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Wherever you go in southern Sweden you are likely to find rune stones. These ancient Viking stones with their distinctive red patterns and cryptic markings seem to be everywhere. But what are rune stones, and what were they for?

Rune stone in Sigtuna, Sweden

A rune stone built into the wall of St Olof’s Church, Sigtuna

What Were Viking Rune Stones?

Rune stone in Sigtuna, Sweden

This rune stone in Sigtuna was raised by a man named Anund in memory of himself!

Runerstones were memorials to the dead. Unlike modern tombstones they were rarely placed next to graves; indeed they often commemorated great warriors who had died overseas. In some areas stones were also raised for family members, both men and women. In a few instances people even raised stones for themselves as a form of self-aggrandisement!

Although some rune stones have been found dating back to the 4th century they first became common in Denmark during the late 900s. From here they spread to Sweden and other countries where the Vikings had settled, including the British Isles. More than 2,000 stones were erected in Sweden between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Reading the Runes

Rune stone in Uppsala, Sweden

The runes around the edge of the stone give information about the decesased person

Most of these memorials are free-standing but occasionally they were carved into bedrock or large boulders. They tend to follow the same format, with an intricate red-painted pattern often incorporating snakes or crosses. Around the edge would be an inscription using the letters of the runic alphabet. This alphabet was used by most of the ancient Germanic languages; rune stones are the oldest surviving examples of written Swedish.

The inscriptions included the name of the deceased and an account of their exploits and achievements. Most stones were from the Christian era and they sometimes included details of the person’s conversion and baptism, or of their pious deeds. The names of the people raising the stone were also recorded.

Where Can You See Swedish Rune Stones?

Rune stone information board in Uppsala

Information boards in Uppsala and Sigtuna translate the runic inscriptions into English

The greatest concentration of Swedish rune stones is in the district of Uppland, although you don’t have to look very hard to find them elsewhere in the southern part of the country (I found some on the island of Gotland when I was looking for something else!). But the best places within easy reach of Stockholm are Sigtuna and Uppsala.

Rune stone in Stockholm

A fragment of rune stone built into a wall in Stockholm

In Sigtuna you can follow the Rune Stone Walk, with 15 stones. Each has an information board where you can read the runic inscription translated into English. There are more stones in the Town Museum, as well as other articles carved with runes. In Uppsala you will find a grassy area behind the Cathedral with nine rune stones, again with information boards. There are more stones outside the Cathedral itself.

But keep your eyes open and you’ll find rune stones just about anywhere in the Stockholm area. In Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, I found one built into the base of an old building. Its use as construction material served as a reminder of how commonplace these stones once were.

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