A 2,000-year-old rune stone found in Norway could be the oldest ever, and give a glimpse into ancient writing systems

• Researchers have found what they think is the oldest known example of runes. The writing, which is over 2,000 years-old, was found in Norway.

• This find contradicts the theories regarding runes being developed from the Roman alphabet.

The world's oldest runestone may have been found in Norway, dating back more than 2,000-years. It is covered in primitive runic writing, and it dates back to between 1 and 250-CE.

It is unique because it seems to be covered in scribbles, according to a press release from the University of Oslo announcing the findings. The stone, uncovered near a large grave field in eastern Norway in late 2021, can teach us about the origins of the runic forms of writing. The stone is covered with markings. A clear word is seen at the bottom; it shows runes spelling out the word "idiberug," a woman's name. Additionally, other fainter and less characteristic markings, can be seen elsewhere.

A commemorative stone or a rough draft

The stone sets itself apart with its mysterious etchings. "Some lines form a grid pattern and there are small zigzag figures and other interesting features. Not all inscriptions have a linguistic meaning," said Kristel Zilmer, a runologist and professor of written culture and iconography, in the press release.

These etchings are thought to have perhaps been a draft of the runes. This could mean the stone was used as a sort of draft to try-out the runes. "It's possible that someone has imitated, explored, or played with the writing; someone was learning how to carve runes," says Professor Zilmer. However, one word, that is clearly legible on the stone, could give the stone another meaning: the runes spelling-out "IDIBERUG” or idiberg

The bottom left are the IDIBRUG Runes, the upper right are the FUÞ Runes, the oldest known usage of the FUÞARK name for the Runic Alphabet... The marks at the upper-left are shown below ...
Some speculate that these marks are practice prior to carving the final Rune inscription...

It's difficult to know exactly what this means the runes are very primitive compared to those used by the Vikings. But this could be an early spelling of "For Idibera," which could mean the runestone was also meant to commemorate a woman or a family that was buried at the site, according to the press release. The runes also spell out IDIBERUG, which could be in commemoration of a woman. 

It's not clear when the runic—called the futhark—first came in to existence. Runes are the oldest form of writing in Norway. Though they are most commonly associated with the Vikings, who ruled Scandinavia from about 800 to 1100-CE, archaeologists know they were in use up until about 1350-CE. It' s argued when and how the writing started, though a shrinking minority believe runes to have been through early contact with the Roman empire. Scandinavians came into contact with Romans later than many European civilizations, around 400-CE. That's when—according to some theories—inspired by Latin writing, early Scandinavians might have started developing their own alphabet (which is how the same theory tries to explain the Germanic runes and which makes even less sense).

Only 30 runestones have been found dating around 500-CE. This newly-uncovered runestone, called Svingerudsteinen after the Svingerud site where it was found, is definitely the oldest. This is according to carbon dating done on the charcoal and samples from the cremation pit where the stone was found, which place the stone AD 300. By analyzing the stone, Zilmer thinks archaeologists can learn more about the early development of runic writing and how they have evolved over time.

In the last week of December five runic inscriptions were unearthed during excavation in Oslo's old town. One inscription is carved on bone and this is the first set of ancient runes found in Oslo in more than forty years. The second is carved on and contains a religious text in both Norse and Latin. The two runic inscriptions appeared shortly after the discovery of a decorated knife handle.

Interpreting runic inscriptions is not always a straightforward task. Inscriptions may be incomplete, and the reason for inscribing a particular text may remain for the most part unknown. Kristel Zilmer, professor of written culture (runology) and iconography at the University of Oslo, has looked at both inscriptions and produced an initial interpretation.

First bone with runic inscription found in Oslo in more than forty years

The first find is a of bone with thirteen runes on one side and a single rune on the other. The main inscription reads basmar bær bæin which can either relate to the name of a person who owned (i.e., used) the bone or can describe the type of bone," she says. the last four runes bæin (Old Norse bein which means "bone") refer to the bone itself. “But our understanding of the whole text on how we interpret the first part of the inscription," Zilmer informs. Basmarbær may contain the genitive form Mardar, which can be explained as the Scandinavian name Mår / Mård. To this, one has added the name element 'bas'. 'Bas' as the first element in names is unusual. However, something similar can found in a gravestone inscription from Skålvoll, as Bäts, which is genitive of the nickname Båtr, i.e., boat. If this is the case, then the text can mean Boat-Mård's

The reason for writing on the item was not necessarily to show ownership of it, but maybe Mård sat there with free time after eating a meal, and used the opportunity to turn the leftover dinner into a writing tablet?

The other interpretation is that the word is related to bås-maröartkin, meaning sheep-bone; Marör occurs in Old Norse as a peculiar poetic term for ram. The bone does not appear to be a sheep but rather from a horse or a cow. Is the misleading inscription meant to entertain Zilmer wonders. Short runic texts on bones have been found in other Norwegian and Scandinavian medieval towns, but this is the first found in Oslo in more than forty-years.

Runes carved in wood containing religious text in Norse and Latin

The second find is a flat of with inscription on three of its sides. The object is slightly damaged, but it is to see that the text combines religious texts in Latin and Old Norse.

