The Runestone of Oleri by Juris Talivaldis Urtans
The Runestone of Oleri
By Juris Talivaldis Urtans*
The Professor of Latvian Academy of Culture,
The Academician of Latvian Academy of Sciences,
Doctor Habilitatus in Art Sciences
Doctor of History Sciences
In 2019, it was 150 years since the occasion that evoked vivid discussions and interest in communities in Tarbatu and Riga took place. In the meeting of the Estonian Scientific Society on 8 October 1869, the new finding in Oleri Manor or ambit of Ohlershof was mentioned for the first time – a discovery of a stone with a rune script on it. Soon the Estonian Scientific Society received the drawing of the stone script from the owner of Oleri Manor - Baron Carl von Krüdener. Whereas, in the meeting on 6 September 1872, a student from Tartu - Arcadius von Dikkhopf - presented a thorough report added with a rune drawing and a photo. The runes were suggested to have been carved in the stone in two ellipse-like lines.
In order to decipher the inscription, a copy of the rune script was sent to Elseus Sophus Bugge in Kristiania (Oslo, Norway), who was the best-known rune script researcher of his time.
In Estonian Scientific Society’s meeting of 1873, the reply letter from S. Bugge has been mentioned in which the professor states his opinion concerning the inscription of the runestone of Oleri. He admitted that the copy of the inscription had evoked vivid interest and he was convinced that there had been a matter of poor and in many lines distorted yet authentic rune script dated the 10th century or at least no older than the first half of the 11th century. The inscription is being considered especially significant, for it has been so far the only known ancient northern rune script found in the East of Europe. S. Bugge avoided broader commentary, suggesting he could give more information after receiving a more precise copy of the inscription and after a more profound study of Oleri stone. It turned out that due to some misunderstanding, initially S. Bugge had probably received C. Krüdener’s drawing copy he had submitted to the Society as early as 1869, instead of A. Dikkhopf’s carefully crafted copy of the rune script. A. Dikkhopf’s created copy was later sent to S. Bugge.
On 15 October 1873, Prof. L. Meyer, Dr. F. Reel and A. Dikkhopf went on an expedition to see the Oleri runestone, which had gained attention. During the expedition, both L. Meyer and F. Reel were making their own copies of rune scripts, which were afterwards compared to A. Dikkhopf’s former copy and they concluded that they had turned out to be very adequate and precise. Initially, a shorter report discussing the expedition’s results was published, but later - on the 7th of November - during the Society’s meeting a broad and specially-prepared report was read:
“The stone carrying the inscription lies in a stand of birches and alders close to a brook washing against the stone on the other side of the inscription. In front of the stone where the inscription is located, there are some smaller granite blocks all over covered with moss and, as can be inferred, without any processing. The inscription was also initially completely overgrown with moss and became visible and readable only after long hours of Mr von Dikkhopf’s work. Since the time has not spared the stone and it is still being damaged by moss on its surface, it is impossible to conclude whether all of its irregular recesses have originated from a human’s hand or not. However, the latter assumption seems to be much more plausible, especially because the worker initially assigned by Baron Krüdener to remove moss has completed this work with a sharp metal instrument in a rather ruthless manner.”
The accurate surveyors of the Oleri runestone discussed the origin of various hooks and dashes, which were not registered in the previous inscription copy of A. Dikkhopf, and yet they admitted that there were doubts whether the hooks and dashes could possibly belong to the original inscription. That autumn, the weather was rainy; there was no way of getting a high-quality paper in Tartu to make a copy, so the work at the Oleri runestone was quite hard. After exploring the surroundings of the stone, the researchers came to a conclusion that “the stone, supposedly a whole block of stone, is not situated in its original spot, but might have been moved to its current position by the manufacturers of the inscription. It lies on the ground almost flatways; the roots of a tree have crept underneath the stone and one can easily poke a stick underneath it. Over the course of time, the dam of land has elevated around it, especially because the stone makes a sort of shelter from wind, yet even at the highest spot the dam of land reaches only 25 cm of height. Accordingly, it is possible that there is some burial underneath the stone, the confirmation of which will perhaps be given by further researches.”
