On Saturday, January 21, the world's oldest runestone will be presented to the public for the first time. On view for five weeks at the Historical Museum in Oslo, the Svingerudsteinen is thought to date back to around the time of Christ. 

The stone was discovered in the autumn of 2021 by archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo while excavating by the shores of Tyrifjorden at Svingerud, northwest of Oslo. 

Radiocarbon dating of the charcoal and bone samples from the two cremation pits at the grave site later showed that the runestone originates from between the years 25 to 250.

Rewriting history

Other runestones found in Norway, some 30 in total, were scribbled around 550. Runes were an old Germanic alphabetic type of script that came into use in the first or second century. This is the only one so far unearthed in Norway to date back further than 300.

Until now, it has been thought that the custom of inscribing runestones in Norway and Sweden was prevalent from the third or fourth century.

The stone may have functioned as a memorial or a grave marker – perhaps a dedication or a gift to the deceased. The casual nature of its scribblings is, however, unique and surprising in comparison to other known inscribed stone memorials. 

A closeup of the Svingerudsteinen runestone. Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum Oslo

Upon discovery, the flat side with the most inscriptions was facing downwards toward the grave.

Eight runes near the lower left corner stand out on the flat face of the stone. Transliterated into Latin letters, the inscription says: idiberug. 

The b-rune in the inscription is peculiar, with four pockets instead of the usual two. Similar character shapes occur elsewhere on the stone, perhaps as imitations. 

This may be a woman's or a man's name. Due to its form and spelling, several interpretations are possible, while the bones found in the grave were of an adult of indeterminate sex.

Making sense of Svingerudsteinen

Some runes may have been omitted, or their order may have been changed. The text may refer to a woman called Idibera, in the dedication, "For Idibera." 

Alternatively, idiberug may render name forms such as Idibergu/Idiberga, or perhaps the kin name Idiberung.

The stone bears varied inscriptions and markings. Several incised lines form a grid pattern that runs through parts of the stone; there are tiny zigzag figures and other interesting motifs. 

Not all inscriptions make linguistic sense. It almost seems as though someone was practicing or even doodling. 

To the right, we see three larger characters that remind us of the runes for f, u, and þ, a 'th' sound in English. These are the first three runes of the runic alphabet, or futhark. To the left are two short lines of runes. Further study will show whether these convey an understandable message. 

The runestone will be presented to the public for the first time in late January. Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Museum Oslo

A row of around 20 runes is inscribed along one of the stone's narrow sides. When it lies with the flat side up, the runes on the side stand on their heads. Most can be read, but it is difficult to make sense of the inscription as a whole, which has a string of consonants but few vowels. Decoding will take some time. 

Stones with inscriptions in this older form of futhark are rare finds. The most recent discoveries in Norway came in 2017 and 2009, with other known finds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

In August and October 2022, the archaeologists were back at Svingerud and made some new finds with incised lines and traces of signs in similar Ringerike sandstone. Four fragments turned out to fit together. On two of them, another runic inscription is recorded, meaning there is more to be analyzed and assessed. 

For the time being, the Svingerudsteinen fragment of 31cm x 32 cm should create enormous interest in the weeks to come.

Historical Museum 
Fredriks gate 2, 0148 Oslo. Open Tue-Wed, Fri-Sun 11am-4pm, Thur 11am-8pm. Admission NOK 120, students/seniors NOK 90, under-18s free. Exhibition runs from Jan 21-Feb 26.

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