Runes: How can you tell if it’s a genuine runic inscription?

Runes – How can you tell if it’s the real thing? 

How can you tell if something you have found is an authentic runic inscription? When I get sent pictures of stones with lines that look like runes on them, people often ask me if it’s the genuine article or not. 

To find out, I first ask myself: Is it natural? Because quite often you can get natural fissures in stones that make them look like incised lines. Look for example as this stone here:

Stone found by Sheila Cameron, Sanday, Orkney.

Stone found by Sheila Cameron, Sanday, Orkney.

This picture was posted by Sheila Cameron on Facebook. She found this stone at Start Point in Sanday and kept it for decades! It is so beautiful, and she observed that this vertical line, or stave, as it’s called in runology, has an X on it and then something that looks like a cross to the left of it. The stave with the x is the same shape as the rune for “h”. Sheila said it’s for “home” and I find this a beautiful thought

I would say this is nature’s own runes. It is natural. The way I can tell that is because there are other smaller lines on it that run parallel to the lines of the rune. These are natural fissures and sometimes also if you turn it over you can see that it goes all the way through – it comes through on the back.  

I have another example in the below here. This is one that I found where you can see the lines clearer and if you turned it over you see them on the back as well. 

Lines in sandstone caused by natural weathering. Despite the visual similarity they are not runes.

Lines in sandstone caused by natural weathering. Despite the visual similarity they are not runes.

Next, I ask myself where was it found, what context was it found in? And would it survive if it were a genuine inscription? 

So in both of those cases the stones were found on the beach and they have been kicking about there being washed by waves and rubbed against other stones. Genuine runic inscriptions wouldn’t survive in that environment, they would be rubbed off quite quickly, so the only way you would be able to find a real runic inscription on the beach is if it had very recently eroded out of a Norse settlement site nearby. So if you look at the banks nearby, have a look and see if you can see any midden there. The picture below was taken in Deerness, near Newark bay. See the beautiful black organic material with fish bones in it. My finger is pointing at fish vertebrae and large fish bones is a typical for Norse middens.  

Norse midden at Deerness Orkney

Norse midden at Deerness Orkney

Also you can check if it’s a known Norse site for example The Bu in Orphir or at Birsay or Tuquoy – All these are known Norse sites. If you’re near there and it seems like your object has eroded out of it, it could be the genuine article. 

Next I ask myself if it is the right type of runes, and if the language is right. The rune below is carved inside the Wideford Hill cairn. There’s another one like it at Gurness Broch and yet another at the Grain Earthhoose in Kirkwall. It is carved by human hand, but I can tell it is modern because it’s of an AngloSaxon type that wasn’t used in Orkney. The Vikings were not the only people to use runes. The English or Anglo-Saxon runes look a bit different to the ones that were used by the Vikings and medieval Norse people. So what we have here is an Anglo Saxon h rune. The reason you wouldn’t expect to see that in Orkney is there was no Anglo Saxon population. (You can read more about the modern rune carvings in Orkney in my article with Andrea Freund “Modern Rune Carving in Northern Scotland”, available here:

Modern rune carving in Wideford Hill Cairn Orkney

Modern rune carving in Wideford Hill Cairn Orkney

The right type of runes for Orkney, Shetland and northern Scotland would be the medieval Norwegian Younger Futhark, such as in this example from Trondheim, Norway:

Runic inscription: "Sigurd". Nidaros cathedral

Runic inscription: “Sigurd”. Nidaros cathedral

If the inscription passes all those tests, the next question is the language. If I can read a word, is it in the Old Norse language or is it in a more modern form, or is it in modern English? A good example of that is an inscription in Unstan cairn where it says Annette Philip Helen 2000”. It was recorded by Antonia Thomas and it’s dated 2000 which is very handy, but also the names Annette Phillip Helen with that spelling, spelled like in modern English, gives it away as modern. Although we do have the name Phillip in a genuine inscription from the Brough of Birsay, but there it’s spelled FILIBUS. 

If it passes all these tests, there’s a chance your runic inscription may be genuine.

I’ll finish with a picture of a genuine rune stone that my husband found near Stromness in 2001, where it had fallen out of a stone dyke.

Runestone from Breckness, near Stromness, Orkney

Runestone from Breckness, near Stromness, Orkney, found by Chris Gee.

You can read more about Orkney runes in my book The Orkney Book of Runes, which you can buy from Orkney Archaeology Society for £7 by following this link:

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