Runic Inscriptions of the Orkneys

Based on the Research of James Farrer



Origin of Maes-Howe, and Date of Inscriptions
Readings of Inscriptions


AS the following pages are intended only for private circulation among friends and acquaintances, and for presentation to those few Public Societies to whom such a subject may be interesting, it is hardly necessary to offer any apology for the many imperfections in the description of Maes-howe, which may doubtless be pointed out, and for the brief and cursory manner in which the subject is handled. I desire only to give a plain statement of facts, in the hope that attention may be drawn to this interesting discovery, and possibly some further impetus given to the elucidation of Runic literature. I have received from the learned professors, whose translations are given, much valuable information, of which, however, I can only partially avail myself, in consequence of my very imperfect acquaintance with Runology.


Ingleborough, Yorkshire, June 1862.


Runes are the alphabetic letters employed in the writing of Germanic languages until the advent of Latin letters following the Christianization of the germanic and Scandinavian lands.  They are each used to represent a particular sound value (a phonic) to transliterate spoken words into letter representations, but can also be used to represent conceptualizations after which they are named (ideographs and concept runes).  The Scandinavian Runes are known as futhark or fuþark (derived from their first six letters of the script: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K) and the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc or fuþorc (due to sound shifts in Old English).

The three foremost Runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (150–800 AD), the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD) and the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD).

The Younger Futhark is divided further into the long-branch runes (aka Danish) and short-branch runes (aka Swedish-Norwegian).  The Younger Futhark later developed into the Medieval runes (1100–1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (1500–1800 AD).

The Eldest Futhark is made up of twenty-four runes transcribing twenty-four sounds comprised of eighteen consonants and six vowels.  A Younger Futhark reduced to sixteen runes replaced it in about the 9th century and covered most of the Viking period.  The Younger Futhark may have been developed by Erik ‘Bragi the Old’ Ragnarson in Hraes’ and was brought back to Zealand from the east with the reconquest of Denmark by King Harde Knut I who was also known as Prince Ivar (Igor) of Kiev, but this is all speculative at this point.  But the return of the Hraes’ seems to have sparked a revival of the pagan culture in Denmark, which was under the heavy Christianization efforts of Charlemagne and his sons of Frankia.

Runic script can be written from left to right, from right to left, from bottom to top, from top to bottom, in vertical or horizontal lines.  It can also be written in boustrophedon mode, turning back in direction at each line.  The oldest inscriptions are more often from right to left, while those from the Younger Futhark are mostly from left to right.  That difference can be important when determining the age of runic script.

Similarities between the Germanic Runic scripts and the ancient Greek and Latin alphabets have often been ignored, but when the runic and early Mediterranean scripts are placed side by side, similarities become aparent and this may be due to the commonality of the tripartite religions shared by them.  The northern tripartite, or three gods religion, was called Aesir, the Roman Vanir, the Indian Brahman, with the original Persian founding religion being Aran.  They have all since fallen prey to variants of the one god religion of Zoroaster to one extent or another.  This too is speculative at this point, but the ‘one god’ Muslims of Spain referred to the ‘tripartite gods’ Vikings as being Magis or Magicians, the early Arans of Persia.

Historically, the heavy belief in Magic by both Greeks and Romans has been downplayed as mere augury, but there was much more to it than that if one can judge from their early writings, such as The Golden Ass.  Having been more recently converted, the Magic of the north is more aparent, particularily in ancient sagas that have escaped heavy Christianization.  The Scriptoriums of Iceland under the control of Snorri Sturluson seemed to have avoided much of this heavy handedness, but even he fell under this influence when the King of Norway sent assassins to the island and they killed him in a holmganger of sorts.  Still, his family and his works survived and remain a crucial part of Pagan reconstruction, marred somewhat by the fact that Snorri, too, was likely a devout Christian.

The Old Norse term taufr(ar) may have meant wizardry or sorcery instruments, but then began to refer to sorcery itself.  Seithr is a certain type of Viking magic that ties divination with sorcery, sometimes for good, but more often for evil.  It was extensively practised in the northern lands during the Viking age, even well after conversion to the one god religion of the Christians and women seem to have been the main, but hardly the sole, practitioners.  In the Saga of the Ynglings, written circa 1230, Snorri Sturluson wrote that practicing Seithr was a shameful act for men.  He also writes that Seithr was first practiced by the Vanir divinities and then the Vanir goddess Freyja shared it with the Aesir gods, Odin in particular, who hung nine days on the great tree Yggdrasil to learn the Runes and Seithr.

The stanza 157 of the Havamal tells of the power of Runes to bring the dead back to life in order to gain insight.  In the stanza, Odin describes a spell that does this:

Þat kann ek it tolfta,
ef ek sé á tré uppi
váfa virgilná,:
svá ek ríst ok í rúnum fák,
at sá gengr gumi
ok mælir við mik.
I know a twelfth one
if I see up in a tree,
a dangling corpse in a noose,
I can so carve and colour the runes,
that the man walks
and talks with me.

Other sources write of runes carved upon sticks which, when placed under the tongues of the dead, allow them to talk and possibly identify a killer.  In Egils Saga, the protagonist complains about Love Runes, improperly carved, causing the benefactor to be ill instead of successful at romance.  He then repairs the faulty draft and true love, or at least health, comes at last.  Two part, three part and even powerful four part runes are carved on whalebone panels for success in love and ventures and perhaps even war.

Most of the inscriptions in the Maes Howe of Orkney are in the subjoined form of the later Runic alphabet, or the “Norwegian division of the Scandinavian Runes” as described by Professor Munch.

