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Rune stone

Rune stone

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Image:Rune stone.jpg
A rune stone in Lund

Rune stones are stones with runic inscriptions dating from the early Middle Ages but are found to have been used most prominently during the Viking Age. Compared to western Europe, Scandinavia has poor written evidence for its early medieval history. It wasn’t until the twelfth century that their earliest law codes and histories were compiled. The only existing texts dating to earlier periods (besides a few finds of inscriptions on coins) were found amongst the Runic inscriptions, some of which were scratched onto pieces of wood or metal spearheads, but for the most part they have been found on actual stones.[1]

There are approximately 6,000 known rune stones in Scandinavia. Out of those discovered runes, 3,000 of them date from the tenth and eleventh centuries and have been found in Sweden. Some of them are found on the exposed rock surfaces of the fjords or simply erected in the center of parks or schoolyards. Most of these inscriptions carved into the rune stones announce the deaths of local people who lived and died in their home country. Approximately ten percent of the known rune stones announce the travels and tragic deaths of men abroad. These runic inscriptions coincide with certain Latin sources, such as the Annals of St. Bertin and the writings of Liudprand of Cremona which contain valuable information on Scandinavians/Rus who visited Byzantium.[2]

The inscriptions seldom provide solid historical evidence of events and identifiable people but instead offer insight into the development of language and poetry, kinship and habits of name-giving, settlement, place-names and communications, viking as well as trading expeditions, and, not least, the spread of Christianity.[3]Though the stones offer the Scandinavian historian his or her main resource of information concerning early scandinavian society, not much can be learned by studying the stones individually. The wealth of information that the stones provide can be found in the different movements and reasons for erecting the stones, in each region respectively.



The tradition of raising runestones probably evolved from the old tradition of raising menhirs in honour of a deceased during the Pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages. The tradition is both mentioned in the Heimskringla and Hávamál. The menhirs probably had painted inscriptions which disappeared over time, but they were later replaced by carvings that lasted longer.[1] Although the stones seem to overwhelmingly mark the passing of ones life into the next, one must not forget to place the raising of stones in their historical perspectives. For example, the majority of the 3,000 rune stones found in the region of Uppland in eastern Sweden have Christian references. One may ask why these particular christian rune stones are so prominent in this specific area and they will discover that the region near modern day Stockholm was one of the last pagan strongholds. It may sound strange to hear that Christian rune stones flourished in a predominantly pagan area, but it is important to take a step back and process the thought. The purpose for this abundance of christian reference placed amongst the rune stones was because of standard practice which stated that one must declare ones faith if it is different from the local majority. Since the majority of people in that area still held on to their pagan beginnings, the newly converted Christians made it a point to differentiate from the rest of the population. This case may also represent the intention to overwhelm the resistant pagans and make their Christian belief seem more prominent in order to switch that popular local faith. Rune stones were used for more than simply commemorating the dead. In the later years, erecting rune stones showed, for the most part, that the erector had money, education and even political power and influence. Keep in mind that education meant learned in the Latin religious texts.


Although runes were known throughout the Germanic-speaking world, they were used more broadly, more enthusiastically, and by more people in Scandinavia during the Viking Age than in any other time or place. By studying the different futhark used on the stones we can assume that the erecting of runes originated in the north and travelled south. In Denmark there aren't any rune stones which use the old 24 letter alphabet. Research shows that the "old norse" futhark had been used in areas north of southern Sweden. By the time the tradition for raising rune stones reached Denmark, the language had gone under a transition resulting in a simpler and easier 16 letter alphabet. Old Norse runic inscriptions have also been found in Haithabu in northern Germany, Russia, Greenland, northern Scotland, the Isle of Man, England, and Ireland, so the “runic inscription habit” followed the Norse wherever they went. For example, Runic inscriptions can be seen engraved into the floor of the famous mosque in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia. These inscriptions tell us that viking soldiers and customs had reached as far south east as Mediterranean.[4]

Long before their conversion to Christianity, Old Norse-speaking peoples, like other Germanic peoples, had their own mode of writing with its own distinctive alphabet –– the runic alphabet. Runes were hundreds of years old by the dawn of the Viking Age. Our earliest surviving runic inscriptions date to the second century AD. Although Latin literacy would eventually push out this system of writing, it had a long run after conversion, and hundreds of Viking Age rune stones contain Christian inscriptions.

Although probably rare, there are people who practice and master the art of carving runes even in the modern age.
Image:Kalle Dahlberg modern runestone.jpg
Modern runestone on Adelsö near Stockholm.


