In the last few years, there have been a lot of exciting Viking Age discoveries. One of these discoveries happened recently when Senior Researcher Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark, including two Swedish researchers, may have solved the mystery of who had carved the runes on the Jelling Stone.
The Jelling Stone is not just any runestone, it is Denmark’s birth certificate, and it was carved on the orders of King Harald Bluetooth.
Harald Bluetooth was a famous king of Denmark who ruled way back in the 10th century. He played a big role in shaping the country’s history. Not only did he unite different parts of Denmark into one country, but he also introduced Christianity, which changed the country’s main religion.
The word Jelling has nothing to do with shouting, but it is an old city located in Jutland, Denmark, and this is where the runestone still stands just as it did more than 1000 years ago.
The researchers were able to identify the runemaster by using 3D scans to get a close-up view of the traces of the carving. Each runemaster would have held the chisel at a certain angle and struck the hammer with a specific force. And this is visible in the traces of the carving and the distance between them.
Decoding the Mastermind Behind the Jelling Stone
Think about how you write. Everyone has their own style, right? It’s like how a teacher can tell which student wrote something just by looking at the writing. In the same way, the researchers looked at the carvings on the Jelling Stone and compared them to carvings on other stones in Denmark to figure out who carved them.
According to their research, his name was Ravnunge-Tue. You may not have heard of him, but he’s well-respected among those who study Viking history. There’s more evidence of his work on the Læborg Stone, around 30 kilometers from Jelling.
The carvings on this stone are quite similar to the Jelling Stone. The Læborg Stone carries a signature: “Ravnunge-Tue carved these runes in memory of Thyra, his queen.”
According to Lisbeth Imer, who is an expert in runes from the National Museum of Denmark.
“The fact that we now know the name of the rune carver of the Jelling Stone is incredible; but what makes the discovery even more amazing is the fact that we know who Ravnunge-Tue’s boss was. She was Queen Thyra of Jelling – mother of Harald Bluetooth, and the wife of Gorm the Old,” says Lisbeth Imer.
Queen Thyra’s Legacy in Stone
The Jelling stones mention Queen Thyra as Harald Bluetooth’s mother, wife of Gorm the Old, and ‘Denmark’s salvation’. But her name isn’t just found there. Two other rune stones also echo her legacy: the Læborg Stone, which Ravnunge-Tue carved in memory of Thyra; and Bække 1, which bears the inscription, ‘Ravnunge-Tue and Fundin and Gnyple, these three made Thyra’s mound.’
For years, there’s been a debate: Is the Thyra from the Læborg Stone the same as the one in Jelling? However, based on the latest research it’s looking more likely that they are one and the same, especially since the same runemaster, Ravnunge-Tue, worked on both the Læborg and Jelling stones. Lisbeth Imer believes that this also highlights just how important Queen Thyra was.
But what’s truly remarkable? Out of all the people from the Viking Age in Denmark, Queen Thyra’s name is mentioned on four rune stones – which is a testament to her significance. This is even more striking when considering how rare it was for women to be honored this way. For perspective, both Harald Bluetooth and Gorm the Old are mentioned on just two rune stones. And interestingly, every time Gorm the Old’s name appears, it’s always alongside Thyra’s.
Lisbeth Imer highlights the significance of Queen Thyra’s presence. “This means that Queen Thyra was far more important than we previously assumed. She probably came from a nobler, older family than Gorm the Old, whom we usually refer to as the first King of Denmark. This is extremely interesting when it comes to understanding the power structure and the genesis of Denmark as a nation,” she says.
Interestingly, all rune stones mentioning Thyra are found in Southern Jutland. This suggests that Thyra held her power and influence there. In contrast, Gorm the Old may have come from a different region.
Rane Willerslev, the Director of the National Museum of Denmark, shares his excitement about the findings. “It is a wonderful insight. It relates to the ‘birth certificate’ of our country and the founding of early Denmark. Once again, our researchers have proved why we must continue to dig deep into Denmark’s history. Even the parts we think we know can reveal new, enlightening truths about our past,” he remarks.
Experts Weigh in on the Jelling Stone Mystery
While the research presents exciting findings, there’s still some debate in the academic community about the conclusion. The Danish research portal and independent web media, Videnskab.dk, sought opinions from various experts on the matter. Some of those experts expressed doubts. They aren’t entirely convinced that the mystery of who carved the Jelling Stone has been definitively resolved.
