Runic Graffiti: Inscriptions at Maeshowe (Katie Rokakis '13)


In many dictionaries, the word “graffiti” is defined as “unauthorized” or “illicit” writing in a public place (OED).  As such, it is typically associated with unlawfulness and destruction of property.  With some exceptions that are considered to be of artistic value, most modern graffiti is deemed damaging and degrading, rather than contributive to the space in which it is written.  Graffiti, however, is not just a modern phenomenon, and its earlier instances are regarded as historical evidence that must be retained (Forster et al. 2012).  Graffiti in the medieval runic alphabet is one example of the kind of “unauthorized” writing created from the beginning of the second century through the thirteenth century.  Found from Iceland to Norway to Italy, runic graffiti can provide useful information on the history of such places, the people who travelled there, and the development of the runic alphabet (Figure 1).  The twenty-nine runic inscriptions found in the Maeshowe grave-mound of Orkney (Figure 2), in particular, are a great case study for runic graffiti and the kind of information to be gained from it.  By analyzing the location, date, authors, and meaning of such inscriptions, one can discover the value that runic graffiti holds not only for the history of Europe, but for the consideration of our writing practices today.

Understanding Runes

Runes are a northern European alphabetic writing system in which each character denotes one or more speech sounds (Barnes 2012).  As such, they are not a language in themselves.  They can be used to write any language, but are most suitable for Germanic tongues.  While they mostly recorded Germanic languages, runes have also been found to record Greek and Hebrew phrases.  Thus, in order to read runes, one must know not only what sound each character denotes, but also the language in which the text is written (Barnes 2012).  

The earliest dated runes are from 150-200 AD, and they stopped being in use sometime in the fifteenth century.  However, the exact beginning of runic writing is hard to place, and some suggest that the script originated in the BC era (Barnes 2012).  This suggestion is based on characteristics of the writing system that indicate it might have been influenced by the archaic Greek alphabet.  While the majority of the oldest known runic writing is in Denmark, southern Norway, and southern Sweden, most scholars agree that the runic script was based on Mediterranean writing systems (Barnes 2012).  The archaic Greek alphabet from 400 BCE and the runic writing system both are boustrophedon (have lines reading alternately from left to right and right to left), have some similar characters, and have names for their characters (Barnes 2012).  However, some scholars hypothesize that the roman alphabet is the source for runes, as archaeological evidence has shown contact between the Germanic world and the Roman Empire (Barnes 2012).  Whichever approach one takes, the reason for the Germanic people to create an alphabet of their own rather than simply adopting the Greek or Roman one is unclear.  The origin of runes is just one of the unsolved mysteries that makes their graffitied appearance worth studying.

Reading Runic Graffiti

As runes are primarily an epigraphic writing system, it can be difficult to determine which “scratchings” are actually graffiti.  Runes have been inscribed on a variety of surfaces such as coins, wooden sticks, bones, stones, and much more (Barnes 2012).  However, many of these objects were created with the intent of being inscribed upon, and so they do not constitute the “unauthorized” writing associated with graffiti.  What kinds of inscriptions, then, are graffiti?  Many definitions of graffiti constrain it as writing in a public place or on a wall, which is not always the case (Forster et al. 2012).  In providing a framework to think about historical graffiti, Alan Forster and his colleagues provide a broader definition of graffiti as “inscribed or surface applied media, forming writing or illustration, produced without expressed or implied permission” (2012).  This definition is helpful in thinking about runic graffiti as markings that can appear on any kind of surface, as long as it was not originally intended to be written on.

After identifying an inscription as runic graffiti, how should one then go about reading it?  I believe that, since it is a written record like any other writing in a book or on a monument, runic graffiti should be seen as a text to be interpreted and analyzed.  My intention with this research project, however, is not to transcribe and translate runic graffiti, as my physical access to the runes, as well as knowledge of the different variations of the runic alphabet and the Germanic languages used by its writers, is limited.  Instead, I will look closely at the context of the inscriptions and the scholarship surrounding them to reveal their cultural significance.  I hope to show their value for both the study of medieval history, as well as the study of runes and texts in general.  In evaluating runic graffiti’s “cultural significance” I will be using Forster’s interpretation of the phrase as a concept that is embodied in the setting, use, associations, and people related to the place.  I will thus attempt to investigate the location, date, authors, and meanings of the runes at Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland to discover what value they hold.

