Archaeologists Discover—and Start to Decode—Rare Medieval Runes

A white woman smiles and holds out the wooden slat, which is about the length of her hand and bears angular markings
Ingeborg Hornkjøl poses with a piece of wood inscribed with Nordic runes.  Tone Bergland / Courtesy of NIKU

Late last year, archaeologists in Norway made a pair of stunning discoveries only days apart, unearthing two rare sets of runes in separate sections of Oslo’s Medieval Park.

Solveig Thorkildsen and Ingeborg Hornkjøl of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) found the objects—a bone featuring a Norse inscription and a rune stick with both Latin and Norse text—during ongoing excavations at the site. According to a statement, the rune bone is the first of its kind found in Norway’s capital in more than 30 years.

The team was wrapping up work for the day when Thorkildsen spotted a large bone lying on the ground. “Look, there’s a rune letter!” she joked to her colleagues, per Google Translate.

When the researcher picked the bone up and turned it over, she was shocked to find that someone had, in fact, scratched 14 runes onto the object’s surface.

“My heart was pounding,” recalls Thorkildsen in the statement, per a translation by Anders Moen Kaste of Science Norway. “Finding runes was at the top of my wish list for this excavation.”As NIKU notes, the runes were likely carved onto the rib bone of a large horse or cow. Just 27 such bones have been identified in Oslo to date.

A piece of bone with runes carved into its surface
A medieval person carved runes on the surface of this bone, which was likely taken from the rib of a cow or horse. Jani Causevic / Courtesy of NIKU

A few days after Thorkildsen’s find, Hornkjøl made a similarly exciting discovery. While standing in a deep trench prone to filling with water, she noticed a piece of wood that had washed into the ditch. Like the recently recovered bone, the stick bore runes dated to the medieval era.

Together, the inscribed fragments amount to an unusual double find that will help researchers learn more about Oslo’s medieval residents. Though the items have yet to be studied in a laboratory, archaeologists have dated similar runes to between 1100 and 1350 C.E.

“Every new discovery of runes is important and teaches us more about what people in the Middle Ages were interested in and wanted to share with those around them,” says Kristel Zilmer, a runology expert at the University of Oslo, in the statement, per a translation by Heritage Daily. “These two rune finds are a reminder of the diversity of knowledge and interests of the people of that time.”

Zilmer’s preliminary analysis suggests that the wooden slat features runes on three of its four sides. The inscriptions include the Latin phrase manus Domine or Domini, which could be part of the prayer “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” (Medieval Christians often used runes to express simple prayers, the scholar tells Science Norway.)

A closer view of the wet wooden slat bearing Norse runes
Close-up view of the stick inscribed with Norse runes Tone Bergland / Courtesy of NIKU

The Norse name Bryngjerd also appears on the stick, perhaps indicating that a woman of that name used the runes to express her dedication to God.

Zilmer poses two theories about the meaning of the runes on the bone discovered by Thorkildsen. The object bears the Norse inscription basmarþærbæin—possibly a name or nickname, or, alternatively, a phrase meant to describe the bone itself.

Runology scholar Karen Langsholt Holmqvist tells Science Norway that runes are short pieces of text with highly context-dependent meanings. In medieval Norway, only the elite could read and write, but a broad segment of the population would have been familiar with common runes that referred to phrases, names and well-known texts.

December was an eventful month for researchers at the Medieval Park. Days before Thorkildsen’s and Hornkjøl’s finds, NIKU archaeologists unearthed a medieval carving of a person wearing a crown and holding a falcon. As Science Norway reported at the time, the three-inch-long carving was made from animal bone and may have served as the handle to a knife or tool. The figurine may be one of the oldest Scandinavian depictions of falconry, a hunting practice where birds of prey are trained to kill wild game.

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