Runes in Jarlshof?

Most of this blog is about Orkney, as this is the focus of my research, but obviously it is important to have a comparative perspective. Thus, I defied storm Ophelia last week and went on a boat trip to Shetland where I was lucky enough to have access to the runic objects Shetland museum holds and some additional potentially inscribed objects – big thanks to staff at Shetland Museum & Archives for supporting me!

The results of this trip will be written up in due course, but for this blog I want to focus on an exciting new discovery: Runes in Jarlshof! But are they all it seems?

I don’t think Jarlshof needs an introduction for Viking afficionados, it is the major Norse site in Shetland. An inscription there would be a major discovery – and, as we currently only know of seven Viking Age or medieval runic inscriptions from the archipelago, it would be a significant addition to the corpus.

I first heard about runes in Jarlshof from Historic Environment Scotland staff at the “Our Islands, Our Past” conference in Orkney in September, but they already cautioned that the runes might be modern. Nevertheless, as I was going to Shetland anyways, I felt this deserves further inspection. Before my Shetland trip, HES helpfully provided me with a description where to find the inscription because the site is too large to search for a small inscription on every stone slab.

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With a friend, I then managed to find the inscription. It is in the remaining structures of the Iron Age broch at the site, not in one of the Norse longhouses. Per se, this does not mean the runes have to be necessarily modern, but much of the broch site would have been filled by rubble during the Norse phases of the site.

The runes themselves are five faintly carved twig runes. Unfortunately, using the standard cipher code that is also common in Orkney, they do not make any lexical sense and result in something like “smlRn” or similar (some branches are difficult to discern, even holding a torch from different angles).

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The site is facing the sea and the sandstone there is very soft. So, on balance, could these runes have survived from the Viking Age or Middle Ages until now, having been exposed after excavation in the early 20th century but never detected before? I fear not, and after looking at all the evidence, I would class this as modern.

The inscription reminds me of some modern twig rune inscriptions in Neolithic tombs in Orkney, which also don’t appear to make any lexical sense, like for example Unstan and Cuween. There seems to be a trend of carving runes in freely accessible ancient monuments, which tells us more about modern perceptions about runes than about the past. (And I have to repeat my plea: Please, please do not carve new runes in ancient monuments!)

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Yours truly hard at work deciphering the code

So, to conclude: Yes, there is indeed a runic inscription in Jarlshof, and no, it is not Viking Age or medieval.

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