Writing on the Walls of Maeshowe

In 1861 a politician and antiquarian named James Farrer led an excavation of the Neolithic burial mounds on the island of Orkney, Scotland.  During this excavation, one of the archaeologists found almost three dozen runic inscriptions above the entrance and inside of the largest mound, Maeshowe (Cooijmans 2012, Figure 3).  The runes were well-preserved, sheltered from wind and rain by the mound, and comprise the largest known collection of individual runic inscriptions in stone (Cooijmans 2012).  In fact, one of the first scholarly articles written about the inscriptions after their discovery declared them to be “of surpassing interest and importance, and combine in one spot a greater number of interesting Scandinavian Runic inscriptions than has been discovered in northern Europe” (Mitchell 1865).  They thus provide scholars with a substantial and significant corpus of runic material to transcribe, translate, and attempt to understand.


Maeshowe was constructed around 2800 BCE, but the runic inscriptions on its walls were created thousands of years later.  While the inscriptions were first catalogued in 1861, it was not until 1973 that radio carbon dating revealed that the tomb had been modified in 950, thus providing a starting point for determining the date of the runes (Cooijmans 2012).  Cooijmans cites how the type of runes and their formation give more clues for their chronology (2012).  Firstly, the uniformity of the rune-forms suggests that they were created in a short amount of time.  The linguistics of the writing is also similar to that produced in twelfth-century Norway.  Furthermore, the patterns of word formation match Icelandic manuscripts from 1150.  These factors suggest a carving of sometime in the middle of the twelfth century, which literature surrounding Maeshowe, as well as the content of the inscriptions, further supports and refines.


Two of the inscriptions at Maeshowe mention crusaders, or “Jerusalem-men,” and are often linked to the expedition of Rognvald Kali Kolsson, born in Norway and appointed as the Earl of Orkney in 1129 during the Norse colonization of the land (Figure 6).  Beginning in the tenth century, Christianization began to spread throughout Orkney, and many crusaders and pilgrims from Scandinavia stopped in Orkney on their way to Jerusalem (Cooijmans 2012).  According to the Orkneyinga Saga, a historical narrative about the history of the Orkney Islands from the ninth to thirteenth century, Rognvald assembled a group of men in Orkney to go on a pilgrimage in 1150.  It is thought that his primarily Norwegian crew made their way into Maeshowe either before their trip or upon their return in 1154, creating the runic inscriptions in their spare time (Cooijmans 2012).  Another story in the Orkneyinga Saga mentions Earls Harald and Erlend, who were on a trip to Orkney during Christmas of 1153, and “during a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and there the two of them went insane...” (Palsson and Edwards 1978).  While the tale does not specifically mention any runic inscriptions, it is certainly plausible that Harald and Erlend might have created some while stuck in the shelter of the tomb.

Transliteration and Translations

The inscriptions themselves also suggest that Maeshowe was used regularly for shelter and other everyday uses during the same time period.  Interestingly, much of the runic writing is very colloquial and similar to modern graffiti in that it only states the name of the person who wrote the graffiti.  One carving simply reads, “Tholfr Kolbainsson cut these Runes (on) this cave” (Mitchell, Figure 5).  In fact, over twenty-seven names are referred to on the walls of Maeshowe (Mitchell 1865).  The more detailed inscriptions range from religious messages to sexual innuendos to claims about hidden treasure.  Besides carvings of crosses, the most explicit religious message, if read from right to left, states, “Jerusalem men broke into this hill” (Mitchell, Figure 6), probably referring to Rognvald and his crusaders mentioned above.  However, it was not just “men” who used the cave.  Other inscriptions give evidence of women inhabiting it as well.  One reads, “Ingibjorg, the fair widow.  Many a women has gone stooping in here.  A great show-off.  Erlingr.” (Cooijmans, Figure 7).  The word “stooping” may be referring to the position required to enter the hill, but it can also be taken figuratively to mean, “being disgraced” (Cooijmans 2012).  Another inscription is more blunt about the exploits that may have occurred at Maeshowe, stating, “Þorný fucked, Helgi carved” (Barnes, Cooijmans, Figure 8).  

