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„Þorbjǫrn the Skald Carved the Runes“

On the creation of a runestone

Carvers at work, Maastricht around 1180. Kastholm Hansen – Sandquist 2004: Fig. 10.

While browsing through academic publications, I accidentally came across an article that really interested me. Its title is „With Chisel or Pick Hammer : How were Runes carved?“ (Med mejsler eller pikhammer : Hvorledes blev runer ristet?) and was written by Danish archaeologist Ole Thirup Kastholm Hansen in collaboration with stonemason Erik Sandquist, who specializes in modern runestones (Kastholm Hansen – Sandquist 2004). The article is devoted to the tools that were used to carve rune stones, while the main conclusion of the work is that the production of inscriptions and other stone decorations were achieved by mallets and chisels, not pick hammers, as was believed until then. The article can be accessed via the button bellow:

At the same time, however, I would like to put this article into context, which requires a shorter comment. I have been dealing with the issue of runestones for a long time, it is one of my favorite topics, but I am afraid that a longer and detailed comment is not even within my capabilities, since we do not know much about the raising of runestones and the experimental knowledge is quite a new discipline. I can refer those interested in this topic to several solid works, e.g. Barnes 2012, Klos 2009, Sawyer 1998 and Sawyer 2000.

Carver Erik Sandquist consecrates the work.

Although Old Icelandic prose texts occasionally refer to memorial stones (bautasteinn brautarsteinn bautaðarsteinn) and runestones also name a variety of names like jarteiknkuml, hellamerki, minni, myndasteinnsteinnsteinkuml, steinmerki, their descriptions are not sufficient (complete list mention Haugen 2007):

(…) and to the memory of noble men let a mound be raised, and to those who have shown valour, memorial stone [bautasteinn] erected.“
(Ynglinga saga, ch. 8)

„Brothers Ǫlvir hnúfa and Eyvindr stayed on Sandnes for a while and let the dead warriors buried. To Þórólf’s body they gave all the customary honours paid at the burial of a man of wealth and renown, and set over him a memorial stone [bautasteinn].
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, ch. 22)

„There are tall memorial stones [bautasteinar] at the mound of Egill ullserkr.“
(Hákonar saga góða, ch. 27)

Due to the prevalence of the motif across Kings’ and Family sagas, I believe that erecting runestones was a matter of course for the Old Norse people, but it appears rather rarely in saga literature. From that reason, the best sources for studying this topic are the runestones and inscriptions themselves. It must be noted that runestones are the most formal group of runic inscriptions we know.

From the nature of the inscriptions, it is evident that there were two models for the formation of rune stones:

  • the clients, usually the bereaved, commission (referred to by the verbs láta and biðja, “to let” or “to request”) a craftsman to carve (berja/rísta/hǫggva) and colour/highlight () the stone. Making (gørva) or erecting (reisa/rétta/standa/setja) a runic monument that would preserve the name and reputation of an ancestor forever was certainly not something everyone could afford, as it was a relatively expensive affair financed by the immediate family of the deceased. We know about a hundred names of carvers, some of whom are signed several times on the stones. The record holder is the Swedish carver Œpir, whose name appears on about fifty stones.

Véseti and Hálfdan had the stone cut in memory of Hólmi, their father, and Hólmfastr, their brother. Lífsteinn carved these runes.“ (Vs 29)

Stigr/Styggr made this monument in memory of Eyvindr, his son. He fell in the east with Eivísl. Víkingr and Grímulfr coloured.“ (Ög 8)

  • the client and the craftsman are the same person. This can be especially true for less expensive stones, stones built hastily or stones built for one’s own celebration (there are about twenty such stones, e.g. DR 212, U 164, U 1011). At the same time, it may simply indicate that the client was a skilled craftsman (see Sö 56, U 1011). It was certainly not enough to be merely a skilled artist, for assembling the runes in the correct sequence required a certain degree of literacy, as discussed in the Hávamál (stanza 144) and Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (ch. 74). It is assumed that the majority of the population was literate and mastered the runes (see Starý 2004: 141), but it is certainly no coincidence that on four Swedish stones the title “skald” appears together with the name of the carver (U 29, U 532, U 951, Vg 4). Period criteria required these formal monuments to contain carefully composed text and/or masterful decoration. It is not so surprising that Old Norse poetry, which is rich in metaphors, is often associated with the ornamental decoration of runestones – this connection was completely certainly present, since both activities were based on the same way of creative thinking and could be performed by a single artist. The runic inscriptions refer to such a quality as rýnn, “rune-skilled”.

I know Hásteinn and Hólmsteinn, the most rune-skilled [menn rýnasta] brothers in Middle Earth, placed many a stone and staff in memory of Freysteinn, their father.“ (Sö 56)

„Vígmundr had the stone cut in memory of himself, the most skillful of men. May God help Vígmundr the captain’s soul. Vígmundr and Áfríðr cut the landmark in memory of themselves while alive.“ (U 1011)

That man who is most rune-skilled [rúnstr] west of the sea carved these runes with that axe which Gaukr Trandilsson owned in the south of the country [south of Iceland].“ (Br Barnes20)

Erik Sandquist during the work.

