During the fall of 2021, archaeologists excavating a grave in eastern Norway unearthed a block of red-tinged sandstone etched with spidery runes, an ancient system of writing used by Germanic peoples of northern Europe. This in itself was not unusual; thousands of stones with runic inscriptions, dating to the Viking period, have been found in Scandinavia alone. But the carvings on this particular stone were inscribed up to 2,000 years ago, making it “the oldest datable runestone in the world,” according to the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, which announced the find in a statement this week.
The artifact was discovered in a cremation pit near the lake of Tyrifjorden, in a region known for “monumental” archaeological finds like the famed Gjermundbu Viking helmet, says the museum. Radiocarbon dating of burnt bones and charcoal from the site allowed archaeologists to date the grave—and the runestone—to between 1 and 250 C.E. Older runes have been found on other artifacts, according to Jan M. Olsen of the Associated Press, but never on stone.
“This may be one of the first attempts to use runes in Norway and Scandinavia on stone,” Kristel Zilmer, a scholar of written culture and iconography at the University of Oslo, tells the publication, adding that the discovery represents “the most sensational thing that I, as an academic, have had.”
While archaeologists worked to date the contents of the grave, Zilmer was tasked with analyzing the mysterious scribbles on the stone’s surface. Runic writing can be an enigmatic field of study: Scholars agree that runes were influenced by an older writing system, but just which one, and when, remain the subject of academic debate. One theory posits that the runic alphabet—also known as “futhark,” after its first six sounds—was derived from the alphabet of the Etruscans in northern Italy. Another is that runes were born from the Latin alphabet, following commercial and cultural exchange between Germanic peoples and the Romans.
There are at least three varieties of runic script, which evolved over time and in different geographic regions. Additionally, explains the museum, “[t]he ways of writing older inscriptions varied considerably, and the language changed a lot between the time when [the newly discovered] runes were carved and the Viking Age and the Middle Ages.”
Zilmer, in other words, faced a considerable challenge in attempting to decipher the stone’s message. One section of the artifact is carved with the first three characters of the runic alphabet. Eight runes on the front of the stone spell “idiberug” when converted into Roman letters. This could refer to a woman named Idibera—with the inscription meaning “For Idibera”—or to the kin name Idiberung, says Zilmer in the museum’s statement. The stone is also etched with lines in a grid pattern and “small zigzag figures.”
“Not all inscriptions have a linguistic meaning,” says Zilmer. “It’s possible that someone has imitated, explored or played with the writing. Maybe someone was learning how to carve runes.”
Though the meaning of the stone’s text remains elusive, the new find promises to shed light on lingering questions about the early history of runic writing, including when the first runestones were made. Only 30 of the runestones previously found in Norway are believed to date to before 550 C.E. Before this latest discovery, none dated to earlier than 300 C.E.
“This means that the runestone tradition is older, maybe even by a few hundred years, than we have previously assumed,” Steinar Solheim, archaeologist and excavation manager at the museum, tells CNN’s Amarachi Orie. “But this also makes us wonder what else we may not have known about regarding the use of runic writing in the early Iron Age Scandinavian society.”
The runestone will be on display at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo from January 21 to February 26.