Younger Futhark, Long Branch (Top) and Short Branch (Below)

The Anglo-Saxon Runes


EARLY in the month of July 1861 I was enabled, by the kind permission of my friend David Balfour, Esq. of Balfour and Trenaby, to put in execution a scheme long contemplated, but from various circumstances unavoidably delayed, the excavation of some of the great tumuli in the neighbourhood of the Stones of Stennes, or Ring of Brogar. I had in the year 1854 partially explored one of considerable size on the east side of the great circle of stones, which stands on the west shore of the Loch of Harray. No discovery, however, of any importance was then made.

Some days were devoted to excavations close to Stennes, to which allusion will afterwards be made, but as several gentlemen of well-known antiquarian reputation from Edinburgh and Aberdeen were expected, and as I was desirous of having the benefit of their experience and advice, I determined at once to commence operations on the great tumulus of Maes-howe, the subject of this notice. My attention had been particularly called to this tumulus by Mr. Balfour, whose decided opinion that a careful examination might result in some important discovery, afforded me great encouragement, as I well knew that he had for many years taken considerable interest in Orkney antiquities, and his opinion that Maes-howe was a sepulchral chamber, appeared to be confirmed by local traditions.[1]

On the afternoon of Saturday the 6th of July, therefore, guided by the experience of Mr. George Petrie, and assisted by the professional knowledge of Mr. Wilson, road contractor, ground was broken on the west side of Maes-howe, and on the same evening, Mr. John Stuart and Mr. Joseph Robertson of Edinburgh, with Colonel Forbes Leslie of Rothie, and Mr. James Hay Chalmers of Aberdeen, arrived by the Prince Consort steamship. As it was anticipated that a couple of days would suffice to make a large opening in the tumulus, arrangements were made for meeting there on the 10th of July. Before proceeding with the description of what followed, it may not be out of place to give a short account of the Stones of Stennes, as described by Lieutenant Thomas in a work published by him in 1851:—

“The Great Circle of Stennes, or Ring of Brogar, is a deeply entrenched circular space containing almost two acres and a half of superficies, of which the diameter is 366 feet. Around the circumference of the area, but about thirteen feet within the trench, are the erect stones, standing at an average distance of eighteen feet apart. They are totally unhewn, and vary considerably in form and size. The highest stone was found to be 13-9 feet above the surface, and judging from some others which have fallen, it is sunk about eighteen inches in the ground. The smallest stone is less than six feet, but the average height is from eight to ten. The breadth varies from 2-6 to 7-9 feet, but the average may be stated at about 5 feet, and the thickness about 1 foot—all of the old red sandstone formation. The trench round the area is in good preservation. The edge of the bank is still sharply defined, as well as the two foot-banks or entrances, which are placed exactly opposite to each other. They have no relation to the true or magnetic meridian, but are parallel to the general direction of the neck of land on which the circle is placed. The trench is 29 feet in breadth, and about 6 in depth, and the entrances are formed by narrow earth-banks across the fosse. The surface of the enclosed area has an average inclination to the eastward. It is highest on the north-west quarter, and the extreme difference of level is estimated to be from 6 to 7 feet. The trench has the same inclination, and therefore could never be designed to hold water.”

The Excavation of Maes-Howe.

On Monday the 8th of July, a number of men under the superintendance of Alexander Johnson, Mr. Wilson’s foreman—a most active and intelligent fellow—proceeded with the work that had been commenced on the previous Saturday, and before evening discovered a passage on the west side, which afterwards proved to be the entrance into the interior of the tumulus. This passage was covered over with large flag-stones, one of which having been with some difficulty upraised, we effected an entrance, but found a considerable accumulation of earth and stones, which was removed on the following day, and Mr. Wilson, after careful examination, in which his engineering experience was of the highest importance, agreed to my suggestion that the excavation should be proceeded with from the centre of the hillock.

I am chiefly indebted to my friend Mr. George Petrie for the following measurements, which I believe will be found to be substantially correct:—

The tumulus is about 92 feet in diameter, 36 feet high, and about 300 feet in circumference at the base. It is surrounded by a trench 40 feet wide, and varying in depth from 4 to 8 feet. It is situated on the north side of the new road leading to Stromness from Kirkwall, being about 6 miles from the former, and 9 from the latter place. It is about 200 yards distant from the road, and a mile and a half from the Stones of Stennes. It has undoubtedly been entered at some remote period, probably by the Northmen, who, as is well known, were not deterred by feelings either of religion or superstition, from opening and ransacking any place likely to repay them for their trouble. Whether they were the first to break into the building, or whether they found it in a state of comparative ruin, the natural result of great antiquity, can now only be matter of conjecture. It is obvious that little respect has been paid to the dead, since the stones used for closing up the cells, in which it is supposed they were deposited, were found torn out and buried in the mass of ruins filling up the interior of the chamber to which these cells are attached.

The passage leading to the central chamber is 2 feet 4 inches wide at its mouth, and appears to have been the same in height, but the covering stones had been removed, or had fallen in for about 22½ feet. The passage then increases in dimensions to 3¼ feet in width, and 4 feet 4 inches in height, and continues for 26 feet, when it is again narrowed by two upright stone slabs to 2 feet 5 inches. These slabs are each 2 feet 4 inches broad, and immediately beyond them the passage extends 2 feet 10 inches, and then opens into the central chamber. Its dimensions from the slabs to its opening into the chamber are 3 feet 4 inches wide, and 4 feet 8 inches high. At the commencement of the passage there is a triangular recess in the wall about 2 feet deep, and 3½ in height and width, in front and opposite to it in the passage, a stone of corresponding shape and dimensions, suggesting the idea that it might have been used to close the passage, and that it was pushed back into the recess in the wall when admission into the chamber was desired. From this recess to the chamber, the sides of the passage, the floor and roof, are formed by four immense slabs of flagstone; three of these stones are broken, and the fourth slightly cracked.

