The third and final Grosvenor Lunchtime Lecture on the theme Vikings, Death and Memory was presented on the theme of Christian Vikings: Rune-stones as Material Culture. Following two successful lectures, one on Viking Age mortuary practice and its violent components, one on stone sculpture during the Viking diaspora focusing on the interpretation of northern British hogback stones, this third lecture focused on rune-stones as a complex, evolving medium of commemoration from the Migration Period (5th to 6th centuries), through the Vendel period (6th to 8th centuries) to the Viking Age (late 8th to 11th centuries).
I am not an expert on the complex specialist interdisciplinary field of researching rune-inscribed monuments, but I did venture some thoughts on the subject at a keynote lecture earlier this year.
In this public lecture, I looked at rune-stones from an archaeological perspective, charting their origins and varied forms during the Migration Period and Vendel Period. For example, I discussed the seventh-century triad of stones from Bjorketorp, Blekinge, Sweden, with its inscription that presumes a memorial or funerary function to the monument and focuses exclusively on charging the monument with runic magical protection against those who might harm it. On the tallest of the three stones, on its inside face is inscribed: “I hid here the secret of mighty runes, potent runes. Whoever breaks this monument shall always be tormented by sorcery. Treacherous death shall strike him”. On the outside face is ‘I prophesy destruction’. I intend to inscribe the same runes on my biscuit barrel. Other early rune-stones do explicitly honour the text, but my point was that they were supplementary components within commemorative practices in which space and monumentality were as, if not more, important. Indeed, this theme persists well into the Christian era.
We then discussed a range of rune-stones as components in mortuary and commemorative rituals, some employing elaborate text, as with the famous Rok stone, from Ostergotland. Here, the text starts simply with ‘In memory of Vaemod, stand these runes. And Varin wrote them, the father in memory of his dead son’. Subsequently, runes and runic ciphers contain a complex set of allusions, sound-bites or teaser-trailers to a range of long epic myths and legends, perhaps elements of prolonged laments honouring the dead performed at the funeral and subsequently.
Others have simple texts, but the elaboration is in material and spatial terms. In this latter case, rune-stones are part of commemorative landscapes involving mounds, ship-settings and other architectures including assembly places and bridges. At Baekke, southern Jutland, I visited one such example in 2010: an early Viking Age runic inscription on a single upright stone at the prow (or stern) of a ship-setting orientated upon a burial mound.
In discussing the proliferation of Christian rune-stones, the royal mounds at Jelling are key. This pairing of massive burial mounds, set within a trapezoidal palisade and a vast ship-setting, had a pair of mid-late tenth-century rune-stones. The first was raised by King Gorm to honour his wify Thyre. The larger, second one, raised by his son Harald Bluetooth to commemorate his mother and father and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. These monuments seem to signal the beginnings of the rash of late Viking Age runic Christian commemoration spreading from Jutland across Scandinavia.
In discussing later Viking Age Christian (or Christianising) rune-stones, we addressed their variability and complex use of serpents, crosses and runes in combination. I focused on examples where the text and the archaeological context revealed their roles in complex commemorative practices involving trackways, boundaries, cemeteries and assembly places. For example, I looked at a series of Ostergotland rune-stones near Sjogestad where I was involved in a small excavation in 2006. Here, we seem to have rune-stones situated at their original location beside a track at the northern tip of an Iron Age cemetery. Commemorating those named but also linking to more distant ancestors, rune-stones like these were positioned to be visible by all those passing by as landmarks to engage the living and facilitate the commemoration of the dead.
I was delighted to receive a gift by way as thanks for my public lectures. A lady who had attended all three gave me a wonderful little teapot-for-one, with a ‘Viking’ ship on it: actually a depiction of a Norman craft from the Bayeux Tapestry. How kind.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the audience of the three lectures for their attention, pertinent questions and positive feedback. The first two lectures each attracted 50+ people, the third c. 40 people. Thanks also to the staff of the Grosvenor Museum for facilitating the public talks. I really appreciated the presence of Carla from Travellers through Time; she attended each talk with a range of Viking Age replica artefacts. Thanks also to our Departmental Clerical Assistant, Maxine Reed, for greeting the audience at the door and handling the cash-flow. All-in-all, a very popular set of three lectures.