Med mejsel eller pikhammer – Hvorledes blev runer ristet?

  • Ole Thirup Kastholm Hansen
  • Erik Sandquist
Nøgleord: mejsel, pikhammer, runer


With Chisel or Pick Hammer
How were Runes carved?

In 1980, Vitus Nielsen and Erik Moltke published the essay “Pikhammeren – kan man også skrive med den?« (The Pick Hammer – can it be used for writing as well?). Nielsen summed up the historical background of the pick hammer, while Moltke postulated that in the Viking Age this tool was used for carving runes and ornaments on rune stones (Fig. 1). This essay postulates the opposite: that runes were carved with a chisel and a hammer/mallet. Moltke’s hypothesis has been briefly questioned before, but has not been thoroughly discussed. This essay is primarily based on the professional experience gathered by Erik Sandquist, the stonemason, from the carving of modern rune stones.

Moltke’s most important argument is the existence of small conical marks made by a pointed tool in a number of rune grooves. This phenomenon can be observed on e.g. rune stone no. 5 from Århus (c.1000 AD) and the Swedish rune stones from Himmelstadlund in Östergötland (400-550 AD) (Fig. 2).

Erik Sandquist has been carving rune stones since 1995. His stone no. 44 was erected in the summer of 2004 next to the museum in Jelling (Figs. 3-4). From this work, Sandquist has gained exhaustive experience using a broad chisel and a pick chisel in combination with a hammer or mallet, whereas most modern stonemasons prefer to use pneumatic tools and sandblasting. It is important to note that Sandquist does not consider his work to be experimental archaeology; his results are not systematically documented. Nevertheless, this craftsman’s experience might provide the basis for a few conclusions that would contribute to the archaeological discussion.

Sandquist uses the following method for carving a rune stone: when an appropriate stone has been selected and transported to its future location, he sketches a design of runes and ornaments directly onto the stone surface, first using a soaked cloth (so that possible mistakes will easily disappear), then coal (which can be erased easily), and finally, for the ultimate design, chalk. Then he carves the lines using a chisel and a hammer or mallet. The grooves are often painted with a mixture of buttermilk, pigment (e.g. iron oxide), and powdered ammonia. Ideally, the stone should be carved and painted while resting in a horizontal position and not erected until completed. To prevent future confusion among archaeologists and philologists, Sandquist’s rune stones are recorded by the National Museum.

Erik Moltke postulated that a pick hammer was more convenient than a chisel for carving runes and ornaments. He argued that if the rune carver was using a chisel and a hammer, his hand would be covering the area he was working on, whereas a pick hammer would allow him to see the work in progress at any time. However, the fact is that a pick hammer is far less precise when it comes to carving lines than the chisel and hammer: by holding the chisel near the stone surface, the rune carver can easily work precisely and furthermore adjust the power of the strokes. The pick hammer, on the other hand, is chisel and hammer all in one, and the direct percussion technique that it requires forces the stone mason to keep a distance from the stone surface, which causes imprecision as to percussion power and direction. The pick hammer is far more suitable for work on large surfaces, e.g. on ashlars, where the power of the hammer stroke is more important than precision.

Just one pick hammer is known from Viking Age Scandinavia. It was found in the ring fortress of Trelleborg (Fig. 5). In addition, a pick hammer of uncertain date is known from Lund in Sweden (Fig. 6). In a European perspective, the Romans used this tool around the beginning of the Christian era. Several pick hammers are known, for instance, from the quarries in Felzberg near Odenwald, south of Mainz. In medieval art, pick hammers are often depicted as a tool for cutting ashlars (Figs. 7-8), and they were used until the Second World War.

A number of chisels are known from Viking Age Scandinavia (Fig. 9), but the shape of the individual chisels does not reveal whether it was made for iron or stone working. However, the chisels may have a different degree of hardness, since ideally a chisel for stone carving would be less hard than one designed for iron working. The reason is that if the steel in the stonemason’s chisel is too hard, the chisel will crack easily, and if on the other hand the steel is too soft, the chisel will need sharpening too often. This is why modern standard chisels are very poor for rune carving.

Oxidation and recycling has probably been the fate of many prehistoric chisels. Wooden mallets, which may have been used for stone carving, are known from Viking Age Sigtuna. In pictures from the Middle Ages, chisels and mallets are depicted as tools for carving inscriptions (Fig. 10).

The weathering of the rune stones has made it very difficult to find traces from the rune carvers’ tools. Still, faint chisel marks can be observed on a few Swedish rune stones and on the large Jelling stone (Fig. 11). Erik Moltke interpreted small conical depressions which he observed in a number of rune grooves as marks from a pick hammer. The same phenomenon can be observed on the Vester Tørslev stone (Fig. 12). However, these marks only prove that a pointed tool was used – and that may well have been a pointed chisel.

Ole Thirup Kastholm Hansen
Institut for Arkæologi og Etnologi
Københavns Universitet

Erik Sandquist
Hansen, O., & Sandquist, E. (2004). Med mejsel eller pikhammer – Hvorledes blev runer ristet?. Kuml, 53(53), 181-196. Hentet fra