Runes: thousand-year-old messages carved in stone
Reading runic inscriptions is like travelling a thousand years back in time. 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 to add a social dimension to our understanding of the words. How did people live and think a thousand years ago? What can they tell us? Old and recent finds await interpretation to reveal more about our shared history.
Runology is the science of reading and interpreting runic texts, which are the earliest written culture in north-western Europe. The inscriptions are often the first original texts and sometimes the only written testimonies at all. Interpreting these thousand-year-old messages is the goal of runology. The research is highly important for many areas of historical scholarship. Runic material is unique as a written medium in an otherwise completely oral environment, which makes it very relevant for other areas of research. What is more, runic studies are topical, not least because of the great interest in the Viking Age, from which the inscriptions are the only contemporary documents. The political charge carried by runes and their use in modern cultural expressions all around the world also add to their significance.
There are nearly 7,000 inscriptions dating from the second century until the end of the Middle Ages, dispersed throughout Europe. Most of them occur in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and most of all in the Uppland region around Uppsala. Runes mainly survive as inscriptions on stones, but they are also found on bone, wood and metal.
In the popular mind, runic material is primarily associated with the Viking Age. In research terms, there are links to the history of religions, ethnology, art history, archaeology, medical history and other areas. Runes have been studied in Uppsala since the late 16th century. Runology at Uppsala University is a small discipline in terms of the number of researchers, yet it is world-leading and a node for all international runic research. More doctoral degrees in runology have been taken here than anywhere else in the world, and the subject is taught at Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD levels.
"Runic material is unique as a written medium in an otherwise completely oral environment, which makes it very relevant for other areas of research.”
Henrik Williams, Professor of Runology
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.
- Runes are simply written characters, like the letters of our alphabet. They were probably inspired by the Latin alphabet during the first century CE.
- 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).
There are about a hundred claimed runic objects 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.
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 2018 and 2019, Williams made brief visits to the US to lecture and meet active and potential donors.
Chair in Runology at Uppsala University
A new chair in runology was instituted at Uppsala University in 2021. This was celebrated with a ceremony on April 21, where Professor Henrik Williams gave the lecture ”From the Rök stone to the Mustang Mountains, Arizona – The Challenges of Runology”.