Perspectives – growing our knowledge

Researcher Profile: Henrik Williams

‘I try to extract the message from apparently minimal runic inscriptions and it is an unbelievable feeling to be the first person to understand the message for a thousand years’, says Henrik Williams. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Rune expert with an international audience

Henrik Williams is one of the world’s leading experts on runic inscriptions. He is probably better known abroad than in Sweden. He often attracts large audiences to his lectures outside Sweden where there is considerable interest in runes and Vikings. His audience in Sweden is smaller, not least in his home town of Uppsala.

‘I grew up in Kalmar and once on a school excursion I saw Karlevistenen, which is the finest of the runestones on the island of Öland. But it was the most boring object I’d ever seen,’ says Henrik Williams.

These days, Henrik Williams is a professor of Scandinavian languages and runes are among the areas he studies. He has not only provided new interpretations of runic inscriptions, but has also brought a social aspect to understanding the inscriptions. His research has combined established research traditions with modern linguistics. If you were to meet him today, around 40 years after his first encounter with Karlevistenen, it would not take long for him to make you feel love and wonder for runestones.

‘People are all very similar these days. You notice this when you travel. If you want to meet people who are different, you have to travel in time and this is the most exciting thing I can imagine. We cannot travel into the future yet but runic inscriptions are like travelling thousands of years back in time. Runestones were written by the Vikings in their own words. What do they want to say to us?

‘I try to extract the message from apparently minimal runic inscriptions and it is an unbelievable feeling to be the first person to understand the message for a thousand years. No runestone exists which I cannot talk about for hours,’ says Henrik Williams.

It was an American researcher who first sparked Henrik Williams’ interest in runes. He brought alive the various aspects of runestones. A runestone is not just an inscription; it is artistic – a multimedia artefact from that time in history. The inscription is engraved inside the runic animal which coils around the stone to form a picture. The stone has been chosen with care. It must be flat and even and be able to resist the ravages of time. The runestone is also placed with great care in the landscape. It is there to be seen and is often therefore to be found by historical crossroads and meeting places.

‘And don’t forget the names. We have boring names, you and I. We’re called Anders and Henrik. On runestones, there are 6,000 people mentioned by name and they’re exciting names which say something about the individuals. This is a treasury of names for which there should be greater appreciation. Blåkåre, for example, means one with black, curly hair. There are also nicknames such as Otvagen – “Uncleaned”.’

Runestones are also the first Christian documents in the Nordic countries and it was when Christianity arrived that the number of runestones shot up. This is not is so strange; the church needed a channel to spread their message.

‘Look at runestones. The church has its cross logotype displayed everywhere. Very effective. In this way, runestones remind us of contemporary society where we’re surrounded by logotypes and messages.’

‘A normal runestone is usually a kind of obituary and reminds us of a modern death notice. One major difference, however, is that in a death notice, the name of the deceased comes first; on a runestone the person who raised the stone is named first. Perhaps we’ve become less egotistical over the last 1,000 years,’ says Henrik Williams, laughing.

We know that Vikings reached northern Canada but so far no Viking-age runes have been found in North America. The finds that have been made relate to settlements.

‘It is not at all certain that they did any runic inscriptions on stones. One of the factors is the availability of suitable stones. There are, for example, no Viking-age runestones on Iceland. But there may also have been runes on wood or bone although inscriptions on wood have probably not survived. Perhaps we can hope for future North America discoveries of runes inscribed on bones.’

Henrik Williams’ upcoming project is a book about the approximately 70 runestones which are considered to exist in the USA. These runestones are not from the Viking age but are of a later date. They were engraved after an interest in runes arose in the 19th century.

‘There are three types of runestones in the USA. There are runestones with writing which is not in fact in runes but uses other characters.  There are also modern runes which have been carved for various special occasions and then there are old runestones created in the late 19th century.’

Some of the stones try to imitate Viking-age runestones, sometimes in an attempt at deception. Rune scientists have therefore developed a number of methods to determine when the runes were engraved. One well-known case is the Kensington Stone in Minnesota USA where scientists have applied various methods to work out that the stone was carved in the 19th century. There are exciting articles about the stone including the one on Wikipedia.

‘However, some of the methods we use we keep secret and don’t pass on to others. Otherwise it would be easier for people to produce good counterfeit stones,’ says Henrik Williams with a smile.

Anders Berndt

Facts – Henrik Williams

Born: 1958.
Title: Professor of Scandinavian Languages responsible for Old Swedish, Old Icelandic and runology.
Recent activity: He has been on a lecture tour in the USA in order to increase interest in runes and obtain resources for research. The primary aim is to modernise the rune database at Uppsala University and perhaps also to create a professorship in runology. The rune database is the largest one in the world and is a fantastic research tool.
Leisure: His small amount of leisure time is spent with old books and playing golf badly.
Cannot: Make a living as a rune carver. He has tried to carve actual runes using authentic Viking-age tools. ‘It is extremely difficult. As a rune carver, I would’ve starved to death.’
I care about: The way modern Sweden distances itself from its own history. ‘We have to accept our history and not let it be used for the wrong purposes, even if some of the things our forebears did were not exactly pleasant.’
For Uppsala and its tourists: Wants to paint a runestone in the university grounds in an authentic manner. ‘When you fill in the runes and paint the entire engraved area, the result is very attractive. The writing and the characters are highlighted in a fantastic way.’