After a few days’ labour the whole of the rubbish filling the chamber was removed, but long ere this was accomplished, the keen eye of Mr. Joseph Robertson discovered the first of the Runic inscriptions. They were high up on the walls of the building, smaller and less distinctly drawn than many that were afterwards discovered, but the important fact of the existence of Runic inscriptions in Orkney, where none had hitherto been found, was at once established.


The chamber when cleared out proved to be about 15 feet square on the level of the floor, and 13 feet in height, to the top of the present walls. Immediately opposite to the passage is an opening in the wall 3 feet from the floor. This is the entrance to a cell or small chamber in the wall, 5 feet 8 inches long, 4½ feet wide, and 3½ high. A large flagstone is laid as a raised floor between the entrance and the inner end of the chamber. The entrance is 2 feet wide, 2½ high, and 22½ inches long. On the two opposite walls of the chamber are similar openings in the walls. The one on the right is 2½ feet wide, 2 feet 9 inches high, and 1 foot 8 inches long. It gives admission to a cell 6 feet 10 inches long, 4 feet 7 inches wide, 3½ feet high, and has a raised flagstone floor, as in the other chamber. The opening on the left is 2¼ feet wide, 2½ high, and 1¾ long, and about 3 feet above the floor of the chamber. The cell of which this is the entrance is 5 feet 7 inches long, 4 feet 8 inches wide, and 3 feet 4 inches high. It has no raised floor like the two other cells. The roofs, floors, and back walls of the cells are each formed by a single slab of stone, and stones corresponding in size and shape to the openings in the walls were found on the floor in front of them. The natural inference is that they were originally the seals of the chambers in which the honoured dead reposed.

The four walls of the central chamber converge towards the top by the successive projection of each stone or flag, commencing about 6 feet from the level of the floor, as is usually found to be the style of building, both in the Pict’s houses or burghs, and in the still more primitive subterranean dwellings known as Weems. The top of the chamber would thus necessarily be of small dimensions, and the aperture easily closed by one large flagstone. This top, or cover stone, together with a considerable portion of the upper part of the walls, has been thrown down, and the highest part of the existing walls is only about 13 feet from the level of the floor. At that point, the opposite walls have approached to within 10 feet of each other, so that the chamber is now 15 feet square at the floor, and 10 feet at the top of the walls, in their present condition.

Large quantities of earth had been piled up over the building when completed. In each angle of the central chamber stands a large buttress, doubtless intended to strengthen the walls, and support them under the pressure of their own weight, and that of the mass of earth with which the whole was covered. These buttresses vary somewhat in dimensions, but they are on an average about 3 feet square at the base, and from 9 to 10 feet high, with the exception of one which is only 8 feet high. In each buttress one side is formed by a single slab. The walls of the chamber are built with large stones, which generally extend the whole length of the wall. No lime or mortar of any kind has been used.

The entire number of Runic characters may be about 935, exclusive of scribbles and many doubtful marks. The monograms and bind-runes, or connected consonants, are considered as forming one letter. There are also some marks which may have been intended to represent a horse and an otter with a fish in its mouth; also, a winged dragon and a worm knot, which last has much the appearance of one of the great Saurians. The two hind legs are very plainly defined.

Barrows at Bookan.

This barrow is in the parish of Sandwick, but so near to Stennes that it may have been regarded as connected with the great circle. It is on the property of Mr. Watt of Skail, in the West Mainland. It was opened on the 6th of July, and proved to be a collection of kists or graves. At the north end of the central kist, a flint lance head, and several fragments of clay vessels or urns, were found, together with a lump of heavy metal, supposed to be Manganese, but no bones. In some of the other kists were human remains in a very decayed state, two jaw bones being the most perfect. These were much distorted.

Mr. Petrie gives me the following measurements:—The Barrow is about 44 feet in diameter, and about 6 feet high. About 11 feet within the outer margin of the base of the barrow is a circular wall or facing about 1 foot high. From the south side of this wall a low passage, 6 feet 3 inches long, 21 inches in height, and the same in width, leads to a chamber or kist 7 feet long and 4½ wide. At the north end of this there was another kist 4 feet 8 inches long, and 3 feet wide. On the east side there was one 4 feet 8 inches long, and 2 feet 9 inches wide; and on the west side two kists, both of which were of the same length as that on the east side, and both were 3 feet in width. They were all about 2 feet 8 inches deep. The foundation of the surrounding wall or facing was considerably above the level of the floors of the kists.


The excavation of this barrow was commenced on the 17th of July 1854. It was found to contain graves, in one of which was an urn with a quantity of burnt bones and ashes. It was formed out of a micaceous stone not belonging to Orkney. It was 1 foot 9 inches in diameter, about 18 inches deep, and 5 feet 10 inches in circumference, the rim, which projected on the outside all round, was an inch and a half wide, the kist in which it was deposited was 2 feet and a half in length, and 2 feet in width, but the side stones which protected the kist were nearly 6 feet in length, and at the angles, and on the outside of the kist were quantities of small rolled pebbles and gravel, probably intended to assist in draining off water. Clay was placed inside the kist at the different angles; the flags were about an inch and a half thick, but much decayed; the cover stone was of an irregular shape, about 4 feet long and 2½ wide; the urn rested upon the corners of four flags; it was partly decayed, and could not be removed till after an interval of two days, when I succeeded in raising it. It is now in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries at Edinburgh, to whom I presented it, with the consent of Mr. Balfour.

