12th century Viking Runes in Maeshowe
Maeshowe has the distinction of having one of the largest groups of runic inscriptions known in the world. Inscribed artefacts are common all over Scandinavia and the Norse colonies, with the earliest dating from about AD 200. The younger futhark was developed about AD 700 and was the form of runes used by the Vikings. Many inscriptions are on artefacts and tell who carved the runes while runic memorial stones are also common, often using existing boulders. These epitaphs often commemorate the exploits of the dead.
Few memorial stones have been found in Orkney, possibly because
of the nature of the stone. Fragments only remain of what must have
been a larger number. Graffiti writing has presumably been a popular
pastime for many years, but is usually regarded as a mess to be
cleared up, rather than something to marvel at. The Vikings left
much runic graffiti, but none have so far been as rich and interesting
as in Orkahaugr - the Norse name for Maeshowe. These runes
were carved in the 12th century and are a development of the characters
used by the earlier Vikings.
At Maeshowe there are about 30 inscriptions, many of which are of the style "Thorfinn wrote these runes". Some gave their father's name, or a nickname, some are by women and one intriguing inscription says "these runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes on the Western Ocean with the axe that killed Gaukr Trandkill's son in the South of Iceland" This rune carver may have been Thorhallr Asgrimssom, Captain of Earl Rognvald Kali's ship when they returned in 1153 from the Crusades.
Clearly the Vikings were interested in Maeshowe and left inscriptions on at least one other occasion, when stories about treasure were being told, as in "Haakon singlehanded bore treasures from this howe". Women were also discussed, as in "Ingigerd is the most beautiful of women" and "Ingibiorg the fair Widow", or "Many a woman has come stooping in here no matter how pompous a person she was".
Some of the runes are cryptic tree runes which are easily deciphered by a numeric code based on the futhark - the runic alphabet. Little could the Viking graffiti writers of 1153 have realised how interesting their runes would be today! In the magnificent setting of the 5,000 year-old tomb, the Viking visitors seem not so distant.