Archaeologists recently uncovered an almost 2,000-year-old knife bearing the oldest runic inscription ever found in Denmark.
Discovered in a grave below an urn near the city of Odense on the island of Funen, the 8cm iron knife bears an inscription that signifies “hirila,” translating to “little sword” in the Old Norse language.
The discovery, made by Jakob Bonde, the city’s museum curator and archaeologist, has been described as a unique and nationally significant find. Initially, the knife appeared ordinary, with the runes hidden from view, but after careful cleaning by conservators, the ancient characters became visible.
The runes on the knife are written in the oldest known runic alphabet, predating the Jelling stones by 800 years, marking a crucial advancement in the understanding of the earliest use of writing in Denmark and the Nordic region. The Jelling stones, erected by King Harald Bluetooth around 965 CE, are often referred to as “Denmark’s birth certificate.”
Bonde said: “It’s like getting a note from beyond, from the past. It’s an extraordinary find for us and it says something about the development of the earliest Scandinavian language.”
Lisbeth Imer, a runologist from the National Museum of Denmark, highlighted the rarity of such discoveries, emphasizing the connection between literacy and power during the Iron Age.
The inscription is believed to refer to the knife itself rather than its owner, who remains unknown, though likely someone of high status in society. The discovery sheds light on a period when Denmark had close ties with the Romans, and the elite sought to emulate Roman culture by importing and showcasing Roman-influenced items.
Imer said: “It is incredibly rare for us to find runes that are as old as those on this knife, and it offers a unique opportunity for us to gain more knowledge about Denmark’s earliest written language – and thereby about the language actually spoken during the iron age.”
The knife, set to go on display at Museum Odense in Møntergaarden from February 2nd, will join other artifacts found at the site. Notably, this discovery echoes a similar find in 1865 when a bone comb with the inscription “harja” was unearthed in Vimosen, west of Odense, dating back to the same period.
Runes were seen as symbols of secret knowledge and wisdom, integral to the Viking way of life. Odin, the chief god in Norse mythology, played a central role in the creation of runes, sacrificing himself on the cosmic world tree, Yggdrasil, to gain knowledge of the script.
Jakob Bonde remarked, “It is a unique experience to stand with such an old and finished written language. It is one of the most amazing things an archaeologist can experience because it is an incredibly rare find.”