After having sent a precise copy of the inscription to S. Bugge, the Estonian Scientific Society was waiting with interest and excitement for S. Bugge’s conclusion, which was indeed received in May 1874 and the whole text version of which was promised to be published in the following discussion booklet. The Estonian Scientific Society appointed Prof. S. Bugge as its corresponding member. On the 4th of September 1874, the Society received the inscription of the Oleri runestone as a gift, which was cast in plaster by Prof. E. Bergman. In order to obtain a fine cast, initially the fire was started around the inscription and the moss was burnt out from the stone’s surface, afterwards the stone was accurately scrubbed and sprinkled with oil.
Meanwhile, certain doubts concerning the authenticity of Oleri stone runes were raising, for the difference between authentic rune signs and the inscription of the Oleri stone was noticed.
S. Bugge’s commentary concerning the Oleri runestone together with a broad L. Meyer’s introduction, explanation of the circumstances of the finding and description of the signs was published in 1876. S. Bugge wrote that judging from the copy he had received, the inscription contained a number of signs which were not recognised as the ancient runes of the North. Otherwise, a number of inscription signs were exactly the runes; also, other signs lacking the form of authentic rune signs all in all resembled runes. Few of the sign groups could be related to some northerners’ names of persons, which had frequently appeared in rune scripts. S. Bugge considered that inscriptions could not have been of later origin, namely, it would not make any sense if some Swede in the 17th or 18th century had carved the inscription based on the appearance of runes depicted in books since in this case the carving would have been of a completely different character. S. Bugge put forward two assumptions. First of all, one might consider the rune script to be fake, which wrongly depicts authentic rune script carved in other stone, yet the writer himself declared this assumption as impossible, for the inscription of Oleri would not resemble any of the rune scripts known so far. Secondly, as S. Bugge was prone to consider, there might have been an authentic rune script of ancient North carved in the stone, yet in the course of time, it would have become unreadable. In order to make signs more obvious, in recent times someone with both no knowledge of runes and ancient northerners’ language has processed the signs with a sharp tool. As a result, many lines have obtained the wrong form and the nature of the whole inscription has been damaged. If one relies exclusively on the received copy of rune script, it is impossible to determine the inscription’s original type and content and thereby the inscription has become of no use from a scientific point of view. S. Bugge noted that it wasn’t typical of authentic rune scripts both to be situated on the slope of a stone and to be arranged in an elliptic-like manner. The inscription was considered to be largely damaged, yet with certain likelihood S. Bugge noticed a sign of the cross and the person’s name BONITA depicted in the inscription. Regardless of the damage of recent times, had the stone of Oleri turned out to be an authentic runestone, it would be of great importance since the inscription provides evidence of the Scandinavian presence in the eastern side of the Baltic Sea.
S. Bugge’s reserved commentary raised doubts among members of the Estonian Scientific Society concerning the authenticity of the rune script of the Oleri stone. Initially, the uncertainty appeared in short statements in society’s meetings. In 1875, information concerning another runestone found outside Scandinavia in Tirol was received. The significance of the newly-found runestone might have been compared to that of the Oleri runestone, yet soon after the discovery the chairman of the Society L. Meyer reflected on the “obvious falseness of the rune script of Oleri”.
The real circumstances of the development of the rune script of the Oleri stone were clarified in 1876 when a broad and explaining publication dedicated to the signs and their origin was created. It declared that on the 29th of September 1875, the Society had received Prof. Jegor von Zivers’ letter with the following content:
“When some week ago, Baron Carl Krüdener was reading a lecture at my working place in Polytechnic school, I questioned him concerning the runestone shortly before his leaving. He replied to my question: “You are the first one turning to me with this case and I will use the opportunity to explain to you that all the fuss refers to nothing but the so-called runestone. Here is the following coincidence. When in 1867 in Paris I saw a Swedish runestone being exposed to the International exhibition, I remembered my sister who as a collector of coins showing a great interest in monuments of antiquity. In order to surprise her and make a bit fun of her, I took a precise copy of the original. After returning from Paris I particularly chose an eroded, antique-looking, coarse-grained granite block of an appropriate shape and under my supervisor’s monitoring, I ordered an Estonian stonecutter to carve significantly amplified lines of a script I had designated in the stone. Only by being forced to do so, the inexperienced Estonian man tried to imitate the direction of the lines required. After the cutting was done, the stone was delivered to its current location and set up. Soon after I had surprised my sister, I left the country for a couple of years and later I heard that in the course of time in order to see and copy the inscription, this place had been visited by several persons, among which Prof. Bergman was mentioned. Peasants told me that there had to be something special seen on the stone since so many gentlemen from near and far arrived to see the inscription with their own eyes.” C. Krüdener added that this situation had made him feel a great deal of awkwardness for, as he had heard, even highly-ranked scientists had become disappointed by the stone’s fake fame which had widely started to spread after him leaving the country. After returning home, he had been thinking of the way in which he could reveal the truth and was glad to finally tell J. Zivers this story meant to become public. C. Krüdener had thought that an expert could have noticed the freshness and carelessness of the work, thus raising doubts concerning the authenticity of the finding and he regretted that such misunderstanding had occurred.
