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.

Ingibiorg runic inscription 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.
Maeshowe dragon Crusader's cross
Runes developed as a simple way of carving letters into wood, bone or stone using a blade or similar implement. They represent most of the Latin alphabet as required by Old Norse. There are many variations in the runic alphabet, but most of the characters have Latin equivalents. Runes were used throughout the Germanic lands, but probably developed in Scandinavia.

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.

Maeshowe runes 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.



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