The largest of the image stones from the parish of Ardre, Gotland, ca 750 AD

Rune stones can be divided into several categories. One of the most widespread of these categories is rune-stone-as-memorial. Rune stones were often set up to commemorate the dead, and many of Scandinavia’s surviving rune stones served as memorials for people who had died far from home. Four will suffice to show the wide range of Norse activities related on rune stones: (1) “Ali had this stone put up in his own honor. He took Cnut’s danegeld in England. May God help his soul.” (2) “Tola had this stone set up in memory of her son Harold, Ingvaur’s companion. Like men, they went to seek gold, and in the east, they fed vultures, when they died in the land of the Arabs.” (3) “This mark of honor is made in the memory of Inga's sons. She has inherited after them, but brothers inherited after her, Gardar and his brothers. They died in Greece." And finally (4): “He bought this estate with the money he made in the east in the emporia of Russia.”

Another interesting class of rune stone is rune-stone-as-self promotion. Bragging was a virtue in Norse society, a habit in which the heroes of sagas often indulged, and is exemplified in rune stones of the time. Hundreds of people had stones carved with the purpose of advertising their own achievements or positive traits. Again, a few examples will suffice: (1) "Vigmund had this stone carved in memory of himself, the cleverest of men. May God help the soul of Vigmund, the ship captain. Vigmund and Åfrid carved this memorial while he lived." (U 1011) (2) “Östman Gudfast’s son made the bridge, and he Christianized Jämtland” (Frösö Runestone); or (3) “Eskill Skulkason had this stone raised to himself. Ever will stand this memorial which Eskill made;” and finally (4) “Jarlabanki had this stone put up in his own lifetime. And he made this causeway for his soul’s sake. And he owned the whole of Täby by himself. May God help his soul.”

Image:Ledbergsstenen 20041231.jpg
A composite image made from several sides of the Ledberg Runestone

Other rune stones, as evidenced in two of the previous three inscriptions, memorialize the pious acts of relatively new Christians. In these, we can see the kinds of good works people who could afford to commission rune stones undertook. Other inscriptions hint at religious beliefs. For example, one reads: “Ulvshattil and Gye and Une ordered this stone erected in memory of Ulv, their good father. He lived in Skolhamra. God and God's Mother save his spirit and soul, endow him with light and paradise.”

Although most rune stones were set up to perpetuate the memories of men, many speak of women, often represented as conscientious landowners and pious Christians (e.g., “Sigrid, Alrik’s mother, Orm’s daughter made this bridge for her husband, Holmgers, father of Sigoerd, for his soul”), as important members of extended families (e.g., “Mael-Lomchon and the daughter of Dubh-Gael, whom Agils had to wife, raised this cross in memory of Mael-Muire, his fostermother. It is better to leave a good fosterson than a bad son”), and as much-missed loved ones (e.g., “Gunnor, Thythrik’s daughter, made a bridge in memory of her daughter Astrid. She was the most skilful girl in Hadeland.”).

Rune stones that date to after the introduction of Christianity often include the Christian cross and use the younger futhark runes. But older stones are pagan Norse and use the older futhark. Their inscriptions are the oldest written texts created in the Nordic countries and some give a few clues about mythology and the society in Scandinavia before the conversion.

Several inscriptions include works of art; for example, the runes may be inscribed inside a serpent-like creature, and some stones ("image stones") found on Gotland contain artistic imagery without any runes.


Image:Upplands Runinskrift 871.jpg
The Upplandian Rune Inscription 871, now at Skansen, has been colorized to protect it from moss and the weather. Findings show that originally runestones were painted.

When the stones were carved, the runic letters were also painted, most commonly red (based on archaeological analysis), in order to be easily visible. Newly discovered stones often lack this coloring because of erosion, but caretakers nowadays make sure they are repainted and readable. It is probable that also the fields formed by the inscriptions were painted in contrasting colors (mainly abundant black, white, and brown) for a greater aesthetic effect. The surface colors naturally were exposed to a higher degree of weathering, and it has only fairly recently been proposed that this was a standard practice.

List of stones

Compare Megalithic Standing stones, Gaelic High crosses and Ogham inscriptions.

Image stones

Elder Futhark runestones

Younger Futhark runestones





District of Hälsingland
District of Medelpad
District Uppland
District Östergötland

American Rune Stones

The following rune stones, found in the United States, are all surrounded by controversy:

See also

A common problem when researching things Norse is that the spelling of names varies much depending on one's country of origin. In the articles presented here, several common forms of the names will be encountered. For more information see:


  1. Sawyer, Birgit. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 1
  2. Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. pg. 139
  3. Sawyer, Birgit. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Page 3
  4. Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. Great Britain: The Bath Press, 1995. pg. 105

External links


Template:NorseMythology Template:Runesda:Runesten de:Runenstein eo:Runŝtono fr:Pierre runique pl:Kamienie runiczne fi:Riimukivi sv:Runsten

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