Several of the carvings also mention hidden treasure in the mound.  One inscription reads, “It was long ago that great treasure was hidden here” (Cooijmans, Figure 9).  Another says, “Happy is he who can find the great wealth” (Cooijmans, Figure 10).  Burial of the dead in mounds was a common practice of Vikings, and it was possible that Norwegian visitors to Maeshowe modified it for this use (Cooijmans 2012).  Indeed, a human skull was found in the mound when it was excavated in 1861, yet it is unclear how old the remains are (Cooijmans 2012).  Cooijmans suggests that it is possible that a wealthy Viking was buried there, and that is where the hypothetical treasure came from (2012).  Whatever the case, if the treasure existed, it seems to have been found and taken away.  Another carving states, “That will be true which I say, that treasure was carried away.  Treasure was carried away three nights before they broke this mound” (Cooijmans, Figure 11).  It is thought that “they” refers to the “Jerusalem men” mentioned previously.  Yet another inscription identifies the culprit: “Hókon alone carried treasure from this mound” (Cooijmans, Figure 12).  While it is uncertain if treasure really ever was hidden at Maeshowe, and if it was taken away, the inscriptions are certainly fascinating examples of the kind of activity that could have occurred, or the kind of fiction conceived there.

The Significance of the Maeshowe Runes

The runic graffiti at Maeshowe can tell us a great deal of information about life during the time in which it was written. For example, the inscriptions provide evidence of the Christianization of Scandinavia and Orkney. There are crosses carved into the walls of Maeshowe, and also Christian names. Cooijmans notes that Christian names were “commonplace in Norway by the end of the twelfth century but are absent from Orcadian saga literature” (2012). However, two such common names, ‘Benedikt‘ and ‘Simon‘ appear on the walls of Maeshowe, and thus provide traces of Christian visitors that one could not obtain from formal Orcadian literature. 

At the same time, there are links between the graffiti in Orkney and its literature that give a sense of the literacy of its inhabitants and visitors. Ian Brown notes that the graffiti “reveals a sophisticated knowledge of various forms of runes, and several inscriptions allude to the literature, lore, and legends of Iceland and the remoter Scandinavian past” (2007). So while some would not consider the graffiti itself to be literature, it certainly helps to preserve the literary past of its location. It also is evidence of the kind of people who were literate, and the extent of their knowledge of runes. Rognvald, for example, says of himself in a poem recorded elswhere, “I hardly forget runes, I am often either at book or craftsmanship” (Brown 2007). Brown suggests that he was one of the first to record Scandinavian poetry in book form, and the runes most likely written by him at Maeshowe provide great opportunities for further studying the literacy and writing technologies of Rognvald and others.


As can be seen from looking at the context of the runic graffiti and its translations, such writing is valuable in many ways.  It helps connects us to past people, places, and events in a more colloquial and improvisational manner than most literature allows.  It enables us to step back in time and get a sense of what life may have been like for Vikings hiding in the cave from a snowstorm.  It also provides a record of the names of people who lived at that time, and the kinds of things that they did.  In this way, runic graffiti is not much different than the graffiti we find spray-painted in alleys and carved on trees today--it was a mode for people to record their existence at a specific moment in time.  Graffiti may not be “authorized” literature bound in a book for sale, but it certainly still has a story to tell.


Barnes, Michael. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012.

Brown, Ian. The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literatury, Volume 1. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Cooijmans, Christian. “A Socio-Historical Context of the Runic Inscriptions of Maes Howe, Orkney.” Thesis, Utrecht University, 2012.

Forster, Alan, Vettese-Forster, Samantha, Borland, John. “Evaluating the Cultural Significance of Historical Graffiti.” Structural Survey 30.1 (2012): 43-64.

Mitchell, John. Mesehow: Illustrations of the Runic Literature of Scandinavia, Translations in Danish and English of the Inscriptions in Mesehowe, Visits of the Northern Sovereigns to Orkney, Notes, Vocabularies, etc. Edinburgh: 1863.

Palsson, Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Orkneyinga saga : the history of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981.

Runic inscriptions at MaeshoweRunic inscriptions at Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland. Photo by Charles Tait,

Hagia Sophia runic graffiti
Figure 1: Runic graffiti at Hagia Sophia.  
Photo by Karsten Duus,

Figure 2: Maeshowe entrance in Orkney, Scotland.
Photo by Tim Bekaert,

Runic inscriptions at Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland.
Photo by Sigurd Towrie,

Runic inscriptions at Maeshowe
Runic inscriptions at Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland.
Photo by Charles Tait,

Figure 3: The inside of Maeshowe after opening in 1861. Photo from

Runic graffiti
Runic graffiti at Maeshowe.
Photo by Richard Welsby, from

Earl Rognvald carving
A carving of Earl Rognvald from St. Magnus Cathedral.
Photo from

Figure 5 (Mitchell 1865)

Figure 6 (Mitchell 1865)
Figure 7 (Cooijmans 2012)
Figure 8 (Cooijmans 2012)
Figure 9 (Cooijmans 2012)
Figure 10 (Cooijmans 2012)
Figure 11 (Cooijmans 2012)
Figure 12 (Cooijmans 2012)