Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Reading and interpreting runic inscriptions: the theory and method of runology


Runology concerns fundamentally the analysis of runes as writing symbols, the examination of runic objects and reading of runic inscriptions, particularly new finds, and the interpretation of runic texts. It is a field of study experiencing growth and development. Unfortunately, the field suffers from the lack of a clearly formulated theoretical platform and methodological approach. The research project will concern itself with the formulation of the theoretical and methodological foundation of runic research.

Runic research in its basic form includes the study of objects, and the runologist must work in an inter- or multi-disciplinary way. The theoretical basis for runology is generally accepted text-philological theory, but theoretical elements from supporting object-related and historical disciplines must be systematically and consistently integrated into the theoretical framework. The basic methodology for this field of study is likewise text-philological, employing the procedures of historical linguistics. However, due to the importance that other supporting disciplines have, elements from their methods must be integrated into the framework for reading and interpreting inscriptions. In addition, runology disposes over various field techniques that are employed especially in connection with reading and documenting runes.

Several in-depth studies will support the main investigation, notably: (1) inventory of runic forms and the system of transliteration, (2) material, carving techniques and layout, (3) functions of runes, text types and genres, style, (4) chronological considerations and dating problems, (5) authenticity. The main result of the project will be a “Handbook of Runology”, to be published on line initially, and in book form thereafter. In addition the project will produce an anthology or individual articles concerning the history of runic research with emphasis on theory and method, and articles concerning the reading and interpretation of central runic inscriptions.

The project is of fundamental importance for the entire field of runology. It has, in addition, great national value in the Nordic countries since it deals with research on an important part of their cultural heritage.

End Report

In spite of hard work and long days, the team did not achieve quite as much as it had hoped. This was partially due to the fact that the project was expanded with a sub-project that was originally intended only as a test case, but which turned into a time-consuming project in its own right. It also took us longer to prepare the outline of the Handbook than we had expected. Some authors wrote sections that were too detailed for a handbook, whereas others produced texts that did not plough deep enough. The extremes caused problems for the project, and especially for the leader who had to try to locate the ideal mid-point. Most of the writers were, however, able to adjust and assume a balanced position. Even though we were not able to finish the preliminary version of the Handbook before the termination of the project, we are still proud of and content with the sum of our achievements.

The major product of the CAS project, a preliminary version of the Handbook of Runology, now consists of approximately 400 pages and is to be made available digitally at the end of this year. About one-half of the book is more or less finalized. The rest is either written, but not edited, or exists in draft.

The corpus edition of runic inscriptions on the Isle of Man has progressed remarkably. Thanks to very hard work by Barnes, the missing introductory chapters have been written. Through Barnes’s computerisation, careful reading, and corrections, and Williams’s critical reading, comments, and suggestions, all the articles on individual inscriptions now exist in a third draft of high standard. However, Barnes, who unfortunately could not participate in the first excursion, needs to check the manuscript against the inscriptions themselves, and he and Knirk are planning a second field trip to accomplish this and tie up various loose ends. The edition should be ready for publication in 2015/2016.

The Kensington rune-stone in Minnesota (a forgery from the late 1800s) has been a topic of great interest for two of the core members. A database consisting of information from a laser scan of the surface of the stone performed in the U.S.A., can be employed to produce photographic representations of the inscription. The CAS project purchased the database and negotiated legal rights to make it publically available on the Internet at no cost. Such three-dimensional documentation has implications for the documentation and analysis of most runic inscriptions.

Two doctoral dissertations in preparation at Uppsala University will be partial by-products of the CAS project: Sofia Pereswetoff-Morath: “Runamuletter från vikingatid till medeltid”, and Alessandro Palumbo: “Studier i svenska medeltida runformer”.

The year at CAS was extremely important for this project. In spite of the fact that runologists were already in many respects a tight-knit group and had much interaction, such exchanges had occurred via the Internet or by way of personal meetings and international conferences. A “large” runological milieu consists of two scholars; thus assembling six or seven of them at the same time and in the same place represented runological heaven. The project would probably never have materialised had we not had the stay at CAS. All of us are engaged on other projects and would not have found time for this extra undertaking, even though all agreed that the project was absolutely essential in order to ensure the future of runology as a scholarly discipline.

The collaboration initiated at CAS will continue for at least eighteen months in order to give the Handbook its final form and finalise its publication, as well as to complete the corpus edition of the runic inscriptions on the Isle of Man. The close relationships established between the fellows will also ensure future co-operation on other projects.


  • Barnes, Michael Patrick
    Professor Em. University College London 2013/2014
  • Findell, Martin Philip
    Dr. University of Leicester 2013/2014
  • Jesch, Judith
    Professor University of Nottingham 2013/2014
  • Källström, Magnus
    Senior Researcher The Swedish National Heritage Board 2013/2014
  • Palumbo, Alessandro
    Ph. D. Candidate Uppsala University 2013/2014
  • Schuhmann, Roland René
    Dr. Friedrich Schiller University Jena 2013/2014
  • Steblin-Kamenskaya, Sofia
    Ph. D. Candidate Uppsala University 2013/2014
  • Williams, Henrik Bruun
    Professor Uppsala University 2013/2014
  • Zimmermann, Christiane Edeltraud
    Dr. University of Kiel 2013/2014

Previous events


Group leader

  • James E. Knirk

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2013/2014