The runic inscriptions DR 209 and DR 230 contain similar formulas that curse one who “destroys or drags away the stone in memory of someone else.” Dragging away in memory of someone else (ept annan draga) must be related to, among other things, that the memorial stones were stolen, because there was not enough suitable stone and it had to be painstakingly searched for and transported to the designated place:

„Hróðmundr erected this/these stone/s in memory of Hé-Gylfir, Bresi’s/Brísi’s son. And Bresi/Brísi was Lini’s son. And Lini was Unn’s son. And Unn was Ófeigr’s son. And Ófeigr was Þórir’s son. Gróa var Hé-Gylfir’s mother. […] And then Guðrún. Hróðmundr Hé-Gylfason coloured [fáði] these runes. We sought this stone in the north in Balasteinn. Gylfir acquired this land and then three estates in a northerly direction, and then Lønangr and then Feðrasjór.“ (Hs 14)

Jórunnr raised this stone in memory of who owned her [her husband], and she brought it out of Hringaríki, from Úlfey. And the picture-stone venerates them.“ (N 61)

„Veðraldi had the very great stone brought from its place out of Langgarn and with Arngerðr, they had this monument raised in memory of Sigtryggr, their son.“ (U 735)

Runestones quite often mention that they are in high-traffic locations – they were purposefully placed where people were expected to come into contact with them, read them and interpret them (ráða): „May the adept who is rune-skilled [rýnn] interpret those runes which Balli carved.” (U 729). We have reports of stones erected by roads (Hávamál 72, Sö 34, U 323, U 707 and U 838), by bridges (or directly in bridges, e.g. U 323; the long-debated connection with bridges is often mentioned), in assembly places (e.g. Sö 137, U 212, U 225), between estates (e.g. U 729), on mounds (e.g. DR 295–6) or death sites (N 413). Four inscriptions also state that the path to the stones had to be cleared“/eradicated“ (ryðja) (Sö 311, Sö 312, U 101, U 149). It is occasionally mentioned that a pole“ (stafr) was also made along with the stones – in some cases this expression refers to letters“, i.e. runes (e.g. Sm 16, DR 40), but in others (e.g. Sö 56 and U 226) this pole exactly corresponds to the description in Ibn Fadlan’s Risala (§ 92), according to which the Rusʹ drove a birch pole into the center of a freshly raised mound and carved the name of the deceased man and the name of the king. Quite possibly, these wooden poles were cheaper alternatives, but they had a limited lifespan (up to 100 years). Runic inscriptions indicate that in some cases both methods were used simultaneously.

Since the stones are referred to as merki (landmark“), it is quite possible that these memorial monuments also served as boundary stones between individual plots of land, or at least it is evident that the family claimed ownership of the land based on runestones – stone served as a legal proof of ownership of the client and all his descendants, who were able to list their origin up to the person mentioned on the stone (mounds and other prominent points in the landscape also had the same function):

„Erinvarðr had this stone raised in memory of his father Heggi, and his father Hæra, and his father Karl, and his father Hæra, and his father Þegn, and in memory of these five forefathers.“ (Sm 71; match with Hs 14)

„Bjǫrn Finnviðarson had this rock-slab cut in memory of Óleifr, his brother. He was betrayed at Finnheiðr. May God help his spirit. This estate is the allodial land [óðal] and family inheritance [ætterfi] of Finnviðr’s sons at Elgjastaðir.“ (U 130)

The term óðal is key here. In early Scandinavian legislation, it denoted a hereditary, indivisible and inalienable piece of land with a farm. Proving the right to an óðal (but also, for example, to a royal title) was done by listing the five male ancestors who owned the land (see Sm 71 and Hs 14). But that was not all:

„If someone made a claim to hereditary ancestral land (óðal) at the assembly in Guli, Norway, his claim had to be witnessed by at least three witnesses who themselves held hereditary ancestral land in the same district as the claimant and who had reached the age of at least twenty years at the time of their father’s death (a condition that ensured that the witnesses were educated by their fathers about property and power events from the recent and distant past of the district). After that, their testimony had to be corroborated by another witness who also held hereditary ancestral land in the district and had reached the age of fifteen before his father’s death.“ (Starý 2013: 88)

Not only lists of male ancestors, but virtually all family relationships, enumerated property and homesteads, and financial details (such as who inherited) have a legal character in runestone incriptions. In at least one case, a contract on land ownership has been preserved in a runic inscription (N 236). The power aspect of stones is clearly visible in stones erected for one’s own glory, for example the great Jelling stone is a prime example of the presentation of political achievements to date:

King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Þyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.“ (DR 42)

In runestones, sadness and respect of the bereaved are combined with a tendency to demonstrate wealth (by erecting a valuable stone) and the legal acceptance of inheritance, including the óðal, which provided an indisputable argument in case of land disputes. Perhaps this is also why the bereaved, through the inscriptions, condemn the removal or destruction of a stone (DR 81, DR 83, DR 230, DR 338, Vg 67), which practically means defiling the monument of the dead, dishonouring the family and at the same time destroys the evidence of land rights. Some stones explicitly mention that the carved runes have a “supporting” function, i.e. they have the power to sanctify the stone so that it will stand forever (eg DR 295, U Fv1984;257). The runes are meant to ensure that a person’s name does not disappear into the abyss of past and that the stone remains in its designated place. For the same reason, the formula “may Þórr hallow” (DR 110, DR 209, DR 220, Ög 136, Sö 140, Vg 150) is sometimes used.

