World’s oldest dated runestone discovered in Norway — with a mysterious inscription


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Written by Amarachi Orie, CNN

Archeologists in Norway have discovered the world’s oldest dated runestone, featuring runic inscriptions from up to 2,000 years ago.

Researchers at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History found the stone while investigating a burial ground in the municipality of Hole in eastern Norway in fall 2021, according to the museum.

The stone has been named “Svingerudsteinen,” or “the Svingerud Stone,” after the site where it was found.

Burnt bones and charcoal from the cremation pit where it was discovered revealed that the writing was carved into the reddish-brown sandstone boulder, measuring about a foot in height and width, between 1 and 250 AD.

The runestone was found in a cremation pit in eastern Norway. Credit: Øivind Gulliksen/Museum of Cultural History

“Me and my colleagues at the Museum of Cultural History are very excited about this sensational find that makes us rewrite some chapters in the history of runic writing,” runologist Kristel Zilmer, Professor of Written Culture and Iconography at the museum, told CNN via email on Wednesday.

Zilmer investigated and interpreted the inscriptions on the stone while the archeologists determined its age by radiocarbon dating samples from the grave where it was found.

Radiocarbon dating revealed the stone dates to between 1 and 250 AD.

Radiocarbon dating revealed the stone dates to between 1 and 250 AD. Credit: Øivind Gulliksen/Museum of Cultural History

“It provides first clear evidence of the occurrence of rune-stones in Scandinavia in the first centuries AD, thanks to the possibilities we have had in this case to carry out radiocarbon dating of the grave in which the stone lay,” she added.

Ancient language

Runes are the oldest known form of writing in Scandinavia, and the alphabet was widely used from the beginning of the Common Era (CE) and throughout the Viking Age until the late Middle Ages, according to the university.

Scandinavia has several thousand runestones from the Viking Age — between 793 and 1066 AD — but there is less evidence of runes from earlier times.

Of the runestones found in Norway, only about 30 are believed to date from earlier than around 550 AD.

Svingerudsteinen is the only stone found by archeologists that dates to before 300 AD. It contains the first three letters of the runic alphabet — “f,” “u” and “th” — on one of its sides, according to the museum.

The stone features "unexpected" inscriptions.

The stone features “unexpected” inscriptions. Credit: Øivind Gulliksen/Museum of Cultural History

“Runestones with runes from the older futhark (the runic alphabet) are very rarely found in dateable, archaeological contexts and we understood that this had the potential to give us new knowledge about runes,” Steinar Solheim, archaeologist and excavation manager at the Museum of Cultural History, told CNN Wednesday. He said the discovery was “something unique.”

“This means that the rune-stone tradition is older, maybe even by a few hundred years, than we have previously assumed. But this also makes us wonder what else we may not have known about regarding the use of runic writing in the early Iron Age Scandinavian society,” Zilmer said.

Who is Idiberug?

The stone has a “very special appearance,” according to Zilmer, featuring an “unexpected” mixture of thinly incised, shallow runes, rune-like characters and other visual motifs. Some inscriptions are zigzag-shaped, while others form a grid pattern.

Eight runes on the front face of the stone spell “idiberug” when converted into Roman letters.

According to Zilmer, this could be the name of a woman called “Idibera,” it could be referring to a kin named “Idiberung,” or it could say, “for Idibera.”

Eight runes on the front face of the stone spell "idiberug" -- possibly a woman's name.

Eight runes on the front face of the stone spell “idiberug” — possibly a woman’s name. Credit: Øivind Gulliksen/Museum of Cultural History

Since the way of writing inscriptions varied a lot, and the language changed considerably over time, interpreting the messages is a challenging task and there is still a lot of research to be done, the museum said.

Zilmer said they are now working with a team of scholars on a joint academic publication, to be released this year, in which they will present their main findings.

The runestone will be on display at the museum from January 21 to February 26.



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