The oldest runes ever found in Denmark have just been discovered by archeologists from the Museum Odense on the island of Funen, where the item had been buried for nearly 2,000 years. 

Runes from the Iron Age 

The runic inscription hirila, possibly meaning "small sword" in Primitive Norse, was scratched on the blade of a knife found beneath the remains of an urn grave at a small burial site east of Odense. It can be dated back to 150 CE. 

The knife will be on display at Møntergården in Odense starting from February 2. 

According to the museum director and archeologist Jakob Bonde: "It is a completely unique find of national significance. The runes on the knife are 800 years older than those on the Jelling stones." 

"It is a unique experience to hold something with such an ancient and fully existent written language. Holding such a find in our hands, we find ourselves face to face with prehistory." 

"A runic inscription is like finding a message from humans living in a distant past. It almost feels possible to hear their voices speaking. In addition, finding the knife with runes offers the museum a fantastic opportunity to link the past with the present." 

"The runes on the knife are written with the oldest runic alphabet known to us. For this reason, this new find provides us with important information for understanding and interpreting the very oldest use of writing in Denmark and northern Europe." 

The inscription consists of five runes, followed by three grooves. The text is interpreted as hirila, which in Primitive Norse can mean "small sword."

The archeologists at Museum Odense will never be entirely certain whether hirila is the name of the knife or its owner. Either way, it was clearly a treasured possession that, almost 2,000 years ago, ended up in a grave near Odense. 

The knife's runic inscription, comprising five runes and three grooves, represents a crucial piece of evidence in the study of early Northern European literacy. Photo: Courtesy of the Museum Odense

Denmark's earliest written language 

Runologist Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen stated: "It is incredibly rare for us to find runes that are as old as those on this knife." 

"This offers us a unique opportunity to gain more knowledge about Denmark's earliest written language – and thereby about the language actually spoken during the Iron Age." 

"In that historical era, proficiency in reading and writing was not particularly widespread. This meant that being able to read and write was connected to both special status and power." 

"In the early days of runic history, those able to write constituted a small intellectual elite, and the first traces of such people is to be found on Funen." 

Only once before have runes with the same dating as the "Small Sword" been found. 

This happened in 1865 when a small bone comb with the inscription harja was found in Vimosen, west of Odense, on the island of Funen. It could also be dated to 150 CE, and the comb can now be seen at the National Museum of Denmark. 

Jakob Bonde added: "It is spectacular that the oldest runes have been found within a few kilometers on Funen. It is too early to say whether there is a connection, but it shows how rarely archeologists make such finds." 

"One can justifiably say that the find of "Small Sword" is a once-in-a-century event." 

Visitors can view the remarkable knife with its ancient runes at Møntergården in Odense starting February 2, where it joins other artifacts from the same Iron Age burial site. Photo: Koburg / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

See the "Small Sword" at Møntergården 

Starting Friday, February 2, at 3 pm, you will have the opportunity to view the knife adorned with unique runes and other artifacts from the same burial site in Tietgenbyen at Møntergården in Odense. 

The exhibition includes several other significant artifacts from the same period, which are part of Møntergården's permanent collection. 

The "Small Sword" will remain on display until Sunday, April 7.

Location: Møntergården, Møntestraede 1, 5000 Odense C, Denmark.
Opening hours: Tue-Sun 10 am-4 pm.
Admission: Dkr 100, free admission for those under 17. 

In addition, the exhibition will be open on Monday, February 12th, featuring special activities for children. 

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