30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

James E. Knirk, "The Kuli Runestone and the 'Improvement' of Norway by Christianity: Laser Technology and New Readings/Interpretations"

The Kuli runestone from the western coast of Norway could be called the “baptismal certificate” for the country. The inscription was rediscovered in 1956 and read by Aslak Liestøl as follows (Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer, vol. 4 (1957), inscription [N]449; uncertain readings in parentheses; fairly literal translation):
“Þórir and Hallvarðr erected this stone in memory of Úlf??? ...
Twelve winters/years had Christianity been in Norway ...”

After its publication, the inscription led to speculation concerning which “Christianization” is referred to on the stone: (1) early attempts at Christianization by Hákon the Good around 950, (2) the first extensive Christianization by Óláfr Tryggvason around 995, or (3) the more official Christianization by Óláfr Haraldsson (the later Saint) around 1020-1030. Also the person to whom the memorial was erected was discussed: Úlfljótr or Úlfr rauði.

An archaeological excavation in 1984 found remains of the foundations for a causeway that went past the probable original site of the runestone. If one assumes that the causeway and the stone were contemporary, a dating of the causeway would give a date for the runestone. The result of the dendrochronological dating performed in 1990 was 1034. Twelve years earlier would be 1022, and this (according to the relative chronology in the saga of St. Óláfr in Heims­kringla) is the approximate year of the assembly at Moster where Christian laws were adopted for Western Norway. All this was presented and argued by Jan Ragnar Hagland in his article in the Fest­schrift for Nils Hallan (1991).

In 1991 Hagland suggested reading tuilf (for tvelf) in the beginning of the second line, and explained this spelling as the result of Anglo-Saxon influence (Old English twelf). Hagland continued his work with the Kuli runestone, and in 1997 (published in 1998) he and the Swedish geographer Jan O. H. Swantesson presented the results of their micro-mapping of the runic surface of the stone using laser measurements. In addition to claiming that most s-runes had a different form than that read by Liestøl (mainly varying long-branch shapes rather than short-twig ones), Hagland dismissed the reading at the end of the first line which could give Úlfljótr/Úlfr rauði as too speculative, while reading tuhlf = tuelf as the first word in the second line. Later in that line, after the word “Christianity”, he read um.rit (um rétt ‘righted/improved’) where Liestøl had read uirit (verit ‘been’). The new wording, with the colorless “been” replaced by “improved”, would imply a clear, propagandistic value judgment on the part of the carver: Christianity had not only “been” here for a period, it had “improved” the country for that time.

I found Hagland’s new interpretation neither graphically plausible nor semantically reasonable. I therefore expressed reservations in my presentation of the inscription in 2001 in the Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertums­kunde, vol. 17.

In 2006 I examined the original micro-mapping documentation of the inscription together with Jan Swantesson in Karlstad. My assessment was that most of the new readings did not have much basis in the documentation itself. In fact, I found confirmation there for Liestøl’s readings. As a major part of my presenta­tion in New York, I will demonstrate and illustrate the problems with Hagland’s new reading and the new interpretation and evaluate the use of laser measurements and micro-mapping for arriving at new readings of runic inscriptions.

Laser “photography” has progressed a long way since the pioneering work by Swantesson in the  1990s. I am trying to get a new micro-map (or laser-picture) made of the runic inscription on the Kuli stone this autumn/winter employing the best laser technology now available. This can then be used to come even further with the reading and interpretation of the inscription. This will also give me the possibility to demonstrate the advances in this technology and its probable future uses.


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