In another grave within the same barrow was found a small urn composed of baked clay and gravel, nearly filled with soil, and only one or two small pieces of bone. It was brought to Kirkwall, but could not be preserved, in consequence of its decayed condition. It was 5 inches in diameter, 17 in circumference, and 5 deep. The kist was 2 feet 9½ inches long, and 1 foot 7 inches wide. The bones, in this instance, had not been placed in the urn, but were laid on a flagstone in the north-west angle of the kist. It is not improbable that further investigation might lead to the discovery of other interments within the same barrow, since neither of those before described were in the centre of the tumulus, and several instances have occurred where they have been found near the outside.

Mounds at Stennes.

In the year 1854, I had partially opened one of the largest of these hillocks, but further examination last July did not encourage the belief that it was sepulchral. I was however advised to examine one on the west side of the Stones of Stennes, and directly opposite to the one previously mentioned. In both of them the workmen penetrated to a depth of 22 feet, and over an area of 9 square feet in the one on the west side of the great circle, but there was no appearance of any kind of building. The material of which these hillocks are composed is precisely the same as that which still exists within the circle of stones, and I infer that when the moat surrounding the circle was excavated, advantage was taken of the circumstance to raise these hillocks. Fragments of animal, but no human bones, were found in each, but in both instances near the top. Building stones are found at the base of both hillocks, but always embedded in the soil; those which were easy of removal having no doubt been long since taken away by the country people. Sections were made at right angles in both of the hillocks, and it was clearly ascertained that no building of any size could be concealed within.


In this barrow, which is in the parish of Sandwick, but adjoining Stennes, I found the remains of two stone urns. The barrow had been evidently previously opened. There was reason to believe that these urns had been in separate kists. They were formed out of a micaceous stone, but the attempt to unite the fragments was quite hopeless. A few small pieces of human bone were found. The cover and sidestones of the kists remained in the grave.

Plate III, General Plan and Section of Howe



Plate V. Section Views


Plate VI. Longitudinal Sections


Origin of Maes-Howe.

IT is proposed now to inquire into the origin of Maes-Howe, at what time, and for what purpose it was constructed, and who were the people whose names and writings are found engraved on its walls. I am indebted to the learned Professors who have furnished me with their translation of the inscriptions, for the information which is embodied in the following pages.

It is much to be regretted that the inscriptions are so indefinite, and frequently so much defaced. Moreover, Nos. 19 and 20 alone make any allusion to the erection of Maes-Howe. Professor Rafn believes that it was a sorcery hall for Lodbrok,[2] a female magician, Professor Munch, that it was the burial-place of a woman of the same name, while Professor Stephens, who expresses no opinion as to the time when the building was raised, considers the writings which speak of Lodbrok’s sons, as indicative of its having been used in early times by the celebrated Scandinavian Vikings of that name, as a fortress and place of retreat. The low and narrow cells, as well as the low passage leading to the interior, fully justify the opinion that it was undoubtedly at one time a place of burial. The massive stones forming the floor and side walls of the passage, and also those used in the inside to support the buttresses, are similar in character to the neighbouring circle of stones at Stennes. The architecture also is most primitive, and it is evident that the whole work must have been one requiring much time and labour. The present form of the mound does not favour the idea that it was originally a platform, and used for the performance of religious rites, though this would not be inconsistent with the idea that it had been adopted to that purpose at some remote period, having been previously used as a place of interment.

If we find difficulty in determining the period when the mound was first raised, almost equal difficulty arises in assigning to any fixed time the engraving of the numerous inscriptions. Many of them are no doubt to be attributed to the Crusaders, but there are others of probably far earlier date than the twelfth century, when, as stated by Professor Munch, the Orkney Jarl, Ragnvald, about the year 1152-3, organized his naval expedition to the Holy Land. That the writings have been engraved at intervals during a long period of time—perhaps, as suggested by Professor Stephens, during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, or even later—is sufficiently obvious. Some of the stones have the words very faintly and imperfectly engraved, while in others the lines are sharply and distinctly cut. The absence of division between the letters (for the dots are very uncertain in their position, and are probably for the most part accidental) sufficiently accounts for the difference of reading, in several of the inscriptions. The variety of type—there being no fewer than 18 different forms of A, many of them it is true, like, but still different; to say nothing of Diphthongs, the Bind-runes, or consonants and vowels connected, as  (æ) or  (a) and  (k)  or (a) and () forming AK, Ar, and others of a similar nature—necessarily renders the task of translation, more especially when the letters are indistinct and perhaps unfinished, one of difficulty and uncertainty.

Very few of the old Northern letters are found. The “Dragon” and “Worm Knot” are still perfectly distinct, and have evidently been carved by superior artists. With the exception of two stones—one of which is shewn in the drawing of the interior of the tumulus, and on which four letters are carved—none have been found bearing any inscription amongst the debris, nor is there any reason to suppose that stones bearing inscriptions have been removed from the walls. The two stones before alluded to had evidently been used to close up the cells, and lay on the basement floor just below the entrances to the cells from which they had been rudely torn. In one of the cells, that on the left side of the chamber, a few letters were indistinctly written. By accident they were forgotten, and no casts were taken of them. It is not easy to account for the various elevations at which the carvings were made. Those on the higher parts could not have been reached by persons standing at the bottom, but they might have been inscribed after the roof had been broken in, and when the building was in a partially ruined state. Many of the marks, possibly some of the “scratches” or “scribbles” to which no importance is attached, and perhaps even some of the doubtful letters, may be the result of violence used in breaking in the roof. Most of the Runes belong to the Norwegian division of the Scandinavian class, and have nothing to do with the Gothic or older alphabet, but, in the opinion of Professor Munch, they exhibit some archaicisms which prevent their being placed in the latest times of the Norwegian class; they must therefore be referred to about a. d. 1150.

