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Thousand-year-old messages carved in stone

Reading runic inscriptions is like travelling a thousand years back in time. Runestones give us the Vikings in their own words. What was the message they wanted to convey? What do they want to tell us? Runes intrigue us and entice us to try to understand the people and society of that time – and perhaps they can also help us to see our own time from another perspective. Rune researchers attempt not just to interpret the inscription itself but also to add a social dimension to our understanding of the words. How did people live and think a thousand years ago?

Henrik Williams

“We try to extract a message from runic texts that appear meagre at first sight, and it’s an incredible feeling being the first person to understand the message for a thousand years,” says Henrik Williams, one of the world’s leading runologists and Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, where there is a four hundred-year-old tradition of outstanding rune research.

More about runes: The Rune Blog

Contribute to rune research

There are nearly 7,000 known runestones and other runic inscriptions in the world. Old and recent finds await interpretation to reveal more about our shared history. More research is needed. What can we learn from our past?

Would you like to join us on our trip in time? Contribute to rune research! Even a small donation can promote progress in rune interpretation and support the joys of curiosity and discovery. A donation could also help to renovate more runestones and restore them to their original, artistic and colorful condition. A larger donation could provide a named chair at Uppsala University and help ensure future journeys back in time.

Donate

You can support Uppsala University as a private individual, a company or organization – and we appreciate every contribution, regardless of size.

Ways of giving

US tax payers can donate via American Friends of Uppsala University, making donations tax deductible.

Contact

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact Henrik Williams for scientific questions or Thomas Fredengren for questions about your donation.

Runestones – the social media of their day

Runestones are not just engraved texts. They are both our oldest public works of art and the multimedia of their day. The inscription is engraved in the ‘rune animal’, which coils around the stone to form a picture. The stone was chosen with care. It had to be flat and even, and able to withstand the ravages of time. Runestones were also placed with great care in the landscape, so as to be visible from a distance, often at some historical crossroads or meeting place.

“Runestones were a means of conveying a message and building a brand for the Church and Christianity. Their design and placement were incredibly effective. In this respect, runestones make you think of modern society where we’re surrounded by logos and messages,” says Williams. “Runestones are like an ad Facebook or a Twitter post.”

Runes in the United States

There are about 70 runestones in the United States, none of them from the Viking Age. They were all engraved later, after an interest in runes arose in the 19th century. 

Shawnee stone from Oklahoma with the inscription
mëdok. Photo H. Williams.

There are three types of runestones in the United States:

  • Stones with inscriptions or markings that are not actually runes, but other signs.
  • Modern runic inscriptions, often carved on special occasions.
  • Older runic inscriptions carved in the late 19th century.  

Some of the stones are attempts to imitate Viking Age runestones. Rune researchers have therefore developed various methods to establish when runes were carved. One well-known case is the Kensington Stone in Minnesota, where researchers have used a whole range of methods to determine that the stone was carved in the 19th century.

We know that the Vikings reached southern Canada but no authentic runic inscriptions have yet been found in North America. The finds made so far consist of dwelling places.  

It is not certain that the Vikings in North America made any runic inscriptions on stone. But of course runes can occur on wood or bone and perhaps we can hope for future North American discoveries of runes on organic material or metal.

The Runic Tour

In 2010, 2015 and 2016, Henrik Williams made month-long lecture and fundraising tours in the United States, from Maine in the north-east to Los Angeles in the south-west. Altogether, he has visited 16 states and Washington DC, given more than 50 lectures and taken part in around 90 other events. He also made shorter visits in 2013, 2014 and 2017, for lectures and other events.

In the fall of 2017, a dozen Americans with an interest in runes visited Uppsala University where they were treated to a three-day program, including a full-day excursion.
In spring 2018, Williams made another brief visit to the US to lecture and meet active and potential donors. Another trip is planned for the fall.

Read more: American Association for Runic Studies

Runes in brief

The comb, from Vimose in Denmark (CC BY-SA 3.0 ),
bears the inscription harja, a personal name.
  • Runes are simply written characters, like the letters of our alphabet. They were probably inspired by the Latin alphabet during the first century CE. See an example of runic characters.
  • The oldest known rune inscription, on a bone comb, is dated to 160 CE.
  • The lack of horizontal lines in runes suggests they were designed for carving in wood. Horizontal lines would have followed the grain of the wood, which would have made them difficult to read.
  • Runes mainly survive as inscriptions on stones, but they are also found on bone and wood, and on runic plates, which are small metallic plates of copper, bronze or lead with runes scratched into them. The runes on runestones were carved with a chisel.
  • There are nearly 7,000 known Viking Age runestones and other runic inscriptions in the world. Runic inscriptions have been found from southern Europe all the way up to Lapland and Russia, but the greatest number of finds have been made in central Sweden. Runestones were raised almost exclusively in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
  • Uppland is the part of Sweden that has most runestones and runic inscriptions. The youngest runestones are located primarily in Uppland and date from the 12th century. Approximately a third of the runestones in Uppland were ordered by women.
  • Only a few runestones have pagan symbols. Of two thousand runestones in central Sweden, two have a pagan symbol (a Thor’s hammer).