In order to prevent any ambiguity and misunderstanding, before sending the material for publication, J. Zivers sent the copy of this letter to C. Krüdener. C. Krüdener added to the aforesaid that while being in Paris he had made a copy of the rune script but he had not thought of making fun of his sister, yet after a couple of years this intention had been provoked by his uncle Mectkul, who for the purpose of making fun had in a similar way sent to C. Krüdener’s sister a fake knighthood pedigree. As to the stone, it had not been moved and had been situated in its current location some time before the inscription was carved.
However, the Estonian Scientific Society did not take C. Krüdener’s story for granted and reproved that the notification about the seemingly innocent joke significantly contradicted with C. Krüdener’s own letters he had previously sent, two of which were still found in the Estonian Scientific Society. Not a single word was mentioned in C. Krüdener’s letters concerning the recent carving of the signs.
The content of the first letter was the following:
“Ohlershof, 30 July 1869
Highly honourable Sir!
In the following, I am sending you, Nobel Sir, an eventually credible copy of the inscription. Some of the encryptions seem to have suffered during the cleaning, hence I cannot guarantee complete preciseness. (Followed by the drawing.) In an exemplary high-respect, Baron C. Krüdener”
The second C. Krüdener’s letter was dated 16 September 1869, and it read:
“The script signs are located on a stone of an impressive size; it is altogether 3 feet high above the ground and approximately 10 feet in the perimeter. The length of individual script signs is approximately 2 inches and the stone is situated near a small river in a stand of birches and alders.”
The doubts concerning C. Krüdener’s seemingly innocent joke were also raised by the fact that when the stone was explored in 1872 by A. Dikkhopf, C. Krüdener handed a notice explaining that before the stone was observed by A. Dikkhopf, C. Krüdener himself had ordered some worker to clean the stone with a sharp brush, hence partially destroying the inscriptions. And again, C. Krüdener had not mentioned to the researchers of the stone anything concerning the recent creation of the signs; even more, C. Krüdener’s statement telling that the stone had recently been harshly cleaned with a sharp metal brush explained the reason why the signs had been damaged and did not correspond to authentic rune script. Certain doubts or as it was said in Society’s publication “Especially, quite gross injustices in Mr Baron C. Krüdener’s above-mentioned statements” were raised after the Society had received the letter from Riga city’s librarian G. Berkholc on 6 October 1875:
“On September 1871, on a street of Riga, I was stopped by a gentleman I did not know or at least could not recall. He introduced himself as Mr C. Krüdener- Ohlershof and told me about some runestone found in his manor and also gave me a sheet – supposedly a redrawing of these runes. There was the following mark underneath this redrawing which I still have:“The signs have been created in a circular manner and in the process of copying; I have especially tried to preserve their location when it comes to their slope or straightness. On the stone’s surface, the signs are at least twice as big and both rows are also linked to both crosses. Ohlershof, 29 August 1871.”
During the meeting (taking place on 13 October 1871) of the Society of Riga History and Antiquity Researchers, G. Berkholc informed the members about the finding, yet since the finding was already studied by researchers of the Estonian Scientific Society in Tartu, researchers from Riga had not proceeded with further activity. In order to continue with clarifying the circumstances, after receiving J. Ziver’s report, the Estonian Scientific Society addressed C. Krüdener with a letter twice, “yet he has not considered it to be necessary to reply to neither of both letters, while it has been checked by the delivery service that both of the letters have reached the addressee.”