Date of Inscriptions.

The meaning of the word Maes-Howe is very obscure. It is, as Professor Munch remarks, not easy to explain. The haugr, pronounced how, is plain enough; the word Maes might have been derived from Meitis, pronounced almost like Meiss, Meitir, gen. Meiris, which was the name of a fabulous sea king, and was afterwards used to denominate any mighty king or warrior. Meiris-haugr therefore might have been synonymous with the how, or tumulus of this fabulous sea king. This opinion of Professor Munch’s is at all events not unlikely to be correct; certainly local tradition has always ascribed a sepulchral character to the mound. Professor Rafn thinks that the word is derived from Mar,[3] the name of a man, and that valuable information might be obtained if it were found possible to read with a greater degree of accuracy the Runes Nos. 6 and 7, since Orki and Mar are named in these inscriptions, and it is to be inferred that Mar Orkason had engraved some of these Runes.

Nos. 13 and 20 are justly attributed to the times of the Crusaders,[4] but many of the other inscriptions must have been engraved by different persons at different times. Professor Stephens believes that most of them are of a much earlier date than the twelfth century, and this opinion is much strengthened by the worn appearance of some of the Runes, and the uncertain character of others. Some of the proper names cannot be read as certainly correct, owing to the marks and abrasures in the stones. Two of them, Orki and Oframr, are supposed to be hitherto quite unknown, and may therefore perhaps be referred to the earlier inhabitants of the How, whilst Gawkr and Trandill both belong to an historical person in Iceland. The other names are common, and known from Runic inscriptions, as well as from ancient manuscripts and documents. The name Ingibiorg, occurs several times in the Orkneyinga Saga, and was by no means an uncommon name in Orkney. Ingibiorg, the widow of earl Thorfinn (who died in 1064) afterwards married Malcolm, king of Scotland; but it cannot be safely asserted that this was the Ingibiorg mentioned in No. 8. On the whole, it seems not unreasonable to suppose that all the names found inscribed on the walls may belong to persons who lived since the construction of the barrow, and that we have as yet no certain evidence to justify us in determining either the name of the builder, or the period when the tumulus was first erected.

Most of the inscriptions are in the subjoined form of the later Runic alphabet, or the “Norwegian division of the Scandinavian Runes” as described by Professor Munch. The dots inside the B, and G, do not occur here, and the  (y) is not often used.

In the earlier or “Gothic” Alphabet, many of the letters are quite different.

Readings of the Inscriptions by Professors
Stephens, Munch, Rafn.

Plate vii.

No. I.

Thatir Vikinkr . . . a, kom, Vtir, Hir, til.

Thatir the Viking, came here to weary—(perhaps from the sea, or from battle.)

The inscription is incomplete, several letters being obliterated. The a in the Bind-rune Ak is probably the termination of the word Fra, from.—Professor Stephens.

Thatir Vikinkr . . . komutirhirtil.

That which the Wicing . . . came outerly here to.

This is only a fragment, some of the letters being obliterated. It may mean that a pirate or Wicing had been at the tumulus and found something, or that some person had found what the Wicing had left. It may however be merely the name of some person, as Vikingr is sometimes used as a Christian name.—Professor Munch.

That Ir Vikingr . . . A Kom Ut Irhirtil.

This is a Viking . . . come out is hereto.

The inscription is incomplete. Vikingr may be the name of a man.—Professor Rafn.

No. II.

Molfr Kolbainssonr Raeist Runa Thesa Ghaut.

Molf Kolbainsson carved these Runes to Gaut.

Probably a memorial to a comrade who had fallen in battle.—Professor Stephens.

Tholfr Kolbeinssonr raeist runar thesa.

Tholf Colbanesson engraved these Runes.

The last word, read as haua, seems superfluous. It is possible there may have been some mis-spelling, the first  (a) in haua may have been an  (e) the dot having been a little prolonged,  and the  (u or v) may have been intended for an R, the word would then read hér á, hereon, or on this stone.—Professor Munch.

Tholfr Kolbeinssonr reist Runar thessar hatt.

Tholf Kolbeinsson carved these Runes on High.—Professor Rafn.

(Note.—Nos. 1 and 2 are both engraved on the upper part of the building.—J. F.)

No. III.

Bra Hoh Thana.

Bra hewed this.

The third letter  (a) is very rare, and is an indication of the great antiquity of the inscription. The word hew is often used for carve or write.—Professor Stephens.

Bre Hoh Thena, or, braut haug thenna.

Broke this tumulus.

The inscription seems to be incomplete, some words may have been engraved on another stone and lost.—Professor Munch.

(Note.—The present state of the stone hardly justifies this supposition.—J. F.)

Bre höh Thena, bre hoh Thenna.

Professor Rafn does not translate this. He remarks that what precedes is “incomplete and undecipherable.”

No. IV.

Vemuntr Raeist.

Vemunt carved.—Professor Stephens.

Vemuntr Raeist.

Wemund engraved (these Runes).—Professor Munch.

Vimundr Raeist.

Vemund carved (the Runes).—Professor Rafn.

No. V.

F, U, Th, O, R, K, H, N, I, A, S, T, B, M, L, Y.

