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Archaeologists find 'world's oldest runestone' in Norway

January 17, 2023

Researchers in Norway believe they have found the oldest runestone as yet discovered. They say the inscriptions are up to 2,000 years old and date back to the earliest days of runic writing.

Researchers inspect a runestone found at Tyrifjorden, Norway, at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Researchers say the inscription are up to 2,000 years old and date back to the earliest days of runic writingImage: Javad Parsa/AP Photo/picture alliance

Archaeologists in Norway on Tuesday said they had found a runestone which they believe is the world's oldest ever discovered. 

The flat, square block of sandstone has carved inscriptions which may be the earliest known example of words recorded in writing in Scandinavia, the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo said. 

It said the stone was "among the oldest runic inscriptions ever found" and "the oldest datable runestone in the world." 

Not the oldest known runes, but the oldest on stone

Older runes have been found on other items, but not on stone. The earliest known runic find is on a comb made of bone found in Denmark.

"This find will give us a lot of knowledge about the use of runes in the early Iron Age. This may be one of the first attempts to use runes in Norway and Scandinavia on stone," Kristel Zilmer, a professor at the University of Oslo, of which the museum is a part, told the Associated Press (AP). 

Kristel Zilmer, professor of written culture and iconography at the Museum of Cultural History, displays a runestone found at Tyrifjorden, Norway, on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Kristel Zilmer is professor of written culture and iconograhpy at the Museum of Cultural History in OsloImage: Javad Parsa/AP Photo/picture alliance

The runestone was discovered in the second half of 2021 during an excavation of a grave near Tyrifjord, to the west of Oslo. The area is renowned for a series of archaeological finds. 

"We needed time to analyze and date the runestone," Zilmer said.

According to the researchers, items in the cremation pit — such as burnt bones and charcoal — suggest that the runes were likely inscribed between A.D. 1 and 250. 

Speaking to Norwegian media, Zilmer said that until now, there had been a broad consensus that the first runes on stone might have been carved between the years A.D. 300 and 400.

Northern Lights photography

Northern European alphabet prior to Latin's spread

The stone measures roughly 31 by 32 centimeters (or around 1 square foot) and has several types of inscriptions, some of which do not have a clear meaning to the academics. 

Eight runes on the stone read "idiberug," which the archaeologists believe is likely the name of a man, woman, or family. 

Zilmer told AP the discovery was "the most sensational thing that I, as an academic, have had," saying there was still much more work that could be done to try to understand more about the object. 

The runestone found at Tyrifjorden, Norway, is shown at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Those runes that appear decipherable to archaeologists are thought to be a name; the stone was found in a burial siteImage: Javad Parsa/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Without doubt, we will obtain valuable knowledge about the early history of runic writing," she said. 

The stone will go on display for a month at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, starting on January 21. The building holds Norway's largest collection of historical artifacts, from the Stone Age through to modernity.

Runes were the characters in several Germanic alphabets prior to the advent of the Latin alphabet. The most common of these is also called futhark, after the first letters of the alphabet. To the same token, the word alphabet hails from alpha and beta — for a and b.

msh/wmr (AFP, AP, dpa)

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