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The stick discovered in Oslo featured runic writing in both Latin and Norse. (Jani Causevic / NIKU)

SCIENCE & TECH: Rare Runic Writing Unearthed in Norway

In December 2021, the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) announced that rare runic writing has been discovered in Oslo carved into the faces of a stick and a large animal bone. In fact, it’s the first time in 30 years that an inscribed bone has been discovered in Norway.

The stick and bone, carved with runic writing , were unearthed during excavations at the Medieval Park in Oslo, where only a few weeks ago Science Norway publicized the discovery of a unique handle illustrated with a king falcon hunting at the same site. On the NIKU website , archaeologist Solveig Thorkildsen, who found the large animal bone inscribed with runic writing, said his “heart was pounding” when he found the bone inscribed with runes on both sides.

The stick discovered in Oslo featured runic writing in both Latin and Norse. (Jani Causevic / NIKU)

Interpreting The Norse/Latin Runic Writing

According to NIKU, the so-called “Runic Bone” was made with the bone from a large horse or a cow, but further research is required to determine which animal it came from. Meanwhile, the “Runic stick,” inscribed on three sides in both Norse and Latin, was found by professor Ingeborg Hornkjøl in a deep waterlogged ditch. Dr. Hornkjøl said that when she laid her eyes on the runic writing she thought “this cannot be true, this is not true, it’s not true! But it was true!”

Dr. Kristel Zilmer is a professor of runology at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, and NIKU asked her to interpret the runes on both objects. The professor explained that the two interesting findings “expand our knowledge about runes, writing and written language in the towns of the Middle Ages.”

Runic writing discovered on a stick at the Medieval Park in Oslo. (Tone Bergland / NIKU)

Runic writing discovered on a stick at the Medieval Park in Oslo. (Tone Bergland / NIKU)

Identifying the Ancient Norse Runic Master

Dr. Zilmer told Science Norway that when runes are discovered they are most often very short pieces of text, usually comprising only “a few typical phrases and expressions that are repeated in many of the inscriptions.” Contrary to this, the researchers explained that the carved stick offers the archaeologists “a few possible keys for interpretation.”

It’s nevertheless important to keep in mind that the interpretation of runes is never easy, especially where the inscriptions are damaged, like in this case, where the artifact is described as “badly damaged,” according to Zilmer.

Notwithstanding, the female name “Bryngjerd” was found carved into the bone and the researchers suspect that she was the owner of the two runic artifacts. The Latin word basmarþærbæin also appears in runic writing , which Zilmer identified as possibly being Bryngjerd’s nickname. A line of runic text spelled out the word bæin, meaning “bone”, describing the object on which the runes were inscribed.

Archaeologist Solveig Thorkildsen with a bone inscribed in runic writing. (Cornelia Wiktoria Chiosea / NIKU)

Archaeologist Solveig Thorkildsen with a bone inscribed in runic writing. (Cornelia Wiktoria Chiosea / NIKU)

Ancient Whispers to the Beyond

Also inscribed on the runic stick the team uncovered the Latin words Domine/Domini (meaning lord, or God) and Manus (meaning hand.) Offering an origin for these words, the pair of archaeologists pointed towards the Biblical verse: manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum . This translates as “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” a line associated with Jesus before he was crucified. Professor Zilmer stated that the text on the shortest side of the stick may have been a continuation of this prayer.

Another runic word was also discovered which was translated to mean “it is true.” This probably referred to the aforementioned prayer. “This be true” also features on the Urnes stave church runes , which state “Hold thy sacred Lord hand over Brynjolvs spirit.”

The next stage of this project will be to try to accurately date the runes. It was the detailed hairstyle of the king that was found carved on the knife handle at this site in December 2021 that helped the archaeologists date the knife to the early Middle Ages. Dr. Kristel Zilmer explained that the Middle Age runic writing discovered on both a bone and a stick will now be subjected to the same close analysis as the knife, to see whether any details can help date of the two rare objects.

Top image: Archaeologist Ingeborg Hornkjøl unearthing an ancient stick with runic writing. Source: Tone Bergland / NIKU

By Ashley Cowie

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