The discovery of an almost 2,000-year-old runestone in Norway caused researchers to rethink their knowledge of the runic alphabet, the oldest script known in Scandinavia. The stone has been dated to the period between 1 and 250 AD, making it the oldest dated runestone in the world by a good margin. Runic stones were often used as tombstones during the Viking Age.
Why is this stone so special? Researchers assumed that the earliest rune stones in Norway and Sweden appeared in the 4th and 5th centuries. But now it turns out that some runestones may be older than previously thought.
“We now know that people carved in stone as early as they carved in metal, and we have to reassess parts of what we think we know about the development of the runic line”, explains runic expert Magnus Källström from the Swedish National Heritage Board.
How did they find out? The archaeologists were able to put a date on the stone because it was found in a grave. “Runestones from the earliest periods are often very difficult to date because you rarely have anything other than the rune forms and the language to go by”, Källström says.
The stone reads (in runic script) ‘idiberug’. This could possibly be a reference to the person buried near the rune.
What does it actually mean? The discovery contradicts current beliefs about the development of runic script. “The E-rune found on the stone, which resembles a Latin M, was previously thought not to have appeared until after the year 400”, Källström points out. A similar rune was found on other rune stones, indicating that they also might be older than previously thought.
“The B rune with its four arcs instead of two is very strange. It has, as far as I can think of, no parallels, and it also appears to appear several times on the stone.”
What’s next? Källström: “Together with other sign forms, it may contribute to the discussion about the origin of the runes, but it is probably a bit too early to speculate. First, we must get a proper description and reading of the entire inscription.”
The discovery of this runestone challenges the previous assumptions about the origins and development of the runic alphabet. It suggests that the use of runes in Norway dates back much earlier than previously thought, and that the runic alphabet may have developed simultaneously with the use of other writing systems like the Latin alphabet.