On 1 December 1875, the Estonian Scientific Society received Baron Eduard Krüdener’s (judging from the surname – C. Krüdener’s relative) letter, which gave an even more detailed explanation of the circumstances of the inscription’s origin:
“I ordered Voldemar Krüdener to interrogate his current supervisor Andrejs Kiploks, who used to serve Carl Krüdener and he declares: approximately seven years ago in August, his previous master - Baron Carl Krüdener - had ordered a crippled stone-cutter Rose from Tignic to engrave the mentioned inscription based on the paper drawing. He himself had seen the process of cutting and the stone which currently bears the inscription had previously been smooth without any inscriptions on it. The stone has been lying near the road’s bypass in a small birch grove and is the same which was later visited by several gentlemen to examine the inscription. Kiploks had already given this testimony beforehand to both Voldemar Krüdener and the church judge Leo von Petersen. Then I followed the footstep of crippled Rose and Stric-Tignic told me that Rose had died, yet Stric knew that Rose had been working as a stonecutter in Ohlershof Manor a few years ago. That is all I managed to find out, however, I think that the evidence concerning the falseness of the mentioned rune inscription has already reached a high level of credibility.”
The Estonian Scientific Society continued to explain also the origin of the fake rune inscription’s derivation and S. Bugge in Kristiania received news concerning the already clarified circumstances. S. Bugge replied that there had been three runestones sent from Sweden to be exhibited in the World’s exhibition in Paris in 1867. Among these three, only one of the stones which were currently in Uppsala “would slightly resemble the inscription of Ohlershof, therefore in this case merely this inscription should be dealt with. However, the resemblance with the inscription of Ohlershof is also quite imperceptible”. S. Bugge wrote that the eventual sample used for creating the imitation could have been the image of the stone with the number 118 outlined in J.G.Lijegren’s summary of rune scripts.
In J.G.Lijegren’s catalogue, the No. 118 denotes Hague’s runestone from Bondchirk parish, which is marked with No. 896 in academical corps of runestones of the Uppland region. The first information concerning the stone in Hague in the farm of Isaac Nielson has been acquired as early as in 1672. In 1720, the stone was moved to Uppsala. In 1867, together with two more runestones of Uppsala, the stone was taken to the World’s exhibition in Paris. After that, the stone has been located in various places in Uppsala. Today the stone is one of the seven runestones displayed in the park of the University of Uppsala. The stone is 1.36 m high and from 0.30 till 0.39 cm wide. There are runes carved in the stone’s rim, a number of which have already disappeared in earlier times. In the central part of the stone, several crosses are carved, which points to the inscription’s relation to Christianity. The inscription itself is well readable and it goes like this: “… the stone was written (..) to the soul of their son. He died in Denmark in white clothes. Epir helped with the runes.” The layout of the text is typical of memorial runestones of Scandinavia. It might be suggested that the stone has been set up by parents in memory of their son (the names of the parents and son have already disappeared from the inscription in earlier times). The symbol of a person who has died in white clothes is interpreted as though the person must have died soon after being baptized, for the newly baptized person after baptism had to wear white clothes for a certain period of time. As to the ending of the inscription, it is more complicated to be explained. It is suggested that the well-known and competent master of runes Epir has helped and has given a piece of advice to some other rune forger with less experience. As it might be noticed, this stone and its inscription have nothing to do with the territory of Latvia.
In order to finally clarify all of the circumstances which encouraged the occurrence of imitation or falsification of the rune script on the stone of Oleri, a commission was created in the Estonian Scientific Society. The commission summarised the circumstances of the case and all of the information previously acquired and during the meeting on 4 March 1876, the conclusion was pronounced. It said that in August of the year 1868, Baron Carl Krüdener had ordered the inscription to be carved in some stone of Oleri Manor. The inscription had been based on the sample of authentic rune script Baron Carl Krüdener had seen in the World’s exhibition in Paris in 1867.
