Remnants of Scandinavia’s Viking past are scattered throughout the countryside of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Among the most intriguing are the stones covered in Viking runes that give a glimpse of the culture and society of the era.
According to the Swedish National Heritage Board, there are about 7,000 runic inscriptions in the world, of which roughly half are Viking Age runestones. Runestones were most commonly raised as memorials to deceased relatives and friends, but they were not burial markers. Instead they were often placed close to roads or other communication routes. The first runestones were raised in Sweden and Norway as early as the third or fourth century A.D., but most were raised during the later Viking period in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Runestones are the oldest existing original works of writing in Scandinavia. Originally they were written in a script consisting of 24 characters, known as the Elder Futhark (f-u-th-a-r-k being the sounds represented by the first six characters). Beginning in the early eighth century, this writing system was replaced by a revised alphabet, known as the Younger Futhark, with just 16 characters. Most of the runestones found in Scandinavia use the Younger Futhark. Although the standard version of this alphabet is the one typically used on runestones, there is also a variation of the Younger Futhark called short-twig runes that was used for everyday messages carved on wood.
Of the three Scandinavian countries, Sweden has by far the most runestones, with as many as 2,500 surviving to the present day (some estimates are even higher). The longest known runic inscription (nearly 800 characters) is found on Rökstenen (the Rök Stone) in Östergötland. Raised in the ninth century A.D., Rökstenen’s text begins: “In memory of Vämod stand these runes / But Varin wrote them, in memory of his dead son….” Runestones have been found all over southern and central Sweden, but the greatest concentration is in the area surrounding Lake Mälaren, with Uppland having the largest number, followed by Södermanland. Many runestones still stand where they were apparently originally raised, although others have been moved to new locations. There is even a runestone set in the foundation of a house at the intersection of Kåkbrinken and Prästgatan in Stockholm’s Old Town, the stone having been reused as building material in an age when its archaeological value was less recognized than it is today.
Denmark has about 250 runestones, including two stones raised at Jelling on the Jutland peninsula by Denmark’s first recognized king, Gorm the Old (reigned circa 936 to 958 A.D.), and his son and successor, Harald Bluetooth (reigned circa 958 to 986 A.D.). King Gorm’s stone honors his wife, Thyra, while the larger stone raised by King Harald not only stands as a memorial to his parents but also attests to the conversion of the Danish people to Christianity during Harald’s reign. The stones, along with the adjacent church and burial mounds at Jelling, are considered of such outstanding historical value that they have been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Norway has the fewest runestones, about 50 to 100 (some estimates are higher, depending on the criteria used). Among the most significant Norwegian runestones is the Kuli Stone displayed at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in Trondheim. This stone is unique in that its text includes the first known mention of Norway – “Nóregi” – as a country and also includes a reference to the establishment of Christianity in Norway. The stone was originally raised on the island of Kuløy near Kristiansund on the northwest coast of Norway. Brought to the museum in 1913, it was recently added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World list, which recognizes documents of international historic significance.
With the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia came the Latin alphabet used today, although runes continued to appear in many places, from church doors to everyday objects, through the Middle Ages (and even beyond in places such as Gotland and Dalarna). Examples of this can be seen in locations throughout Scandinavia.
Published April 3, 2013