Back in October of this year, an archaeologist from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) was able to identify a polished slate in the midst of mineral deposits, dating from circa 1050-1500 AD, in the historical Old Town of Oslo. And on closer inspection, this slate was found to be a whetstone with a runic inscription. Now for starters, a whetstone with runes is a pretty rare object in Norway, with only one previous specimen (dating from the Viking or medieval period) being discovered in the coastal town of Bergen. And rather complementing this scope of rarity, the archaeologists are perplexed by the still undeciphered runic inscription itself.
To that end, the researchers were able to discern the characters of the runes, which seem to appear as æ, r, k, n, a. However, in spite of this identification, they are not exactly sure what these characters in the particular order mean. Some NIKU researchers have hypothesized that they could possibly pertain to a person’s name, while others have conjectured that they could possibly mean something in a negative sense like ‘ugly’ or ‘scared’ or even ‘pain’.
In any case, the experts are more-or-less certain that this runic inscription was the work of an inexperienced carver, who either wanted to convey a rather insignificant word or phrase or botched up the name or moniker of a person. Relating to this possible scenario, the researchers wrote –
The findings contribute to the perception that the art of runic writing was relatively widespread in medieval Norway. But many writers would probably find themselves in a borderland, where they knew about writing, but were not literate. It is perhaps not that strange that we find some strange spellings and some mirrored runes. Just think how you yourself wrote when you were learning to write [according to Karen Holmqvist, a Ph.D. fellow at NIKU and a specialist in runes]. The medieval person behind this whetstone inscription probably belonged to this group. They knew about the runes, but probably mixed them up a bit.
Now interestingly enough, while we tend to associate runes with the Vikings, runic inscriptions and writings were also very popular in Scandinavia during the post-Viking age. One of the most pertinent examples relates to the Codex Runicus, the medieval manuscript dating from circa 1300 AD that comprises around 202 pages composed of runic characters. Known for its content of the Scanian Law (Skånske lov) – the oldest preserved Nordic provincial law, the codex is also touted to be one of the very rare specimens that have its runic texts found on vellum (parchment made from calfskin). And as opposed to Viking Age usage of runes, each of these ‘revivalist’ runes corresponds to the letters of the Latin Alphabet.
And lastly, reverting to the mysterious discovery in question here, the NIKU researchers have written a lengthy blog post that discusses their hypotheses regarding the possible meaning/s of the whetstone runic inscription. In case one is interested, they have also welcomed suggestions from the knowledgeable public.
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