Michael Lerche Nielsen, a leading rune specialist at the University of Copenhagen, shares his doubts. Throughout his career, he’s delved deep into the studies of Ravnunge-Tue and the related rune stones used in the research.
“No, I find it unlikely that Ravnunge-Tue carved the runes.”
“First and foremost – as I see it – there are deviant rune shapes, and this is not analyzed in depth in the article.”
Michael points out differences in the R-rune between the two stones, suggesting that more experts should review the findings.
“We simply need more material – and the studies should be reproducible by other, independent research teams. The problem is a bit like knowing whether a painting is a genuine Rembrandt or not. Much depends on the definition and weighting of the different sub-elements of the PCA analysis.”
Aarhus University’s Archaeology professor, Søren Michael Sindbæk, shares Michael Lerche Nielsen’s cautious approach. He suggests that the research might have some statistical gaps.
“If I were to sit as a judge in the district court in this case with Ravnunge-Tue on the prosecution bench, I would say that we cannot pass judgment. I don’t think the burden of proof has been lifted yet.”
Both Sindbæk and Nielsen commend the research approach and are intrigued by the findings. However, they’re hesitant to fully back the idea that Ravnunge-Tue was the Jelling Stone’s carver. Sindbæk also wonders: might two different rune carvers have simply used similar techniques and tools?
“In this study, you use less than ten independent variables to assess whether the same person is behind the runes. In handwriting analysis, there are many more variables,” says the professor, who researches the Viking Age, on which he has published several books.
“It would be much easier to imitate a runic inscription so that you couldn’t tell the difference than it would be with handwriting forgery.”
Two experts from outside the study have offered their insights. Henrik Williams, a distinguished runology professor from Uppsala University in Sweden, provided his perspective.
When asked about his belief in the National Museum of Denmark’s claim that Ravnunge-Tue carved the Jelling Stone’s inscriptions, he sent an email response to Videnskab.dk.
“In principle, yes, if the results of the study have been interpreted correctly.”
Still, he thinks it’s important to highlight a specific line from the research.
“The lines in Læborg and Jelling 2 (the large Jelling stone) are similar, but based on the 3D scans we cannot prove that they were carved by the same hand. In our opinion, comparisons between line shapes and previous studies support our interpretation of individual carvers, but these conclusions also rest on typological analyses of the runes and their orthography, which we discuss in the following section.”
Similar to Michael Lerche Nielsen, Henrik Williams mentions that the 3D technique and its conclusions haven’t been confirmed by other experts:
“3D scanning of runic inscriptions is a relatively new technology and so far only covers small parts of the carving. The interpretation of the measurement results is done by a single researcher, Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, whom I trust, but I am not competent to assess her methods or conclusions myself.”
Neil Price, an archaeology professor from Uppsala University in England, also emphasizes the importance of confidence in the researchers:
“I know both Lisbeth Imer and Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, and they are very, very good at what they do. Serious experts. But to be clear, there is almost never absolute certainty in cases like this, and I’m sure the authors would agree. I trust their professional judgment,” he writes to Videnskab.dk.
Lisbeth Imer Defends the Jelling Stone Study Methodology
Lisbeth Imer, who spearheaded the study, thinks it’s not entirely just to critique their research solely on the use of 3D scans. This is because their analysis also took into account the language and the form of the runes.
Reacting to Søren Michael Sindbæk’s remark about the evidence not being strong enough, she shared her perspective with Videnskab.dk:
“It is a study that has been published in one of the most recognized archaeological journals in the world, and we have already been through a double-blind peer review, where we have passed with our studies.”
“Double-blind peer review” refers to a process where an article is reviewed by experts for a journal, and neither the authors nor the reviewers know each other’s identities.
After reading comments from various researchers, Lisbeth Imer requested to include this statement:
“Burden of proof is a strange word to use in a research context because this is not a criminal case, but research where we are constantly learning. That’s why we don’t use the word anywhere in our article. But what we can say is that all three elements of analysis that we have examined in our study point to Ravnunge-Tue having carved the runes in both the Læborg Stone and the Jelling Stone.”
“The method is based on huge reference material from Sweden and also on rune stones carved by living rune carvers. However, the material being studied may be too poorly preserved – for example, the small Jelling stone – and we don’t draw conclusions based on poorly preserved material. The Læborg Stone and the large Jelling Stone are so well preserved that the analysis can be applied to them.”
