Archaeologists from the Odense Museum have found the oldest runic inscription in Denmark, carved on the blade of a nearly 2000-year-old knife. The knife was discovered beneath the remains of an urn grave in a small cemetery east of Odense and dates back to the year 150 AD.

The museum’s curator, archaeologist Jakob Bonde, states: This is a unique find of national significance. The runes on the knife are 800 years older than those on the Jelling Stones. Encountering such an ancient and complete written language is a unique experience. It’s one of the most astonishing things an archaeologist can come across because it’s an incredibly rare find.

With a discovery like this in hand, humans get to experience coming face to face with the past. A runic inscription is like finding a message from ancient people. You can almost hear their voices. Additionally, the discovery of the knife with runes provides the museum with a fantastic opportunity to connect the past with the present.

The knife’s runes are written in the oldest runic alphabet known, making the new find a crucial part of understanding and interpreting the earliest use of writing in Denmark and the Nordic region.

The inscription itself consists of five runes ending in three notches. The text is interpreted as the word hirila which in Old Norse may mean “small sword”.

The Odense Museum archaeologists cannot confirm whether hirila is the name of the knife or its owner. However, there is no doubt that it was a cherished possession that ended up in a grave near Odense almost 2000 years ago.

According to archaeologist Lisbeth Imer from the National Museum of Denmark: It’s incredibly rare for us to find runes as ancient as those on this knife, and it’s a unique opportunity to learn more about the oldest written language in Denmark and, therefore, also about the language spoken in the Iron Age. In that ancient era, literacy was not widespread, so knowing how to read and write was associated with special status and power. At the beginning of runic history, the literate formed a small intellectual elite, and the earliest traces of these people in Denmark are found in Funen.

Only once before had runes with the same date as the “Little Sword” been found. In 1865, a small bone comb with the inscription harja, also dated to 150 AD, was found in Vimosen, west of Odense. The comb can be seen in the National Museum of Denmark.

The museum’s curator, archaeologist Jakob Bonde, says: It’s spectacular that the oldest runes have been found within a few kilometers in Funen. We can’t say for sure if there’s a connection, but it shows how rare it is for archaeologists to make such discoveries. We can assert that the discovery of the ‘Little Sword’ is a centennial event.


Museum Odense

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