The world’s oldest rune stone is found at Tyrifjorden, Norway

The Svingerud Stone is estimated to be up to 2,000 years old

Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB
The world’s oldest rune stone will be on public display at the History Museum in Oslo Jan. 21 through Feb. 26.

Mette Estep

Once, up to 2,000 years ago, perhaps while Jesus was still alive, someone stood by the Tyri fjord and drew runic signs in early Norse on a boulder. In 2021, it was found.

The new rune stone is among Norway’s very oldest rune discoveries and the oldest dated rune stone. It has drawn international attention among linguists and archaeologists.

In total, only about 30 rune stones have been found in Norway that have been dated before the migration period, around the year 550. This is the only one that can be dated to before year 300. It may be so old that it was scribbled on in the year 1 and for sure before year 250.

“This has implications for what we have assumed about older rune use and how old the custom of erecting rune stones is. We have assumed that the earliest in today’s Norway and Sweden appeared in the 3rd-4th centuries, but now it turns out that some rune stones may be older than previously thought. For me, this is a highpoint, because this is also a unique find that differs from other preserved rune stones,” said runologist Kristel Zilmer, professor of runology and iconography at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo to NTB.

Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB
The discovery of the world’s oldest rune stone at Tyrifjorden means that we may have to reconsider our view of the history of Nordic written language and culture.

Adrenaline rush

Archaeologist Steinar Solheim was project manager for the excavation of the field of several graves at Svingerud in Hole municipality. In fall of 2021, they found the rune stone in one of the graves. Other material in the grave made radiocarbon dating possible. This shows that the grave, and thus the inscriptions on the stone, probably date from year 1–250.

“At first you become a bit speechless. Then you feel the adrenaline coming, when you know you have something so unique in your hands,” said Solheim.

The rune stone is named after the place where it was found. Svingerudsteinen – the Svingerud Stone – may have marked the grave site, or perhaps it was in the grave, as a memorial stone, dedication, or gift for a deceased person to take with them.

Analyzes showed that the buried person is an adult, but the gender is not known.

Who was Idiberug?

For a year, Zilmer has worked meticulously on examining and deciphering the signs on the rune stone. Writing styles in older inscriptions vary widely. The language changed a lot from the time these runes were carved until the Viking Age and the Middle Ages. It is therefore challenging to interpret the message on the stone.

“The carving on the Svingerud Stone includes a name inscription, spelled as “idiberug”, and in another place the beginning of the runic alphabet. The text possibly refers to a woman called Idibera, and the inscription may mean “For Idibera”. Other possibilities are that idiberug reproduces a name such as Idibergu/Idiberga, or perhaps the family name Idiberung,” said Zilmer.

“What is remarkable and different here is the nature of the carvings. It is a strange combination of thin, shallow, fine runic inscriptions, signs that resemble runes, and small drawings. Almost like little doodles, and in addition we see a clear grid pattern,” she said, and points out that this is not really something you expect to find on a memorial stone. It almost looks like someone has practiced writing.

While Zilmer was examining the Svingerud Stone, the archaeologists found several stones of the same rock types on Svingerud. Two of them contained runes, and the word “rune” is written on one.

Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB
The name inscription on the stone is spelled “idiberug”. The text possibly refers to a woman called Idibera, and the inscription may mean “For Idibera”.

Time for interpretation

There is still much research to be done. Zilmer is sure that, in the future, much more valuable knowledge will be obtained about the older history of runic writing and the custom of making rune stones.

“When we think of the use of stone as a medium, we often think of monuments. We have monumental memorial stones with deep and large runic inscriptions,” said Zilmer.

“The Svingerud Stone and how it is used can make you think of random writing surfaces, scribbling, almost tagging?”

“That is what is so fascinating about the find. It becomes a question of interpretation, because it is difficult to say what this meant for those who made the inscriptions. Was it just a memorial, or were the inscriptions just perhaps a bit of play with writing, without substantial symbolic meaning? We must ask whether there are parts of the very earliest runic tradition that we do not know existed.

“Different researchers will certainly have different opinions,” said Zilmer.

The Svingerud Stone will be on exhibit in the History Museum from Jan. 21 to Feb. 26 so that the public also get to see the world’s oldest rune stone.

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NTB (Norsk Telegrambyrå), the Norwegian News Agency, is a press agency and wire service that serves most of the largest Norwegian media outlets. The agency is located in Oslo and has bureaus in Brussels, Belgium, and Tromsø in northern Norway