The runestones of Medelpad

I have been back from Sweden for a while now, but hadn’t got round to sorting through my runestone photos yet. The reason, though, is a good one – I just finished a first full draft of my PhD thesis. Now I’m getting round to looking through all the photos I took in Medelpad, and want to share some of the beautiful local runestones with you. I’m giving the signum for each stone, so those readers who are inclined to learn more about them, can look them up in the Scandinavian Runic Database or use the Swedish wikipedia – and the soon-to-be-published scholarly edition of the runic inscriptions of Medelpad, not to forget.

This is M 1, from Nolby:

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M 2, now next to the church at Njurunda, is sadly only a fragment. We spent quite a while there, discussing the name on it, because it could be both male or female.

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M 11 stands in the impressive grave field of Högom. As you can see, its edges are broken off, but luckily only to such an extent that almost the entire inscription remains readable.

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These two, M 4 and M 5, are now both found next to the churchyard fence in Attmarby. The smaller stone, now only a fragment, is M 4 – and could be the most northerly Invar-stone (discussing the fatal journey to the east by Ingvar the Far-Travelled) that is currently known.

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M 7, the fragment below, is built into the church wall at Tuna. Our lucky groups of field runologists was treated to some excellent organ music while inspecting the inscription.

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M 8 now stands at Sköle, the Hembygdsgård of Tuna commune. And yes, it has its own little roof. It also demonstrated that not all runestones were carved with equal aesthetic skill.

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These two, M 15 and M 16, now stand next to the church at Skön. Both rune animals’ heads on these are shown in the birds’ eye perspective, which makes these potentially some of the older runestones in the area.

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In addition, a report about the 2019 Gender and Medieval Studies Conference in Durham, which I co-authored with Dr Rebecca Merkelbach has been published in the current issue of Kyngervi Journal. It’s worth checking out the other contributions, too, if you have an interest in Norse culture: Kyngervi Journal

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A field trip to Sanday

Now that the Orcadian summer is as good as over, I am back in my office – and lo and behold, I have plenty of nice pictures to share showing my summerly exploits. I might have mentioned this before, but one of the best things about doing a PhD on runes in Orkney is the fieldwork.

Thus, one nice day in early summer, I jumped (or rather dragged my coffee-deprived self) on the early morning boat to Sandy, one of Orkney’s more northerly isles.

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It is an amazingly beautiful place, and, as you might have guessed, its name is derived from Old Norse and simply means “Sand island”. I must say, I have hardly ever seen a place with a more fitting toponym.

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However, I didn’t go there to enjoy the beach (mostly). In fact, Sanday has its very own runestone, or at least a fragment of it, Or 17 from the farm of Little Isegarth (some details can be found in Michael Barnes and Ray Page’s “The Scandinavian Runic Inscriptions of Britain”).

There are very few photos of it, and it is always best to see inscriptions with your own eyes. It is on permanent loan in the Sanday Heritage Centre from Orkney Museum. If you ever have an opportunity to travel to Sandy, you really should include the Centre in your planning, it is certainly worth the trip, and I’m saying that not just because of its runestone.

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It is a very interesting object, and I am glad that I got to examine it. After this, I had a close look at the landscape where it was found. This stone was discovered as part of a collapsed drystone dyke, clearly not its original location, but having seen the surrounding area, I have some ideas where it could have come from (no spoilers, you’ll have to read my PhD if you want to know more).

And in the end, my day of successful fieldwork in Sanday culminated in this view from the boat back to Kirkwall:

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Big thanks go to Emma Neave-Webb, the Sanday ranger, for arranging my visit and showing me around, and to Sanday Heritage Centre for making it possible for me to examine the inscription.

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.