The report of the commission was republished both in Tarbatu’s (Neue Dorpatsche Zeitung) and in Riga’s (Rigasche Zeitung) German newspapers. The information concerning the publications in newspapers also appeared in the issue of the Estonian Scientific Society. The editorial note to the report published in “Rigasche Zeitung” said:
“Here it can be read, yet in general, the expected solution from competent people is interesting in two aspects: first of all, it shows that even today it is not difficult to deceive scientists even by using a superficial imitation of an antique item, and how sceptical one should treat the reports dealing with exposed artefacts with some kind of striking content. Secondly, it is a fairly credible characterisation to the level of science studying our antiquity, especially when it comes to rune scripts. Mr Bugge’s report has to be considered as one which saves the honour of science. In general, one cannot also reproach Baron von Krüdener too much. His excuse lies in the fact that though he was waiting for his puzzle to be solved, he nevertheless finally revealed the truth. In this sense, the falsification here turns into a scientific joke or even a successful scientific experiment.”
The Estonian Scientific Society decided not to reply to this note of the newspaper. This was how the discussion that has lasted for seven years ended: it started about an authentic recognised runestone, which later turned out to be a merely bad joke or even an intentional falsification. C. Krüdener, whose family is an eminent Baltic German family of the aristocracy, has not left a significant trace in Latvian history. Yet, this does not refer to other persons involved in this case: E. Bergman, G. Bergholz, L. Meyer, L. Steid, J. Zivers, whose biographies have been included in the lexicon of the best-known persons of Baltic German origin from 18th to 20th century.
The runestone of Oleri continued to attract the attention, yet in another sense. Without knowing all of the circumstances of the origin of this seeming rune script, also in later times, Oleri stone has sometimes been considered as an authentic monument of distant antiquity. Such opinion was expressed by regional researcher K. Bregzis after having surveyed the stone in 1941. It seems that under the influence of his report, the signs and stones were characterised by J. Graudonis and V. Urtans “as waiting to be explored more thoroughly”. Also, in later years there have been assumptions expressed in popular literature pointing to a possibility of the authenticity of the stone’s inscription having emerged in distant antiquity. The writer and regional researcher Arturs Goba has even provided a transcript of the stone’s inscription carried out by another regional researcher - Ojars Miezitis:
“In order to prove his version, the regional researcher O. Miezitis retold me the rune script encryption of the well-known stone: he thinks that the text has been carved in some dialect of Ancient Estonians, yet he does not know Estonian. Just for the sake of interest, I showed the incomprehensible encryption to several Estonians and all of them confirmed that the text would sound like this: “Be heroic if you meet an enemy, tussle, fight!” Perhaps, not exactly like that, but without knowing Estonian one can decipher something that resembles a coherent text. Indeed, some of the scientists presume that Oleri stone could be a falsification, yet in this case, the falsifier would have been quite a wise man. Let us hope that in the future some scientist will succeed not only in questioning but also proving one’s thoughts with confidence.”
In the context of previously outlined circumstances of the origin of signs of Oleri stone, the thoughts of A. Goba and “transcript” of O. Miezitis seem to be quite ambiguous.
In Latvia, people have been trying to spot rune scripts in other findings as well.
So far, the only authentic rune script in Latvia has been found on stone cudgel’s head side, dated the 11th century and found in castle mound of Daugmale.
To conclude this review, it should be highlighted once more that the rune script of Oleri stone has been carved only in August 1868, and it definitely cannot be considered as an authentic ancient rune script, but as a distant and superficial imitation of the authentic runes, yet for seven years the stone lead into confusion the minds of researchers of their time. The imitation of ancient runes of Oleri stone is a peculiar witness of human activity and comprehension of culture in the 19th century, and as such today it is to be preserved and protected. When answering the question asked at the beginning of the article, namely, what is the nature of the signs of Oleri – are they defined as falsification or imitation – the answer would be that either one or the other. In this particular case, the border between falsification and imitation has been crossed.
In July 2019, the replica of runes of the Oleri stone was created. It has taken a significant place in the landscape garden of the Oleri Manor and has brought to light the long-forgotten events of the past.
* The research of Professor Juris Urtans has been used in the text:
Juris Urtans “The Runestone of Oleri – falsification or imitation?”
University of Latvia 2003 1(49)
History of Latvia
New and recent times