The engraved whetstone found in Oslo, Norway. Credit: Karen Langsholt Holmqvist/NIKU

Puzzling Medieval Runes Found on Stone in Norway


A rare find of a stone bearing engravings of runes that date back to the Middle Ages has been unearthed recently at an excavation near Oslo. The relic is a whetstone which was a tool used for sharpening knives. Oddly, this one has some symbols cut into it which have been recognized as being runic.

Medieval Symbols Are From Runic Writing

The whetstone, which was found during earthworks ahead of a railway-construction project in Oslo, Norway, is of polished slate and has been carved with ancient runes, reports LiveScience. It is only the second object of its type to be found anywhere in Norway, the other being found in Bergen on the west coast. Uncovering any items with runic inscriptions is a rare occurrence according to a statement by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), where the keen eyed archaeologist who picked out the special stone is based.

The spot where the runic whetstone appeared. Image: Khalil Olsen Holmen, NIKU.

The spot where the runic whetstone appeared. Image: Khalil Olsen Holmen, NIKU.

It was recovered from an area of the excavation dating from between AD 1050-1500, a time when Vikings were still dominant in Norway, as LiveScience reports. The runic writing system was used widely in Europe by Germanic language speakers as early as AD 150 and even up to AD 1100, although throughout this time Europe was gradually adopting the Latin alphabet due to the spread of Christianity in the region. After this time use of runes continued but was limited to certain purposes.

Text known as Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes.

Text known as Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes. (Public Domain)

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD). These related runic writing systems were used not only to record or communicate but were thought to be used to cast spells too, due to the link to the Old Norse word rún meaning ‘secret’.

It is not known who might have engraved the runes on this stone or for what purpose. Runes have been found on cliffs and large rocks, gravestone inscriptions, religious or magic inscriptions, trade communications such as stock orders or excuses for late payment of bills and even personal or love letters. They have also been used as simple graffiti or to sign craftwork.

Deciphering the Script

The runes on this whetstone are believed to date to about 1000 years ago. Shortly after this time, pretty much all everyday use of the script was lost to the Latin replacement.

In a similar fashion to the Latin system, the individual runes were like letters and could be combined to spell words. These words were often not well separated and so interpretation was necessary. The words were sometimes separated by dots, but this rule was not always followed.

With this find, the archaeologists are uncertain of the translation but have make some steps towards an interpretation.

"On the whetstone, the runes 'æ, r, k, n, a' appear. But it is not easy to tell what they mean," the archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) said in their statement regarding the find. The runes could be an attempt to spell a person's name, or they could spell the word "scared," "ugly" or "pain," the archaeologists said.  

This figure illustrates the runes. The meaning in this sequence is unknown.

This figure illustrates the runes. The meaning in this sequence is unknown. Credit: NIKU

“This is probably an unsuccessful attempt to write a name or another rather trivial inscription, but we can see that this is hardly a trained rune carver”, says Karen Holmqvist, a Ph.D. fellow at NIKU and a specialist in runes. It is evident that the standard of proficiency of the writing of the runes here is low. It is thought that the number of people who could use the system was limited ie. runic literacy levels generally were pretty low.

"The findings contribute to the perception that the art of runic writing was relatively widespread in medieval Norway. But many writers would probably find themselves [with a level of knowledge] where they knew about writing, but were not literate," the archaeologists said in the statement.

The crude depiction of the runes and possible wrong ordering of the symbols has led to speculation that the rock could have been a learning tool upon which writing was being practiced.

“It is perhaps not that strange that we find some strange spellings and some mirrored runes.” commented Holmqvist about the standard of runic writing generally, “Just think how you yourself wrote when you were learning to write,” she proposed in the statement from NIKU.

In an attempt derive clarification on the meaning from the enigmatic though seemingly amateur inscription, the team wrote a blog post, in Norwegian, which shares their own finding of the discovery and asks members of the public to contribute their thoughts on what the runes on this stone mean.

Top image: The engraved whetstone found in Oslo, Norway. Credit: Karen Langsholt Holmqvist/NIKU

By Gary Manners

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