Ancient - Vikings Casually Left Graffiti All Over Europe

Ancient – Vikings Casually Left Graffiti All Over Europe

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Ancient – Vikings Casually Left Graffiti All Over Europe

Look around nearly every modern city of the day and you will see that they all tend to have one thing in common: graffiti. Street art can be pretty beautiful and artistic in its finest form, but at the base level, it often amounts to little more than scrawlings, doodles, and rude messages written in public spray paint or marker pens.

We tend to think of graffiti as a modern phenomenon, but if we look back through history, in some very similar ways we can find all sorts of examples of past societies and ancient people making their mark on the world. Even the Vikings have been guilty from time to time of a little graffiti, with some of their “works” still visible to this day.

Detail of Viking runes inside Maeshowe.
Detail of Viking runes inside Maeshowe.

As revealed by Orkneyjar, many examples of Viking graffiti were found at a place called Maeshowe. Known in Old Norse as Orkhaugr, Maeshowe is a Neolithic cairn located on the island of Mainland in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

Historians estimate that Maeshowe was built around 2800 BC. It’s one of the biggest tombs in all of Orkney and the monuments around it have been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.

Maeshowe was first excavated in 1861 by James Farrer, but when his team tried to make their way inside, they found the main entranceway was blocked off.

They had to dig their own shaft right down into the top of the mound. When they got inside, they made a startling discovery — they weren’t the first explorers to enter this ancient resting place.

Viking graffiti, Maeshowe, Orkney Islands, Scotland.
Viking graffiti, Maeshowe, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

The archaeologists saw that the walls all around them were covered in markings which, upon closer inspection, were identified as Viking runes.

The messages they had to share weren’t all that different from the kinds of graffiti we see today, with inscriptions including things like “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women” and “Thatir the Viking came here to weary.”

The story goes that more than eight centuries prior to Farrer’s excavation of Maeshowe, a group of Viking warriors had entered the old cairn to take refuge from a perilous blizzard outside. The leader of the group was an Earl of Orkney named Harald Maddadsson, who was traveling from Stromness to Firth at the time with his men.

The Orkneyinga Saga relates the tale of another Viking leader, Earl Rognvald Kali, and his own group who also stopped off in Maeshowe. Both of these groups decided to leave their mark on the walls by carving runic messages into the stone, in much the same way as modern people write their names and little random messages wherever they go.

12th century runes carved inside the cairn.
12th century runes carved inside the cairn.

Interestingly, according to Orkneyjar, some of the messages spoke of treasure. One example read “Is to me said that treasure is here hidden very well.” There have been rumors dating back centuries about the existence of hidden treasure at Maeshowe, but no light has ever really been shed on this mystery.

Another message stated “In the northwest, great treasure is hidden”, suggesting that perhaps the treasure, or another kind of treasure, could be found elsewhere.

The “Halfdan inscription” in Hagia Sophia.
The “Halfdan inscription” in Hagia Sophia.

Around 30 runic inscriptions were found at Maeshowe, which is one of the biggest finds of this kind in all of Europe, but Viking graffiti has been found elsewhere as well. Another classic example, as shared by The National Museum of Denmark, is at the world famous Hagia Sophia mosque in Turkey.

A couple of Vikings apparently visited the mosque and wrote their names in runes on one of the walls. The names Halvdan and Are can be made out in the runes.


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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

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