The recent discovery of several Viking ship graves in Norway has lifted interest in Viking history to new heights. While there’s no doubting the fascinating discoveries being made, some truly remarkable Viking artifacts exist in plain sight throughout Scandinavia: runestones.
The region’s tradition of carving inscriptions into raised stones as a memorial began as early as the 4th century, but the vast majority of runestones still standing date from the 9th and 10th centuries, the latter years of the Viking Age. Scholars have attempted to translate many of the runic inscriptions, with varying degrees of success.
The runestone of Rök, Sweden, is one of the most popular attractions on Scandinavia’s burgeoning Viking tourist trail. Yet its origin story continues to mystify.
First-time visitors to the runestone outside Rök in a rural part of East Middle Sweden are often left speechless. The imposing five-ton carved stone has an almost alien-like appearance and is unlike any other archaeological find in the world.
Believed to date back to the early 9th century, the stone was raised and carved by a Viking struggling to cope with the death of his son. He channelled his emotions into carving this sprawling text, which consists of more than 700 runes spread across the stone’s five sides.
While several translations have been made, experts struggle to interpret the results. One recent study even claims part of the inscription tells of the community’s fears about a period of extended cold.
A team led by Per Holmberg, a professor of Swedish language at the University of Gothenburg, said that a series of 6th century volcanic eruptions plunged Sweden into a prolonged cold snap, killing as much as half the population. The new study claims that the runestone’s author could have been spooked by a series of events that occurred between the years 775 and 810. During that time, a solar storm, a very cold summer, and a near-total solar eclipse all took place, any of which could have been mistaken as an indicator of another extreme cold spell on its way.
The Jelling area of Denmark is synonymous with Viking history. The town’s 11th century stone church was built on the site of Harald Bluetooth’s wooden church from the 900s.
Two giant burial mounds provide the backdrop for these runestones, considered to be some of the most famous historical artifacts in Denmark as they contain the oldest written references to the country’s name.
The Jelling stones make up part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such have become one of Denmark’s most popular sights. The bigger stone was raised by Harald Bluetooth to honour his parents and celebrate his conquest of Denmark. The smaller, older stone is aid to have been raised by King Gorm the Old in memory of his wife, Thyra.
As with Viking burial ships, runestones are still being discovered to this day across Scandinavia. Very few have been found in Norway, yet in 2018 this remarkable find was made in Rakkestad, only a handful of miles away from the location of the Gjellestad ship.
However, unlike the burial ship and almost all the other runestones in Scandinavia, this one has been found to predate the Viking Age by as much as 400 years. So old is the Proto Norse language of the 35 runes that it took researchers at the University of Oslo to confirm that they were indeed original runes.
While Denmark and Norway to have a handful of runestones, the vast majority are located in Sweden. To the west of Swedish capital Stockholm, the Södermanland region alone is home to 450 known runic inscriptions.
Perhaps the most famous is the Stenkvista runestone near Stenkvita church. It is one of several runestones that reference Thor, but this one has a depiction of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
Another famous stone at Skåang is notable for two sets of inscriptions. The first is written with the oldest known runic alphabet and is believed to date to the 6th century. A second inscription was added during the Viking Age.
Elsewhere in the region, a runestone with tales of extensive warfare throughout western Europe stands more than three meters high in the large burial ground at Kungshållet in Kjula.
I was born in the U.K. but moved to Norway in 2011 and haven’t looked back. I run a website and podcast for fellow expats, authored the Moon Norway travel guidebook, help Norwegian companies with their English, and spend my free time touring the country to discover more about the people and places of this unique corner of the world. I write for Forbes with an outsider’s inside perspective on Norway & Scandinavia.