Estimated to date back 2,000 years, the world's oldest runestone was discovered in 2021 by archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, while excavating by the shores of Tyrifjorden at Svingerud. 

Since named the Svingerudsteinen, this rare find has been on display at the Historical Museum in Oslo, where it can still be seen until February 26.

Professor of Runology and Iconography, attached to the Department of Archaeology involved in the project, Kristel Zilmer, gives The Viking Herald an insight into the discovery and the nature of her fascinating work.

She also describes the "dark November day" when the stone was discovered – and what it takes to become a renowned runologist.

The Viking Herald: How does someone become a runologist, and how long have you been working in that capacity?

Kristel Zilmer: There are universities in Scandinavia and elsewhere that offer some general and advanced courses in runology. Different scholars may also find their way to the broader field of runic studies through other areas of interest, for example, historical linguistics, philology, epigraphy, history, and archaeology. 

In order to become a runologist, you need to acquire a combination of skills needed to work with inscriptions and inscribed objects (and their varying contexts). You build up gradual expertise by working with the material over the years. 

My own path towards becoming a runologist started in 1996 in Oslo when, as a young student of Scandinavian philology, I attended a course in runology taught by Terje Spurkland. 

This was followed by working with runology as my main area of academic interest through my Master's and PhD studies in Estonia. I have been working in Norway since 2008, first in Bergen and now since 2019 at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, where I am a Professor of Runology and Iconography at the Department of Archaeology, and in charge of the museum's Runic Archives.

Pictured is Professor of Runology and Iconography Kristel Zilmer, talking about the significance of the Svingerud runestone. Photo: Museum of Cultural History

TVH: How many digs had you been on before the one that turned up this particular runestone?

KZ: I am not an archaeologist myself, but I work together with archaeologists at our museum. 

The museum's archaeologists, led by project manager Associate Professor Steinar Solheim, found the stone during their ongoing excavations in Hole, eastern Norway, in November 2021. These took place in the historic district of Ringerike by Tyrifjorden in eastern Norway. 

After they discovered that there were inscriptions on the stone, they contacted me since I am the museum's runologist, and we started investigating the find together.

TVH: When it was discovered, was it obvious to those involved that this was something special?

KZ: As my colleagues described, when they first dug out the stone from a cremation pit that was part of the grave field they were working on, they checked the stone but did not notice anything particular right away. It was a dark November day, and the stone was wet and muddy. 

The excavation leader on site, Judyta Zawalska, decided to transport the stone back to the museum for further analysis, as it is a fine sample of red-brownish sandstone known from the district of Ringerike in Norway. 

Once they arrived in Oslo, and brought the stone into the museum, they discovered the inscriptions. Our work started, and when the first results of rounds of radiocarbon dating started coming in, we realized that this could be a very early runic find. 

From the runological point of view, it was also clear from the start that the stone was highly interesting due to its diverse inscriptions.

The rare find has attracted a significant number of curious visitors. Photo: Museum of Cultural History

TVH: What are any further implications of this discovery?

KZ: The find is especially significant due to its early dating. For the first time, we have evidence that runestones were already appearing in Scandinavia in the very first centuries of the first millennium. 

Previously, we had generally assumed that the earliest runestones were from around the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Furthermore, this stone provides incredibly interesting insight into the early runic writing tradition. 

For instance, some particular forms of runic characters that are present on the stone may reflect early attempts at writing. The stone also has multiple diverse inscriptions and other markings, which are an unexpected sight on stone. 

As an early runic find, this provides us with novel insight into the early history of runic writing and how runes could be used on the medium of stone. Archaeologists will find it interesting to discuss what this find may show about burial customs and related practices in the Roman Iron Age Scandinavian society.

Our research group is simultaneously working with academic articles, the archaeological excavation report, and 3D documentation of the stone, which will, in the future, be made accessible to all those interested. The publications will deal with matters concerning dating and context, as well as present and discuss the varied inscriptions on the stone in more detail.

TVH: Finds from the Viking and indeed, pre-Viking, era, of jewellery, parts of ships, and so on always make the news. What makes runestones particularly exciting?

KZ: Many people are fascinated with runes and runic inscriptions. Besides historical interest, we often see runes featured – with varying degrees of success and integrity – in different forms of popular culture. 

Runestones from the Viking Age are probably the most well-known, and they catch the attention of people thanks to their monumentality and an interesting display of tradition and individual creativity. 

This latest find, which is not from the Viking era but the Roman Iron Age, is extra fascinating, as its appearance does not remind one of your usual idea of a commemorative monument. It is covered in thin and shallow inscriptions. 

It does not make an immediate monumental impression but is very intricate visually and provides a glimpse into the creativity of the people of the past when using the medium of stone. 

The inscriptions, including the clearest one, are tricky and pose different interpretative challenges, as common with the oldest runic inscriptions.

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