This is the Scandinavian Runic Futhork, or Alphabet. The form of the second letter is very rare, the last three are also very unusual, and may be considered as an indication that the building had been for a long period of time in the hands of many people. It was the custom to write the Alphabet wherever it was most likely to meet the eye, and a passing visitor, or treasure seeker, would have hardly taken so much trouble.—Professor Stephens.

F, U, Th, O, R, K, H, N, I, A, S, T, B, U, L, U.

The Runic Alphabet—Some of the letters here have been placed out of their proper order, owing probably to carelessness on the part of the writer. Time has also produced its effects upon the letters, the ǁ is clearly , and the long stroke in the third letter  (th) is also accidental.—Professor Munch.

F U Th O R K H N I A S T B M L R.

The common Runic Alphabet.—Professor Rafn.

No. VI.

Orkasonr, Saghthi, a, Runom, thaeim, Ir, Han, Ristu.

Orkason saidin the Runes which he wrote.

No. VII.

Nuari Kulturmr, Sikurthr, Iru, Falnir, Kiaebik, Uil Saeghian Ir, So, Mair.

Orkason said in the Runes which he wrote—Nuari, Kulturmr Sikurthr, Iru, are fallen.
Kiaebik will say ye (tell you) so more.

These two inscriptions must be taken together; they have been written at the same time, and by the same person. It is probably a military message from some battle-field, sent through a trusty officer who is commissioned to make known the details. The word Nuari is very doubtful; this part of the inscription is very indistinct. It becomes more legible advancing from left to right.—Professor Stephens.

Orkasonr sagthi a run om theim er halir ristu.

The son of Orca dictated the Runes which heroes engraved.

There seems to have been some blunder in the writing. If the dot on the right side of the letter  has been the end of a stroke, it would convert the letter into the Bind-rune  (Al.) and if the  were a combination of L and R, the word would then read Halir, that is Men-fellows-heroes. The second part of the inscription, No. 7, is only a fragment—perhaps some part of a verse, but it is doubtful.—Professor Munch.

Orkason sahthi A Runum Thaeim Ir Han Risti . . . Saethian Ir So Maur

The resolution which this Mar Orkason mentioned in the Runes he carved.

The two inscriptions are to be read together, but much of No. 7, is very indistinct.—Professor Rafn.

Plate viii.


Ingibiorgh, Hin, Faret, Lutin, Hir, Mighil, ofl, ate.

Ingibiorgh, the fair lady. Many a woman hath fared skinclad (or bent) here, (who) great wealth owned.

Ingibiorgh probably resided here for safety, and, as the word Lutin signifies bent, it may refer to the low cells which are within the walls of the How. (Note.—The entrance also is very low and narrow.) The six Crypt Runes, or secret staves, represent the letters, A. Æ. R. L. I. K. R., and signify Aalikr or Erling, a proper name, or perhaps the beginning of some sentence.—Professor Stephens.

Inkibiorh, Hin, Fahra, ÆHkia Morhk, Kona,
Hæfer, Faret, Lut, in Hir Mikil Oflati.

Ingiburg, the fair widow! Many a woman has wandered stooping in here (although) ever so haughty.

The writer is probably recording the name of some fair woman, who has perhaps slighted him, and then reflects that the women who had been buried here, though ever so haughty, had been curbed by death. Ingibjorg, or Inkibiorh, is a common female name in the north. The other characters in the third line are known as Limouna, or Bough Runes. They were used in the later times of the Runic period, in the same manner as the Irish Ogum, but are not here intelligible. The writer probably intended to represent the chief vowels—A. E. I. O. Y. U. The Runic alphabet was divided into classes; the strokes on the left of the vertical line indicating the class, and those on the right the rune itself. Figures of fishes were occasionally in use, and were known as Fish-runes.—Professor Munch.

Ingibiorg Hin Fahra Æhkia a Morhg Kona
Hæfir Farit Lut in Hir Mihkil Oflati.

Ingibiorg, the fair widow, or Ingibiorg the Fair, the widow. Many a rather proud woman
did walk here stooping (bent forward), or did walk stooping here in (into).

The Palm-runes underneath cannot be read in the usual manner; the first, third, and fourth of the runes being a, o, and i; the writer probably intended to give all the vowels, but some of the letters have been obviously miscarved, and have perhaps been altered and defaced at a later period by other persons. In the first of them a cross line has been added to shew that the letter  or (a) is intended.—Professor Rafn.

No. IX.

Thorny Saerth . . . Haelghis Raeisto.

The javelin pierceth . . . Haelghis carved.

Haelghis was probably an Englishman or Frislander. The inscription is much worn, and evidently very old. The last letter  is the old northern .—Professor Stephens.

Thornu Saerth . . . Haelhi Raeist R.

Thorny . . . Haelhi engraved.

Thorny is a female name. Saerth is unintelligible; something is wanting here; the last letter R. is clearly the beginning of the word Runar.—Professor Munch.

Thorny Saerth . . . Haelhi Raeist.

Thorny Særd . . . Helge carved.

The word Saerth is of doubtful meaning.—Professor Rafn.

Plate ix.

No. X.

Thorer Formir, a proper name.


Thorer Fonkmir. Thorer, follow me.—Professor Stephens.

Probably the name of a man: there is a rude figure of a horse engraved.—Professor Munch.

Thorir Fomir, a name of doubtful import. Fá mèr, perhaps procure me. Thorer, procure me the cross. The great cross underneath may refer to the Crusade. (Note.—This cross has been apparently engraved at a comparatively late period.)—Professor Rafn.

No. XI.

Raeist runar thesar Oframr Sighurthersonr.

Ofram Sigurthson carved these Runes.

Several of the letters at the beginning are obliterated. The crosses may be intended for ornament.—Professor Stephens.