Sassur placed this stone in memory of his brother Ásgautr who died on Gotland. May Þórr hallow these runes.“ (DR 220)

However, I would not like to make a generalization – explicit legal phrases rarely appear in runic inscriptions, and the question is whether we should automatically see them in other runic inscriptions, which could only celebrate a deceased relative. Certainly there are inscriptions in which the celebratory aspect is more apparent; these are especially stones erected for own sons, but not in all cases:

Úlfkell [?] and Arnkell and Gýi, they made the assembly-place here. No landmark will be more great, than the one the sons of Úlfr made in his memory; able lads in memory of their father. They raised stones and produced the pole and the great monuments. Gyríðr also cherished her husband: he will therefore be commemorated in weeping. Gunnarr cut the stone.“ (U 225226)

The question of the legal aspect of runestones is most eloquently outlined by the following statistics (Harrison – Svensson 2007: 196):

  • 94% of runestones are erected in memory of men
  • 90% of runestones speak of death at home, the remaining 10% of death abroad
  • only an eighth of the stones are erected exclusively by women
  • at least 10% of runestones were erected by a woman and a man at the same time

From a statistical point of view, the most commonly mentioned person is a householder who died at home and was most likely buried on his estates. The runestone on this archetypal householder is most often placed by his closest male relatives who were his legal heirs. So we see that behind the “sadness of memorial stones” there is a more or less explicit question of the heritage to which óðal belonged. Runic inscription N 29 illustratively states: „Finnr and Skopti, Váli’s sons, raised this stone when they divided their land.“ Birgit Sawyer (1998; 2000) shows that, shows that on the basis of statistical data obtained from runic inscriptions, differences in inheritance rights can be noted between individual regions. The stones are clear evidence that the past served to support the present and the future in asserting ownership claims, just as when Egill Skallagrímsson claimed an inheritance from his father-in-law Bjǫrn:

Egill began his cause thus: he asked the judges to give him lawful judgement in the suit between him and Ǫnundr. He then set forth what proofs he held of his claim on the property that had belonged to Bjǫrn Brynjólfsson. He said that Ásgerðr Bjarnadóttir, own wife of him Egill, was rightful heiress, born noble, of landed gentry, even of titled family further back. And he asked of the judges this, to adjudge to Ásgerðr half of Bjǫrn’s inheritance, whether land or chattels.
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, ch. 57)

Another work of Erik Sandquist.

I am afraid any further details will be speculation, partly based on the limits of the sources, partly due to my own ignorance – there are thousands of runic inscriptions and I admit I don not known them all. I believe that the article fulfilled the theoretical introduction to the study of this interesting type of source, which can be examined from different points of view – starting with the choice of stones and the way of engraving and ending with the informative value of the inscriptions.

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Ibn Fadlan : Risala = Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah. Trans. James E. Montgomery. In: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3, 2000, 1–25.

Snorri Sturluson : Hákonar saga góða = Saga Hákonar góða. Ed. Nils Lider, H.A.Haggson. In: Heimskringla Snorra Sturlusonar I, Uppsala 1870.

Snorri Sturluson : Ynglinga saga = Sága o Ynglinzích. In: Snorri Sturluson. Edda a Sága o Ynglinzích. Trans. Helena Kadečková, Praha 2003, 145–191.

Egils saga Skallagrímssonar = Saga o Egilovi, synu Skallagrímově. Trans. Karel Vrátný, Praha 1926.

Hávamál = Výroky Vysokého. In: Edda. Trans. Ladislav Heger, Praha 1962, 34–70.

Barnes, M. P. (2012). Runes: a Handbook, Woodbridge.

Harrison, Dick – Svensson, Kristina (2007). Vikingaliv, Värnamo.

Haugen, Susanne (2007). Från bautasten till bautastor: studier över fornvästnordiska bautasteinn och svenska ord bildade med bauta(-), Umeå.

Kastholm Hansen, O. T. – Sandquist, Erik (2004). Med mejsel eller pikhammer: Hvorledes blev runer ristet? In: Kuml 2004, 181–196

Klos, Lydia (2009). Runensteine in Schweden: Studien zu Aufstellungsort und Funktion, Berlin.

Sawyer, Birgit (1998). Viking age rune-Stones as a Source for legal history. In: Düwel, Klaus (ed.). Runinschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung, Berlin, 766–777.

Sawyer, Birgit (2000). The Viking-Age Rune-Stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia, Oxford.

Starý, Jiří (2004). Runové písmo. In: Souvislosti: Revue pro literaturu a kulturu 15/3, Praha, 138–154.

Starý, Jiří (2013). Zákonem nechť je budována zem: staroseverské zákony a zákoníky, Praha.

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