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Maeshowe's runes - Viking graffiti

When Maeshowe was first excavated, in 1861, the chamber's original entrance passage was inaccessible.

So, to allow access, the excavators drove a shaft down through the top of the mound. Once inside, however, they found proof that that they were not the first to have broken into the tomb. The walls of the Stone Age chamber were covered in with runic graffiti.

The 30 inscriptions found in Maeshowe, make it one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe.

According to Orkneyinga saga, over 800 years previously, in the darkness of an Orkney winter, a group of viking warriors had sought shelter from a terrible snowstorm.

Leading the men was Earl Harald, who, at Christmas, 1153, was making his way from Stromness to the parish of Firth.

The Earl's party took refuge in an already ancient structure – the mound they knew as Orkahaugr. Inside, while waiting for the storm to abate, they carved graffiti into the stone walls. What drew these Norsemen to the tomb? Was it the legends of a great treasure that lay within?

"On the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and two of them (his men) went insane which slowed them down badly so that by the time they reached Firth it was night time."
Orkneyinga saga - Chapter 93

Another episode in the tomb is thought to have involved Earl Rognvald and his men.

Either heading to the Holy Land on a crusade, or having just returned from one, the Crusaders also spent their time in Orkahaugr, and they also left their mark on the walls.

The crusaders’ graffiti, however, claims that they were the first to have broken into the chamber. With this in mind, it is likely that they must have entered the chamber prior to their crusade.

Maeshowe runes. Picture Sigurd Towrie

The translations I have for Maeshowe's runic inscriptions are:

  • "Ingebjork the fair widow - many a woman has walked stooping in here a very showy person" signed by "Erlingr"
  • "Thorni f*cked. Helgi carved" (the official guidebooks usually tone this inscription down)
  • "Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women" (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog)
  • "This mound was raised before Ragnarr Lothbrocks her sons were brave smooth-hide men though they were"

A number of the other inscriptions are simply ancient graffiti:

  • "Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes"
  • "Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes"
  • "These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean"
  • "Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up"
  • "This howe Vermundr carved"
  • "Ottarfila carved these runes"
  • "Benedikt made this cross"
  • "Arnfithr Matr carved these runes with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South land"
  • "Tryggr carved these runes"
  • "Arnfithr the son of Stein carved these runes"
  • "Thorir"
  • "Orkis' son says in the runes he carves"
  • "futhorkhnias trmly"

Other runes explain the Viking's purpose:

  • "Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl's cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound" signed "Simon Sirith"
  • "It is surely true what I say than treasure was taken away. Treasure was carried off in three nights before those." "Is to me said that treasure is here hidden very well. Say few as Oddr"
  • "He is a viking...come here under the barrow"

Maeshowe Runes