Reist Runar Thessar Uframr Sigurtharsonr.

Ofram, the son of Siward, engraved these Runes.—Professor Munch.

Raeist Runar Thaesir Oframr Sihurtharsonr.

Ofram Sigurdson carved these Runes.

The word Oframr, or Uframr, is hardly to be found anywhere else. It signifies “the modest,” “the reserved.” The seven crosses denote that this man was one of the Crusaders.—Professor Rafn.

No. XII.

Otar, Fila, Raeist, Runar Thesar.

Otar Fila carved these runes.—Professor Stephens.

Iotar, Fila, Reist Runar Thessar.

Iotar Fila engraved these runes.—Professor Munch.

Iota Fila Raeist Runar Thisar.

Iotar Fila carved these runes.

This is an unknown name.—Professor Rafn.


That, Man, Sat, Ir, Ekiæ, He, At, Feuar, Fort, Abrot,
Thrim Notom, Uarfi, Brot, Fort, Haeltr, Ænthaeir.

This is to be read from right to left. (The figure at the beginning is probably a mere scratch. J. F.) It reads thus:—That man who sat here in ache (sorrowfully) He at the Fee-Ware (at the treasure-gate—from the treasure-guard) forth a broke, with three comrades from the stronghold broke forth the Hero Ænthaeir. This probably announces the escape of a prisoner, perhaps an Englishman, as is indicated by some of the words—That for Sa, He for Han, as examples. He boasts of his escape. He may, however, have intended to record a message.—Professor Stephens.

No. XIV.

Jorsala Men Burtu Hauk.

Jerusalam Men broke into How.

Æhiiminii, a proper name; the second word is too faintly written to be translated; Æmisris, a proper name. There are some more very indistinct letters; probably they once indicated—

Ireskir Maen . . . Irish Men.

The stone exhibits traces of former writings, which renders the new carvings very doubtful.—Professor Stephens.

That Man Sat . . . Æhe at Feuar Fort.
Abrot Thrim Notom Var Fi Brot Fort Haeltr.
Æn Thaeir (No. XIV.), Jorsalamen Burtu Hauk thaena.

Professor Munch reads Nos. XIII. and XIV. together.

To be read from right to left, and No. XIV. taken in conjunction with it. This does not that (fool!) remember that the treasury was (already) carried away. Three nights was the treasury carried away rather (i. e., before) than the Jerusalem travellers broke this tumulus.—Professor Munch.

That Man Sat Er Igi Saehi At Fe Var Fœrt
Abrot Thrim Nottom Var Fe Bröt Fœrt
Haeldr Æn Thaeir
Iorsalamen Burtu haug Thaena.

It is true indeed, as Inge states, that the goods were carried away during three nights. The goods were carried away before the Ioraslamen broke open this barrow. Many of the other runes cannot be made out; some of the smaller ones are very indistinct.—Professor Rafn.

(Note.—Nos. XIII. and XIV. appear to be read as one inscription by the Professor.—J. F.)

Plate x.

No. XV.

Arnfithr, Matr, Raeist Runar thaesar.

Arnfith Mate carved these Runes.

The word Matr may signify “the mighty,” or “the greedy.”—Professor Stephens.

Arnfithr Matr Raeist Runar Thaesar.

Arnfinn Mat (perhaps the greedy) engraved these runes.

Matr was a nickname.—Professor Munch.

Arnfithr Matr Raeist Runar Thaesar.

Arnfinn, glutton, carved these Runes.—Professor Rafn.

No. XVI.

Maeth, thaeri, Oghse, Er, Ate, Kor, Ukr.
Traenilsonr, Fyrir, Sunan lant.

With that Axe which Kor owned hews.
Traenaldson along South-lying lands.
—Professor Stephens.

Maeth, Thaeirei Hse Erati Koukr Traenilsonr.
Fyrir Sunan Lant.

With this Axe which Goukr Traenaldson owned or possessed on the south side of the country.

The beginning of the inscription is wanting. Gauk Trandilson was the foster-brother of Asgrim Elsdagrimson—described in “Burnt Njal,” one of the chiefs in the south of Iceland about 990. The writer probably means to say that these runes were engraved with the same axe which Gauk Trandilson possessed at the end of the 10th century. The runes here found were perhaps engraved about the year 1152. No doubt “the land” here spoken of is Iceland, and the engraver an Icelander, perhaps even a descendant of the old chieftain.—Professor Munch.

Maeth Thaeri Öhse Er Ati Göukr Traen
Ils Sonr Fyrir Sunan Land.

With this Axe, owned by Gauk, the son of Trandil, in the South of the country.—Professor Rafn.


Haemuntr, Hartheksi, Raeist Run.

Haermunt Hardaxe carved these Runes.—Professor Stephens.

Haermuntr Hartheksi Raeist Run.

Hermund Hardaxe engraved these Runes.—Professor Munch.

Haermundr Harthigsi Raeist Run.

Hermund Hardaxe carved the Runes.

Hermund probably had in his possession the axe which formerly belonged to Gauk Trandilson, and was used by him in carving the runes.—Professor Rafn.

(Note.—Professors Stephens, Munch, and Rafn, all agree that some letters have been lost or miscarried. The letters,  at the end of the word run are obviously wanting.—J. F.)


Rist Sa Mathr Er Runstr Er Fyrir Vaestan Haf.

The man did cut most versed in Runes in the western countries.

Professor Rafn gives nearly the same description of Gauk as Professor Munch. He reads Nos. xvi. and xviii. together. The words Fyrir vaestan haf, to the west of the sea, refer to the western countries, more especially the British Isles. The Palm-runes are rarely capable of being deciphered.

