Archaeologists in Norway have discovered what they claim is the world oldest runestone among the burnt bones of a 2,000-year-old cremation pit.
The flat block of reddish-brown sandstone has carved figures that could illuminate the “earliest days of the enigmatic history of runic writing,” according to the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.
“Having such a runic find fall into our lap is a unique experience and the dream of all runologists, Kristel Zilmer, a professor at Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, of which the museum is part, said in a statement. “For me, this is a highlight, because it is a unique find that differs from other preserved rune stones.”
The runestone was unearthed in 2021 during an excavation of a Roman Iron Age gravesite near Tyrifjord, outside of Oslo, in a region renowned for landmark archeological finds. Carbon dating other items in the pit — including human remains and charcoal — suggest that the runes were carved between 1 and 250 C.E..
Runic characters were used in various ancient Germanic languages across northern Europe before the Latin alphabet was generally adopted in the 1400s, after which it was reserved for special circumstances. The angular figures were recorded on a variety of surfaces, including bone, with the tip of a knife or needle.
Thousands of rune stones with inscriptions from the Viking Age have been found across Scandinavia, but only 30 or have been recovered in Norway that are believed to date back to the Roman Iron Age and Migration Period, which ended around 550 C.E. The slab found near Tyrifjord, since dubbed the Svingerudsteinen stone, is the first retrieved that may have been carved before 300 C.E.
There’s a lot of research ahead for the runologists attempting to unravel the stone’s linguistic meaning. It measures 12.2 inches by 12.6 inches and contains eight runes on the front that, when converted into Roman letters, spell “idiberug”. Zilmer said that the text could refer to a woman called Idibera, and the inscription means “for Idibera”.
“Some lines form a grid pattern and there are small zigzag figures and other interesting features. Not all inscriptions have a linguistic meaning. It’s possible that someone has imitated, explored, or played with the writing. Maybe someone was learning how to carve runes,” she added.
Starting on January 21, the Svingerudsteinen stone will be exhibited for a month at the Museum of Cultural History, which houses Norway’s most significant collection of artifacts from the Stone Age to the modern day.