Oldest runestone discovered in Norway

Inscription in runic alphabet on a stone discovered in 2021 in Norway, on a site radiocarbon dated between 1 and 250 AD.

What did he or she mean who, nearly two millennia ago, engraved a few characters in the runic alphabet on a block of red sandstone about thirty centimeters on a side, before burying it in a tomb located in the east of present-day Norway? The inscription will feed the discussions between specialists of the ancient runic, this writing adopted at the beginning of the Christian era by the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples.

The stone in question, baptized “Svingerud stone” in reference to the site in which it was discovered, in the fall of 2021, during archaeological excavations prior to the construction of a road, is the subject of an exhibition at the University of Oslo Museum of Cultural History. It is qualified by its discoverers as “oldest runestone”. Charcoal and bone samples from the cremation pit where she was unearthed are radiocarbon dated to between 25 and 250 AD.

“What is very exciting is that this discovery differs from other preserved runestones, and it offers the potential to rewrite the first chapter of runic lore, possibly older than previously thought”, says runologist Kristel Zilmer, professor of written culture and iconography at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. While Scandinavia has several thousand stones bearing runic inscriptions dating from the Viking era (793-1066), only about fifty of them date from before 550, and the Svingerud stone is the only one to have been discovered in an archaeological context offering a solid dating before the year 300.

Contact with the Roman Empire

The runic alphabet, in use until around 1400, was probably born from the contact of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples with the Roman Empire. It is inspired by the Latin alphabet while distinguishing itself from it. “It was initially essentially an epigraphic tool, engraved on stone or objects, and limited by the size of theserecalls Kristel Zilmer, even if in medieval Christian times, from the XIe century, it is found in manuscripts or correspondence. »

Some inscriptions combine the twenty-four characters of the old futhark, so named in reference to the first six letters of this alphabet, three of which are found on a portion of the new runestone: ᚠ (f), ᚢ (u) and ᚦ (th). This one also has zigzags, a grid shape, and marks that evoke “doodles, possibly made by someone learning to write runes”says Kristel Zilmer.

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