Some sources say that some runestones also have names of those who took part in pillaging.

The simplest definition of a runestone would be a raised stone with a runic inscription, but it can also mean and include inscriptions on boulders and bedrocks. 

Usually bright-colored when raised, containing names of those who passed away, most of them can be found on the territory of today's Sweden and the rest in Denmark and Norway. 

The biggest concentration of runestones is in the Swedish region of Uppland. This is also the area where the oldest runestones can be found, where they were raised in the 4th and 5th century AD, while those in Denmark were raised around the 8th to 9th century AD.

Runestones can be found in other parts of the world as well, where Vikings used to travel for trading, warfare, or pillaging, so they can be found in England – The Isle of Man with the largest number of runestones, around thirty.

They can also be found in Ireland, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Germany (the Schleswig area), and all the way to the Black Sea. The Berezanj runestone was found on the island of Berezanj, where the Dnieper river meets the Black Sea. This runestone was raised by the Varangian, a local name given to the Vikings. They most likely took part in the trading activities with the local population.

The coast of the Black Sea. Illustration: Konstantin Dyadyun / Unsplash

Blending of the old and the new

An event in the 10th century AD made runestones almost like a symbol of changing times ahead – King Harald Bluetooth got baptized, and in honor and loving memory of his parents, but also as an announcement, he ordered the making of a runestone with an inscription that he was the king of Denmark and Norway, and also the king "who made all Danes Christian."

The runestone was decorated with typical symbols from the old days; however, this particular runestone contains the oldest picture of Jesus (in Denmark). This established a kind of a trend that followed after this event – Viking clans tried to imitate King Harald and raised runestones decorated in this way. However, this trend lasted for a century and faded out after that.

The traces of those early Christian days can be found on many runestones throughout Sweden and Denmark. They contained words usually connected with the Christian imagery, such as "light and paradise." Also, many of them contained the message that the deceased person was "buried in their christening robes."

Terminology was another thing that changed – Valhalla, the mythical place of paradise in Norse mythology, was replaced by the Christian version of paradise. Thor, the god associated with lightning, thunder, and protection of mankind, was replaced by Saint Michael, patron saint of soldiers and leader of the army of Heaven.

Marking the territory and bringing the glory

The runestones had two main purposes – to mark the territory and keep a loving memory of those who passed away. 

There were also other purposes for which runestones were raised – to leave a trace after an important event or after construction was finished. 

Other included self-promotion, or promotion of one's children as being very successful, smart, or in any other way gifted and special.

The Isle of Man hosts a notable number of runestones. Illustration: Unsplash

Colors and decorations

Runestones were usually decorated with drawings depicting gods – the most popular one was Thor, the very powerful and almost almighty god whose strength and courage were never doubted or questioned. He was drawn in scenes fighting mythical creatures, such as the Midgard Serpent.

Odin, the ruler of Valhalla, was another god often depicted in different scenes where he faces challenges and attacks, always carrying one of his ravens on his shoulders. Another popular motive was Ragnarök – a kind of a Judgement Day in Norse mythology.

According to historical sources, runestones were colored with a range of earth-toned colors, such as red, copper, orange or brown. In some cases, colors were imported so that the runestones had more colors, like blue, green, or white.

When it comes to the preservation of runestones, they face some threats from nature, such as lichen that grows on them and whose tiny roots make the stone porous. Also, the influence of weather, such as rain and wind, has a long-term effect on them. 

The scientists who work on the preservation of runestones continuously try to find non-invasive yet effective ways to preserve these magnificent witnesses of Viking history.

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