Viking runestone reveals mysterious queen who shaped a nation

These age-old monuments, celebrating Viking leaders and their storied legacies, hold secrets that modern science is now beginning to unravel

[Oct. 15, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Painting of Thyra, the first queen of Denmark. (CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons)

Over a millennium ago, in the territory now recognized as Denmark, Viking artisans meticulously carved into rock, creating what have become iconic historical relics: runestones.

These age-old monuments, celebrating Viking leaders and their storied legacies, hold secrets that modern technology is now beginning to unravel. In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have found that two sets of runestones both refer to a significant figure in Viking history: a powerful queen named Thyra.

According to recent findings published in the journal Antiquity, a team of researchers from Denmark and Sweden employed sophisticated 3D scanning technologies to analyze the inscriptions on the stones. Their analysis not only confirmed that both sets of stones were likely inscribed by the same artisan, but also cast a spotlight on Queen Thyra's potent influence in Viking society.

The Læborg stone. The stone is 236cm tall (CREDIT: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark).

Dr. Katherine Cross, a lecturer at York St. John University in the UK specializing in early medieval northern Europe's history, remarked on the discovery’s significance. “To learn more about the rune-carver and those named on the stone is fascinating,” she said, emphasizing the importance of understanding the creators of such artifacts. “We can only comprehend early medieval sources once we consider who made them and why,” Cross elaborated to the media.

Among the analyzed runestones are the famed Jelling stones, dating back to around 965. Positioned in the town of Jelling, the larger of these stones is colloquially known as “Denmark’s birth certificate”. This title originates from its pivotal role in marking Denmark's shift towards Christianity, as recognized by the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Notably, these Jelling runestones bear inscriptions honoring a majestic figure: Queen Thyra, the mother of the then-reigning King Harald Bluetooth.

Jelling 2 with runes chosen for analysis. (3D-scanning by Zebicon, drawing by Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt).

King Gorm, Thyra's husband and King Harald's father, commissioned the smaller Jelling stone in her honor, lauding her as “Denmark’s strength/salvation” or alternatively “Denmark’s adornment,” – a translation nuance highlighted in the research. The more grandiose stone was the brainchild of Harald, commemorating both his royal parents.

Another intriguing set of four Viking-era monuments, termed the Bække-Læborg group, brings Thyra into the spotlight again. Of these, two runestones mention Thyra. Scholars had previously linked these stones to a carver named Ravnunge-Tue. But disagreements arose about whether the inscribed Thyra was indeed Harald’s mother.

Dr. Lisbeth Imer, the study's lead author and a curator at the National Museum of Denmark, remarked on the significance of identifying the artisan behind the Jelling stones. “Confirming their carver as Ravnunge-Tue would bolster the ties between the Jelling and Bække-Læborg runestones,” she conveyed in correspondence with CNN. Drawing this connection, she suggested, makes it more plausible that the inscribed Thyra across the stones was the same influential figure.

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The meticulous art of runestone carving entails nuances that might escape the untrained eye. Basic attributes like language and rune shapes can hint at a carver's identity. Yet, it's the intricate carving techniques, undetectable to the naked eye, that become pivotal. As Imer explains, “Every rune carver hones their unique motor skill and uses tools distinctively.”

3D-model of a section of Læborg-stone: þurui : trutnik : sina ‘Thyra, his queen’ (3D-scanning by Henrik Zedig).

To unlock these secrets, the team converted scans of the stones into 3D digital models. By measuring the runes’ grooves using specialized software, they could delineate unique carver profiles based on variables like angle, depth, and cutting rhythm. When the team juxtaposed runes from Jelling 2 with the Læborg stone, striking resemblances emerged.

The function Groove Measure applied to a t-rune on the 3D-model of Læborg. The white label shown is 30mm long. We avoid the part where the groove flattens towards the end and joins the branches. We also avoid the lower part of the stave that is disturbed by a crack in the stone (CREDIT: Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt).

Imer vividly described this discovery, “In the Læborg and Jelling inscriptions, one can trace Ravnunge-Tue’s distinct rhythm: one profound chisel stroke followed by two lighter ones: DAK, dak-dak, DAK, dak-dak.” She poetically added, “It's akin to hearing the heartbeat of an individual from a bygone era.”

This research fundamentally alters our perception of Viking society. Recent archaeological insights reveal that Viking women, contrary to earlier beliefs, were not just domestic figures but formidable warriors. Thyra's significant mentions affirm her unparalleled influence in Viking society.

During the tenth century AD, Harald Bluetooth ruled Denmark from the royal seat at Jelling. (CREDIT: Cambridge Core)

As Dr. Cross aptly summarized, “This research underscores how Viking-Age women exerted power through political influence and patronage, beyond just martial might.”

Thyra’s commemorations on four distinct runestones are monumental. Dr. Imer emphasized, “Runestones in Denmark predominantly celebrated men. Yet, Thyra’s legacy is immortalized on more runestones than any other figure from Viking Age Denmark. Evidently, she wielded extraordinary power and social standing.”

In a world predominantly dominated by male narratives, Queen Thyra's legacy, engraved in stone, underscores the influential roles women have played throughout history. This discovery, facilitated by cutting-edge technology and dedicated research, bridges the gap between ancient history and our modern understanding, reminding us of the age-old adage: those who control the past, shape the future.

For more science stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.