Lisbeth Imer points out that they considered nine distinct factors when analyzing the chop marks. Key aspects include the spacing between the marks, their angle, and depth. She highlights that the 3D scan is accurate up to a millimeter.
“It’s a scientific method with a large database, because Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, who is behind the carving trace analysis, has been working with it for twenty years, so in those twenty years she has refined it and developed it since then on more than 250 rune stones in Sweden.”
She mentions that her colleague from Sweden, Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, has interacted with contemporary rune carvers to understand how changing tools impact the marks left behind during carving.
“It doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with technique or tools. It’s motor skills.”
“It’s embedded in your own motor skills that you work in a certain way. It happens in all monotonous work, from peeling potatoes to doing somersaults. And individual motor skills cannot be copied by other people.”
How would you respond to the claim that there aren’t enough rune stones for a comprehensive comparison and that we need more samples?
“We have analyzed a total of seven rune stones. It is an important point that Ravnunge-Tue almost certainly only carved two of them. We can show this with our research. Other interesting conclusions are that two of the rune stones that mention Ravnunge-Tue were not carved by him. We would love to analyze more. But if you find the same carving technique there, it doesn’t change the validity of the conclusions we have already reached,” says Lisbeth Imer.
Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt on Carving Analysis and Method Challenges
Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, the one responsible for examining the carving patterns, conveyed to Videnskab.dk her hesitation in definitively stating that Ravnunge-Tue was the carver of the Jelling Stone.
“I think ‘proof’ is a strong word, both here and in many other archaeological contexts. But the reference material and experience from previous studies indicate that it is the same carver,” writes the Swedish associate professor of archaeology from the Swedish National Heritage Board in an email to Videnskab.dk after being presented with the criticism.
“I have also suggested a more cautious interpretation: ‘… instead of individual carvers, it may be wise to discuss the identification of analytical groups.”
Yet, she clarifies that adding more variables doesn’t necessarily improve the study’s quality.
“The important thing is to have the variables that are relevant. If you have a lot of variables that are not characteristic of what you are looking for, they add noise instead. A big part of method development is about finding the variables that show what we’re interested in and weeding out the ones that lead to errors.”
Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt mentions that she understands other experts haven’t confirmed the measurements. Therefore, she’s especially diligent in detailing the method. However, this approach can have its own set of difficulties:
“A difficulty in my field in general and in articles like ours in Antiquity is to describe the method in enough detail that the study can be replicated. On the other hand, it has to be readable by those who are not so interested in technical and statistical details,” she explains.
“This means that I have to reduce the information, and the method can therefore seem simplistic in this context. There was not enough space in this article to describe all the details, but I have referred to previous publications,” she writes.
She mentions that she tackled some of these critiques in a piece for the Journal of Nordic Archaeological Science two decades ago. While technology has advanced since then, the foundational ideas remain the same.
Similarly to Lisbeth Imer, she emphasizes that their findings draw from various analyses. It’s not just a comparison to ancient rune stones, but also to the methods and skills of today’s rune carvers.
Else Roesdahl and Experts Weigh In on Jelling Stone Design
Videnskab.dk had a chat with Else Roesdahl, an esteemed Professor Emerita from Aarhus University. With over fifty years of delving into Viking Age research and numerous accolades to her name, she’s a well-respected figure in the field.
While she finds the recent study’s hypothesis intriguing, she admits stone carving methods aren’t her specialty.
Nevertheless, after reading the Antiquity article, she feels a certain curiosity and amazement:
“It is a pity that the authors do not address whether the same person carved the unique ornamentation on the large Jelling stone. Were there perhaps two people around the stone: a runerist and someone who carved the unique ornamentation? An answer to this would also contribute to the understanding of the unique stone.”
Søren Michael Sindbæk shares this sense of curiosity:
“The Læborg Stone is actually a bit ugly. It seems a bit ‘plastered on’. It’s very, very hard to imagine that the same person made the decoration on the two stones.”
Lisbeth Imer concurs that delving deeper into the ornamentation would be intriguing. However, she feels it wasn’t relevant to the main focus of their study.
“In our research, it is important to analyze long, straight lines. And since ornamentation is intricate, it is not the ornamentation that has been our focus,” she explains.
