Engravings on 2,000-Year-Old Knife Might Be the Oldest Runes Ever Found in Denmark

The letters on the blade read “hirila,” which experts say may translate to “small sword”

Danish Knife
The three-inch blade is one of the earliest surviving examples of a runic inscription in Denmark. Rogvi N. Johansen / Museum Odense

Archaeologists have discovered a 2,000-year-old iron knife with engravings that could be the oldest runes ever identified in Denmark. The writing on the three-inch blade says hirila, which translates to “small sword” in Old Norse.

Jakob Bonde, a curator and archaeologist at the Museum Odense in Denmark who found the knife, initially didn’t realize it had any characters on it. Only after conservators cleaned it did he learn the artifact was special.

“It’s like getting a note from beyond, from the past. It’s an extraordinary find for us, and it says something about the development of the earliest Scandinavian language,” he tells the Guardian’s Miranda Bryant. “And for me personally, it’s fantastic to have made this discovery.”

Man holding the small knife
Archaeologists discovered the small knife at a gravesite near Odense. Rogvi N. Johansen / Museum Odense

Bonde found the knife at a burial site on the island of Funen, east of the city of Odense. He and his team say it could date to as early as 150 C.E.

“The knife itself is not remarkable,” Bonde tells the Agence France-Presse. “On the blade, there are five runes—which is extraordinary in itself—but the age of the runes is even more extraordinary because they actually are the oldest we have from Denmark. We don’t have any writing before this.”

According to the Museum Odense, the runes on this knife are about 800 years older than the famous Jelling runestones—one of which is so closely tied to Denmark’s founding it’s known as “Denmark’s birth certificate.”

Only one other known runic artifact exists that could rival the knife’s age. In 1865, archaeologists uncovered a small bone comb on Funen west of Odense with the word harjapossibly meaning “warrior” or “comb”—written on it. The ancient comb is on display at Denmark’s National Museum.

Lisbeth Imer, a runologist from the National Museum, is excited about the discovery, which could shed new light on early writing in Denmark.

“It is incredibly rare for us to find runes that are as old as those on this knife, and it offers a unique opportunity for us to gain more knowledge about Denmark’s earliest written language—and thereby about the language actually spoken during the Iron Age,” she says in a translated statement from the museum.

At the time, literacy was uncommon, so the ability to read and write was linked to a higher status, adds Imer. The owner of the knife may have been part of a “small intellectual elite.”

The knife, along with other artifacts from the site, will go on display at the Museum Odense on February 2.

“It is spectacular that the oldest runes have been found within a few kilometers on Funen," says Bonde in the statement. “It is too early to say if there is a connection or not, but it shows how rarely archaeologists make such finds."

He adds: “One can justifiably say that the find of ‘Small Sword’ is a once-in-a-century event.”

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