Across Scandinavia, rune-stones dating mainly to the tenth and eleventh centuries are to be found as prominent survivors in the landscape in a variety of locations. Many are associated with Iron Age cemeteries, beside modern tracks and roads while many have been located (or relocated) to churchyards and within churches. As with Bronze-Age rock-art, the vast majority of these rune-stones are regularly re-painted for the benefit of tourists but also because they are an important part of the heritage, and hence the identities, of local inhabitants.
What is clear is that the convention is for painting them red. There is evidence that runes were indeed painted red from Viking written sources, as well as cases where inscribed stones retain their original pigmentation. However, the choice of red seems to relate to the cheap availability of red paint in post-medieval Sweden. Iron-rich red paint is a ubiquitous colouration of Swedish rural identity: the traditional colour for painting farmhouses, barns and other outbuildings.
I travelled widely around a selection of Sweden’s provinces in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009 and I was back in Sweden in 2011. During this time, I saw many hundreds of rune-stones, all painted RED.
There was, however, one exception, one of the last ones I saw on my 2009 tour. Incorporated into the fabric of a medieval church east of Linkoping, Ostergotland, was a fragment of Viking-Age rune-stone that was painted a different colour. Not red, but GREEN!
Why? What was the significance of this marked departure from Swedish heritage convention? Was there someone colour-blind or eccentric from the local community? Was it a deliberate attempt to make this local rune-stone appear different? What kind of heritage free-spirit might do something like this? Was this someone trying to deliberately mess with my mind? How dare they do this to me? My brain was in turmoil.
I then looked around at the lines of lamp-posts and the posts of the sign by the churchyard gate: green. In this instance, perhaps a prosaic and benign explanation was behind the rune-stones eccentric colouration: they had a lot of green paint to spare…