“With ornamentation, where it all twists and turns a bit, the carving technique becomes more difficult to follow. But at first glance, it looks like it’s the same.”
“You can imagine that someone else may have made the actual design for the ornamentation, but that’s not what our research has focused on.”
Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt offers an alternative perspective.
“We know from the numerous rune stones in Sweden that stone carvers could use different styles,” she points out.
“The customer could have a lot to say. It takes much longer to carve a rune stone with more ornamentation, so it could also be a matter of cost.”
Independent Scholars Share Enthusiasm and Caution on Jelling Stone Revelations
There’s in general a shared excitement about the study’s potential implications for Viking history.
Søren Michael Sindbæk particularly finds it commendable, mentioning, “Lisbeth Imer has brought forward some truly intriguing new data.”
Yet, he emphasizes the need to be cautious, noting that just because something is published in a scientific journal doesn’t automatically make it indisputable.
“We all know that the fact that something is published in a recognized journal does not mean that the conclusion is definitely true, but that it is based on valid observations and methods. There have been many things written in Antiquity over the years that later turned out not to be true.”
Michael Lerche Nielsen points out that just because a study has undergone peer review doesn’t necessarily confirm its conclusions.
“I have often been a peer reviewer myself, and it is far from always the case that you are an expert in all the things an article covers. In this case, soft humanities and hardcore number crunching are combined. The authors – not the peer reviewers – guarantee the academic soundness of the articles.”
Still, the researchers are glad to see fresh insights on the Jelling Stone and the Jelling dynasty. Neil Price mentions that the findings appear “reasonable and believable” to him, adding:
“If true, it is very exciting in two ways: it is good to know the name of the carver of such an iconic and important monument as the Jelling Stone, and it is interesting to see such visible implications of the queen’s power and influence. This research deepens our understanding of Harald Bluetooth’s power base and the court around him, including its ties to previous generations.”
“The Great Jelling Stone is one of the most important runic monuments in existence,” adds Henrik Williams.
“If it is true that Ravnunge-Tue carved both the Jelling Stone and the Læborg Stone, it gives us new insights into the runemaster situation in Viking Age Denmark, as well as personal relationships. It would prove conclusively that the Thyra mentioned on both stones is one and the same person.”
Personally, I am kinda on the fence about this research. But I would love it to be true because we would finally be able to put a name on the person who carved the runes on the Jelling stone.
There is no doubt that Queen Thyra was an important figure during her lifetime. According to legend, not only did she expand Dannevirke—a significant fortification on the southern Danish border—but she also played an important role in preventing the Holy Roman Empire from advancing into Scandinavia.
I find this research very interesting and it’s clear that this new method is a game-changer for runology. By analyzing the runestones with such precision, we’re not just reading the past; we’re setting the stage for future discoveries.
Just imagine the untold stories these stones hold, the journeys of the carvers, and the communities that gathered around their work. This isn’t just about tracing lines in rock; it’s about mapping out the travels and trades that predate our written history.
As we use this technique, we could very well see a new map of our past taking shape, connecting dots that have remained unanswered for centuries. It’s about piecing together a puzzle that we didn’t even know was incomplete. With every stone uncovered, we get closer to a more nuanced understanding of how our ancestors lived, worked, and communicated.
What’s exciting is thinking about where this could lead us. Could this new method be our key to unlocking new secrets? Imagine being able to follow the travels of Viking stone carvers, to see how their art spread through trade routes. This could give us a whole new understanding of Viking society.
So, while this method might seem like a small step in stone analysis, it’s a giant leap for historical comprehension. It’s a reminder that our past is not just written in the books of historians but also etched in the stones of carvers, waiting for us to read it with a fresh perspective and advanced tools.
This relentless pursuit of new knowledge is what fuels my dedication to making these videos. Each rune carved into stone is a whisper from the past, urging us to listen and to learn. The thrill of uncovering a new piece of history, of connecting with our ancestors in a way that transcends time, is an unmatched experience. It’s a profound reminder that the world we live in is just one layer upon many; understanding our roots helps us to understand ourselves.
For me, the beauty lies in these revelations—the stories etched in stone, the legacy that has withstood the wear of centuries, waiting for us to uncover it. It’s a humbling reminder that history is not static but a living, breathing dialogue between the past and the present. The work the researchers conduct with runestones is not just a scientific endeavor; it’s a journey of human connection, a bridge to the lives of those who walked the earth long before us.