Much of what we know about Viking society and the Vinland voyages comes from their written records. The Vikings had a system of writing letters called “runes” and “runic script”. To make long-lasting records, runic script was carved into metal, bones or rocks called runestones. From time to time, people claim to find runestones in North America. To know if they are evidence for Vinland or a hoax, we need to know what a real runestone from the period would look like.
The best known American runestone is one found in 1898 at Kensington, Minnesota. Compare its runes to the groups outlined in this section and see if you can find the time period in which it was carved.
Period AD c. 150-800
The first runic script is called the Old Futhark. It has 24 runes arranged in three groups with eight in each. Old Futhark inscriptions are written in either Old Germanic or Proto-Norse. The system was known among Germans. Dutch, English, and Goths, all of whom spoke Germanic languages.
Most of the known inscriptions are from Denmark. These include about 200 on memorial stones with a few on bone, and about 900 short inscriptions on bracteates, a type of medallion. Most inscriptions from this time are short, usually just a name or the term for the object on which it is written. A popular word is ALU, ale or what we could call beer, perhaps because of the drinking too much and getting drunk was thought to connect people to the spirit world. Some time after 550, the Old Futhark changes slightly and is shortened to 21 letters, hand in hand with language changes. The period 600 to 750 was a period of experimentation as Old Norse emerged as a language.
Also in this period, runes were used in what is now northwestern Germany, the Netherlands, and England. In the 8th century, as Scandinavians began speaking Old Norse, the futhark was shortened to 16 letters, and several letters changed in form. We call this the New Futhark. There are in fact several New Futharks, all of them simpler than the Old Futhark. Common for all of them is that in some cases, one rune stands for two sounds, possibly because their pronunciation was close to each other. Thus there is only one rune for E and I, for B and P, K and G, and T and D. At the end of the Viking Period, people began adding a dot or short stroke to indicate which sound was intended.
Most runestones were carved in this period, providing the best source for New Futhark inscriptions. There are about 2000 runestones from Sweden, 200 from Denmark, 60 from Norway, 30 from the Isle of Man in England, 7 in Scotland, 3 in Ireland, 2 in the Faeroes, and 2-3 in Danelaw, England. Usually they are memorials with a short statement as to who had the stone carved and in memory of whom. Runes were also used in daily life for messages carved in wood, wax tablets, and bark were also used for messages in daily life, but few of these have survived.
Most runestones are Christian memorial stones. A few commemorate a good deed such as the construction of a bridge, but most are in memory of someone who has died, possibly to establish inheritance rights. The inscriptions are usually upright and framed by a complicated and highly ornamental dragon coil. The carved runes were originally painted.
The worldwide roaming of the Vikings is reflected in their inscriptions, which often tell of someone who had visited and/or died abroad. There are runic inscriptions in Russia. Some of Vikings serving as mercenaries in the Varangian guard to the Emperor of Constantinople could not resist leaving their marks in foreign lands. In Hagia Sophia, the majestic Byzantine church in Constantinople, now a mosque, there are several runic graffiti. One contains the name ALFTAR (Halvdan), another ARI (Are) or ARNI (Arne). Another left an elaborate inscription, framed by an elegant dragon coil in the style normally used on runestones on an impressive statue of a lion guarding the harbour of Athens, Ponte Leone, in Greece. The lion is now in Venice, Italy where it was moved in 1687. The inscription is now too eroded to be read.
As people on the European continent replaced paganism with Christianity, they discarded runic writing in favour of Latin script, either in form of Carolingian or Insular English minuscules or Gothic bookhand. In Scandinavia, although Latin script became common for religious and official writings, runic writing lived on. As before, the futhark changed with time. Influenced by the Latin alphabet, new runes were added to the futhark so that there was one rune for each Latin letter, and the order of them became the same as the Latin alphabet. Beginning around 1020, the distinction between the various futharks became blurred, but writers mixed them in different ways from one region to another.
Runes were used extensively in vernacular transactions and among farmers and merchants. Inscriptions from this time are of all kinds, from short names on an object to business transactions and love poems. Most of them were carved on wood, but there are also inscriptions on church bells, baptismal fonts, on parchment and paper. Thanks to good preservation conditions 1400 inscriptions, mostly on wood, were found in the Norwegian town of Bergen. Among them are business transactions and about eighty merchants’ ownership labels. Others simply display the Futhark.
Sweden has about 900 inscriptions from this period, Denmark 325, Iceland 40, and Greenland 75. There are also a few from the Scottish Isles.
By the 16th century, Danes had largely stopped using runes, but the runic writing lived on in rural areas in Norway and Sweden, where they were used by otherwise illiterate people. There are about 350 such late inscriptions. In Sweden, special calendars based on runes were also in use from about 1200 well into the 20th century. Swedes in remote areas used runes until the 20th century. These late inscriptions have Latin letters mixed in with them, and the individual runes change significantly as well. During the thirty-year war 1618 to 1648 in Europe, in which Sweden was a major player, officers used runic script as a secret code when communicating on the continent. In the mid-19th century a special form of runes were developed for a similar use among itinerant tradesmen in the province of Dalarna in Sweden.
A special group of late runes is the product of 18th and 19th century romantic interest in national history. This movement became strong as an antiquarian society. The Gothic League was founded in Sweden in 1811. It tried to stimulate interest in runes and new runestone memorials were created to mark official occasions or just for personal satisfaction. In Iceland runes were frequently used on household items. Characteristic for these antiquarian stones is that they mix runes from the Old and New Futharks and sometimes add signs that are not runes.