Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden
Performing excavations in an area where new sewer lines are currently being installed, Swedish archaeologists have announced a remarkable and borderline miraculous find. While digging in half-frozen soil near the city of Ystad in December 2020 AD, they unearthed a large oblong-shaped runestone that featured an intricate carving of a powerful, ferocious wolf, which is known as Fenris (or Fenrir) in Norse mythology.
The discovery was shocking, in part because it was unexpected and in part because of what it represented. The rocky relic was quickly identified as one of the stones used to construct the Hunnestad Monument, a famous vertical and horizontal assemblage of image-bearing and inscribed runestones that had once stood just a few miles away, northwest of Ystad. The runestone had not been seen by anyone since the 18 th century AD, when the once magnificent Hunnestad Monument was destroyed by an unappreciative and uncomprehending landowner.
Archaeologist Axel Krogh Hansen at the statue that was found during the excavation in front of a sewer line. (Image: Annika Knarrstreöm / Arkeologerna)
How A Super Famous Runestone Became Part Of A Bridge
“It feels unbelievable, because it was a completely normal excavation monitoring,” exclaimed Axel Krogh Hansen , an archaeologist from Sweden’s National Historical Museums. “We found some porcelain fragments and bricks in the lower layers from the 18 th century, and I joked a bit with the others that ‘now we have to be a little careful so we do not get rune or image stone,’ and then suddenly we have a carved stone right in front of us.”
Incredibly, it seems that the newly recovered runestone was removed from the Hunnestad Monument and used as a foundation stone for a bridge constructed over a nearby river sometime in the distant past. This is the fourth stone (of the original eight) from the monument to be recovered; the other three are currently on display at the Kulturen Museum in Lund, where the new stone may soon be headed.
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“This is a fun, fantastic find, which we did not think would happen,” said Magnus Kallstrom, a rune expert from Sweden’s National Heritage Board. “This will give us a lot of new knowledge, in several areas, about art, religious history, and archaeology.”
The unique image stone has been missing since the 18th century. (Image: Annika Knarrström / Arkeologerna )
Reconstructing The Hunnestad Monument
Even though it was dismantled in the 18 th century, the Hunnestad Monument remains one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated Viking-era monuments. Its enduring status was assured by the intricate drawings of Ole Worm, a Danish explorer and lover of antiquities who visited the Hunnestad site in 1643.
The monument was constructed on an estate called Marsvinshome, which is located near the southern coast of Sweden, approximately seven miles (12 kilometers) from Ystad. Despite its location on Swedish territory, the estate was originally owned by Danish royalty and featured a magnificent castle (built in the 17 th century AD) that still stands to this day. The Hunnestad Monument appears to have been constructed sometime between the 10 th and 14 thcenturies AD, which means it had likely been standing for a few hundred years when it was sketched by Ole Worm.
The famous drawing of the Hunnestad Monument by Ole Worm (Ole Worm (1588-1654) / Public domain )
As revealed by Worm, the Hunnestad Monument was comprised of eight large, heavy stones in total. Five stood in a horizontal row, while three others were laid side-by-side on the ground before the standing stones. Five of the eight stones featured intricately carved images, and two of these also included runic inscriptions.
Tragically, the monument was dismantled by a Swedish count named Erik Ruuth in the 1780s AD, who owned the Marsvinshome estate at that time. The disposition of some of the stones remains a mystery even to this day, but fortunately three of the image stones (including the two inscribed with runic symbols) were found inside Marsvinshome Castle in 1814.
As the deciphered runic inscriptions make clear, the monument was constructed by two sons (Ásbjôrn and Tumi) of a man named Gunni Hand. Their purpose was to honor the memory of their fallen brothers, who were called Hróir and Leikfrøðr. Unfortunately, at some later date Tumi also passed away, and Ásbjôrn then inscribed and raised the eighth and final stone to memorialize him as well.
In keeping with the theme of honoring the dead, the three non-inscribed stones feature pictures of animals and animal-human hybrids. The imagery relates to important themes in Norse mythology, specifically to the process of transformation involved in completing the passage from earth to other realms, in the afterlife or elsewhere.
It was a common practice in Viking culture to honor the dead by raising inscribed stone monuments. This, of course, is not far removed from the modern practice of erecting engraved headstones above the resting places of those who have passed on. In this instance, however, there is no evidence to suggest that any of Gunni Hand’s sons were interred at this location.
Runestone DR283 from the Hunnestad Monument depicts what is likely a member of the Varangian Guard. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Varangian Guard Runestone
The most intriguing monument image was found on the stone inscribed in honor of Hróir and Leikfrøðr, which, likely, was the first stone put in place. The image features a man standing tall and proud, wearing a long coat and pointed helmet and wielding a sharp axe.
The garb and the weapon suggest this individual may have belonged to the Varangian Guard , an elite squad of bodyguards and soldiers who were attached to the Byzantine Army during the same timeframe in which the Hunnestad Monument was built. The Varangian Guard was comprised primarily of hired Viking mercenaries from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, who were sought after because of their reputation as fierce and indefatigable warriors.
Some Varangian Guard units were deployed exclusively to protect the reigning Byzantine emperor , while others were assigned battlefield duties during warfare. It was considered a high honor to be selected for and serve in the Varangian Guard, and the prestige was enhanced even more by the high pay associated with such a position.
Since no further details are provided in the Hunnestad inscriptions, it is impossible to ascertain the identity of the individual in the image. He may have represented one or both of Gunni Hand’s fallen sons, or perhaps he was Gunni Hand himself. Either way, the existence of the monument and its apparent connection to the Varangian Guard reveals the exalted status of the Hand family, who may very well have been descendants of Danish royal blood lines.
Runestone DR282 from the Hunnestad Monument, currently on display at Kulturen Museum, Sweden. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Final Piece Of The Puzzle?
As of now, only one of the original image stones from the Hunnestad Monument remains undiscovered (the three other stones were un-carved and un-inscribed and thus impossible to identify). Since this most recently recovered stone was salvaged for bridge construction, perhaps the missing image stone was taken for the same purpose. If so, continued excavations in the Ystad area may soon turn up another amazing find, which would allow archaeologists and historians to complete the Hunnestad Monument puzzle.
Top image: The incredible runestone that was used for a bridge foundation, which has been proven to be part of the famous Hunnestad Monument in southern Sweden. It depicts a powerful, ferocious wolf, which is known as Fenris (or Fenrir) in Norse mythology. Source: Annika Knarrström / Arkeologerna
By Nathan Falde