From this, the Germanic people forged their own characters called runes, which was widely prevalent till the adoption of the Latin alphabet . Runes represented a sound value called a phenome, and a concept or concepts after which they were named called ideographs.
Rune characters dominated the Germanic alphabet prior to the introduction of Latin, the most common of which was called ‘ futhark’, after the first six letters of the alphabet – f u th a r k. In fact, the word alphabet hails from alpha and beta, i.e., ‘a’ and ‘b’. Runes remained in popular parlance through the Viking Ages, right up to the 1400s.
The Difficulties of Interpretation
According to a USA Today report, several thousand stones with runic inscriptions have been found in Scandinavia. Of these, only 30 rune stones have been found in Norway dating back to the Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period, up until 550 AD. This places the immensity of the Svingerud stone find in context.
Several types of inscriptions have been found on the stone without necessarily connoting a linguistic meaning, explained Professor Zilmer. There are eight runes on the front of the stone that, when converted to the Roman alphabet, read ‘idiberug’, potentially the name of a woman, man, or family.
“Some lines form a grid pattern and there are small zigzag figures and other interesting features,” Zilmer said. “It’s possible that someone has imitated, explored or played with the writing. Maybe someone was learning how to carve runes.”
It is important to keep in mind that the ways in which older inscriptions were written were different from the way the language evolved over time. By the time the Vikings were around, it was a very different alphabet in place, making interpretation very difficult.
“Without doubt, we will obtain valuable knowledge about the early history of runic writing,” confidently explained Professor Zilmer. She is certain there is a lot more to learn about the early history of runic writing and the custom of making rune stones. The current excavation area is historically and archaeologically rich, which also opens up the possibilities of even older rune stones being found.
The runestone will be exhibited for a month, starting on Jan. 21, at the Museum of Cultural History, which has Norway’s largest collection of historical artifacts, from the Stone Age to modern times.
Top image: The world’s oldest runestone, just found in Svingerud, Norway . Source: Alexis Pantos/KHM, UiO
By Sahir Pandey