Runestones Reveal the Secrets of a Powerful Queen in Viking-Age Denmark

An analysis of the carvings on four runestones sheds new light on Queen Thyra’s influence

Jelling runestone with carvings
One of the Jelling runestones that mention Queen Thyra Roberto Fortuna / National Museum of Denmark

History generally remembers the Viking queen Thyra as the wife and mother of prominent Viking leaders. But new research suggests she had far more power and influence in 10th-century Denmark than previously thought.

In a study published this month in the journal Antiquity, researchers analyzed four runestones engraved with Thyra’s name. One runestone in particular refers to Thyra as Denmark's “strength” or “salvation.”

“The combination of the present analyses and the geographical distribution of the runestones indicates that Thyra was one of the key figures—or even the key figure—for the assembling of the Danish realm, in which she herself may have played an active part,” write the researchers.

Two of the four runestones were found in the town of Jelling, which was the royal seat of Viking-Age Denmark, while the others were located in the towns of Bække and Læborg. Using 3D-scanning techniques, the researchers concluded that all of these stones were made by the same person: the carver Ravnunge-Tue.

“You can follow the cutting rhythm of Ravnunge-Tue as one deep stroke of the chisel followed by two not so deep ones: DAK, dak-dak, DAK, dak-dak,” says lead author Lisbeth Imer, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, to CNN’s Mindy Weisberger. “It is almost like hearing the heartbeat of a person that lived so long ago.”

Previously, historians had debated whether the Thyra memorialized in Jelling was the same figure mentioned on the other runestones. Now, knowing that the same craftsman carved all four stones, the team determined that they all referred to the same person.

“To learn more about the rune-carver and those named on the stone is fascinating,” Katherine Cross, a historian of early medieval northern Europe who was not involved in the study, tells CNN. “We can only understand early medieval sources once we can think about who made them and why.”

Thyra was a member of a prominent Viking royal family during a pivotal time in Danish history. She was married to King Gorm, one of the first kings to reign over a united Denmark. Her son, King Harald Bluetooth, was a great warrior, unifier and Denmark’s first Christian king (whose name is now associated with the popular modern wireless technology).

During the Viking era, runestones were used to memorialize powerful leaders who had passed away. Crafters would carve commemorative words, paint the stones bright colors and display them in public spaces.

Denmark is home to only some 250 known runestones from the Viking Era. According to the study, fewer than ten runestones from the pre-Christian era memorialize women, and four of these are the stones that mention Thyra. What’s more, the Viking queen’s name appears on more known Danish runestones than any other individual’s—man or woman—including her husband and son.

“This means that Queen Thyra was far more important than we previously assumed,” says Imer in a statement. “This is extremely interesting when it comes to understanding the power structure and the genesis of Denmark as a nation.”

While Viking-Age Denmark was generally dominated by men, women may have held more power than historians previously thought, as Imer tells’s Becky Little. She adds: “So instead of talking about the Viking Age as a completely male-dominated society, we should include elite women, or women from royal families, in the powerful circles.”

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