On one side, we notice two words in Latin: Manus and Domine or Domini. Manus means "hand" and Dominus "lord”. This is part of a well-known Latin prayer formula: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum ("Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit"), known as Jesus' last words on the cross, says Zilmer.

The Old Norse text on the second side includes the name Bryngærör. On the third (narrow) side eight small runes can make sense either as a statement in Latin or a continuation of the text in Old Norse. In the latter case, this may the phrase "it is true".

A possible interpretation is that the inscription contains a short prayer telling the reader about Bryngærör who commended herself into the hands of God. Similar phrases are found in some church inscriptions from Norway and Gotland. The most interesting example is from Urnes Stave Church in Norway where the runic inscription in Old Norse says “May the holy Lord hold (His) hand over Brynjulffs spirit. May it be true.” This message is very reminiscent of the text carved onto the wooden object.

The bone may relate to the earliest period of settlement says Mark Oldham, project leader of the excavation. "We cannot yet say exactly how old these new rune finds are, but scientific tests will hopefully provide the answers," Oldham continues. Similar runic finds in Norway date to the period 1100-1350 CE, while some are older. It may be possible however, to date the texts by examining the spelling and use of certain characters. “The use of so-called dotted runes on the stick, as well as the distinction between a-rune and æ-rune are characteristic features of medieval runes," Zilmer says.

We already know of 85 loose-object runic inscriptions from medieval Oslo. In comparison, more than 680 similar discoveries have made in Bergen. The vast majority of rune finds have been made in connection with excavations, and in Oslo most of the known runic artefacts were found during the 1970s and 80s.

The bone and the wood fragment represent two main categories of rune-inscribed objects from medieval Norwegian towns. Each new find is unique and important in its own right and helps bring us closer to the deeds and words of medieval people.

Archaeologists have found the oldest known runestone in Olso, Norway during an archaeological dig near the Tyrifjorden lake.

Runestones are ancient stones with inscriptions, usually in the Norse language, that were erected in various parts of Scandinavia and the British Isles during the Viking Age. The discovery was made in 2021, when researchers that were excavating an ancient burial ground near the lake found it among one of the burial sites, according to Heritage Daily. The researchers found the stone at one of the burials where they also found cremated human bones, charcoal and runestone, dating back to the Iron Age.

What was on the runestone?

Carved into the stone are eight runes which have been interpreted as a name in a Proto-Germanic language, pre-dating Old Norse, which spelled Idibera or other variations of it. "The text possibly refers to a woman called Idibera and the inscription may mean 'For Idibera,'" Professor Kristel Zilmer from the Cultural History Museum, University of Oslo said. "Other possibilities are that Idiberug reproduces a name such as Idibergu/Idiberga, or perhaps the family name Idiberung." "The stone has several kinds of outlines. Some lines for a checkered pattern, there are small zigzag figures and other interesting things. Not all of the outlines make linguistic sense," he continued. "We may get the impression that someone has imitated, explored, or played with writing. Maybe someone was learning how to carve runes.

What is the history behind runes?

These stones serve as a window into the lives and beliefs of the people who created them. The earliest known runestone was made in Sweden in the early 8th century (CE). The inscriptions on this stone are believed to be a memorial for a man named Rokr and they are written in the Elder Futhark, the oldest form of the runic alphabet, according to the Museum of Cultural History site. However, this new find has dramatically changed this understanding.

Idiberug is the inscrutable word on Scandinavia's oldest runestone, etched in Norway nearly 2,000 years ago

Archaeologists in Norway said Tuesday that have found a runestone which they claim is the world's oldest, saying the inscriptions are up to 2,000-years-old and date back to the earliest days of the enigmatic history of runic writing. The flat, square block of brownish sandstone has carved scribbles, which may the earliest example of words recorded in writing in the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The museum said it was "among the oldest runic inscriptions ever found" and "the oldest datable runestone in the world."

Archaeologists Steiner Solheim and Kristel Zilmer at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo
The written Runes found on the ancient stone, with the discovery of a alternate or elder version of the Birkana Rune

This find will give us a lot of data about the use of runes in the early Iron Age. This may be one of the first attempts to use runes in Norway and on stone," said Kristel Zilmer, a professor at University of Oslo, of which the museum is part. Older runes have been found on other items, but not on stone. The earliest runic find is on a bone comb found in Denmark. Zilmer said that maybe the tip of knife or a needle was used to carve the runes. The runestone was discovered in the fall of 2021 during an excavation of a grave near Svingerud, west of Oslo, in a region known for several monumental archaeological finds. Items in the cremation pit—burnt bones and charcoal—indicate that the runes likely were between 1 and 250-CE. "We needed time to analyze and date the runestone," she said to explain why the finding was first announced on Tuesday.

Measuring 31-centimeters by 32-centimeters (12.2-inches by 12.6-inches), the stone has several types of inscriptions and not all make linguistic sense. Eight runes on the front of the stone read—which could be the name of a woman, a man or a family; Zilmer called the "the most sensational thing that I, as an academic, have had." There is still a lot of research to be done on the rock, dubbed the Svingerud stone after the site where it was found.

"Without doubt, we will obtain valuable knowledge about the early history of runic writing,” Zilmer said. The runestone will be exhibited for a month, starting on Jan. 21, at the Museum of Cultural History, which has Norway’s largest collection of historical artifacts, from the Stone Age to modern times.