(Note.—This No. is taken in conjunction with No. xvi. by Professor Rafn.—J. F.)

Rist, Sa, Mathr, Er, Runstr, Er, Fyrir, Vaestan Haf.

(These runes) risted that man, in Runes most skilful o’er the Western Seas.

The Palm Runes on the first line indicate Thisar Runar—these Runes.—Professor Stephens.

Rist Sa Mathr Er Runstr Er Fyrir Uaestan Haf.

That man engraved who is the best runed West of the Ocean.

No doubt the writer belonged to Orkney, or to some of the other Norwegian possessions. The Bough-runes are not easy to decipher.—Professor Munch.

No. XIX.

Sia, Houghr, Uar, Fyrlathin Haelr,
Thaeir, Uoro, Huater, Slitu, Oro,
Ut, Northr, Er, Olghit, Mikit, That, Uar.
Simon, Sighrik.
Sigrith.    Inroninse Æi.

This How was closed up—was quite abandoned. Out North is Fee (treasure) buried much.
That was in Roninsey (North Ronaldshay Island).

The writing is in different hands apparently, and it is probable that the How was abandoned when the inscriptions were engraved. The three names are most likely the names of the writers: they point to treasure buried in North Ronaldshay.—Professor Stephens.

(Note.—North Ronaldshay is a wild island half-way between Kirkwall and the Fair Isle, and not easy of access.—J. F.)

No. XX.

Lothebrokra Synar,1 Ghaenar,
Maen, Saem, Thaeir, Uoro, Fyri, Sir,2
Iorsalafarar, Brutu, Orkough3—Lifmut
Sa, Li, Ai, Aris, Loftir,4—Hir Uar, Fi Folghit
Mikit.5 (Raeist). Sael Er, Sa, Er, Fina,
Ma, Than, Outh, Hin, Mikla.6
Oko, Naekn, Bar, Firr, Oughi, Thisum.7

1Lothbrok’s sons. 2Doughty men as they were for them, or, what doughty men they were. 3Ierusalem Farers (pilgrims) broke open Ork How4Shelter mound; that ill (this bad retreat) aye ariseth lofty (still stands erect). 5Here was fee buried much. 6Happy is he who find may that treasure the mickle (that great wealth). 7Otho Naern bare past part how this. Otho was carried past this How in the ship Naern.

Written apparently by seven different persons, perhaps some of Lothbrok’s sons. This first writing was probably inscribed about the year 870 or 880, by the celebrated Scandinavian sea kings, and the others at a later period. One appears to complain of the mound itself—that bad retreat—perhaps on account of its affording shelter to the pirates who devastated the island; another inscription describes the breaking into the How by the Jerusalem travellers, and the later writings refer to the common belief at that time of the existence of concealed treasure. Naern is frequently used as a name for ships in Scandinavia. The word Baeirt (at the end of the fourth line) is not in the same hand as the rest of this line, and can only be considered as a mere scribble.—Professor Stephens.

Nos. XIX. and XX.

These must be taken together. The two first lines in both numbers, the 3d in No. xix. and the 4th in No. xx., must be read in continuation.

Sia Houhr Uar Fylathin H . . . r Lothbrokar Syner, Haenar, Thaeiruoro Huater
Sletuoro Maen Saem Thaeir Uoro Fyrisir.

This tumulus was formerly erected as tumulus (for Lodbrok, if Haugr is read, or “as that of” if we read hennar) her sons they were gallant, hardly (there) were men (such as they were). For themselves (i. e. shewed themselves).

Then read line 3 in No. xx.—

Iorsalafarar brutu Orkhaug.

The Jerusulem travellers broke the Orkhill.

Then line 3 in No. xix. and 4 in xx., 4 in xix. and 5 in xx., taken in continuation, give—

Utnorthr Er fe folgit Mikit that er la eftir, her va fe folgit Mikit (raeist Simon
Sigb. . . . Sigrith) Saell er sa er finna ma than outh hin mikla.

North-westerly is much money absconded, that which lay behind, here was much money
absconded (Simon——engraved); lucky is he who may find that great treasure.

The raeist Simon, etc., was written afterwards, and does not belong to the sentence.

The 6th and last line in No. xx. is—

Okonaekn Bar Fe Ur haugi thessum.

Okonaekn bore money out of (away from) this tumulus.

It seems, then, that it was supposed to have been originally erected for a mighty woman called Lodbrok, who had gallant sons, and that the Jerusalem pilgrims had dug into the Orkhill, which was probably a different place to this Maes-Howe, that the treasure contained there had been taken away, and that he would be lucky who found it. It also implies that Okonaekn carried off some of the treasure.—Professor Munch.

Nos. XIX. and XX.

Sia Höuhr, Var Fyr Lathin Haelr Lothbrokar
Syner Haenar Thaeir Vöro Hvatir Slikt Vöro
Maen Saem Thaeir Vöro Fyri Sir
Iorsalafarar Brutu Orkhöuh Lifmnd
Sailia Iarls Ut Northr Ir Fe Folhit Mikit
That Urlofoir Hir Var Fi Folhget Mikit
Raeist Simon Sihr in Tho Ingi Sihrith
Saelir Sa Ir Fina Ma Than Outh Hin
Mikla. Ogdonaegn Bar Fi yr
Ouhi Thisum.

This barrow was formerly a sorcery hall, erected for Lodbrok; her sons were brave, such were men as they were for themselves (such we may call valiant men, such as they were in their achievements).

The Iorsalafarar (visitors of Jerusalem) broke open Orkhow . . . Earls.

To the north-west a great treasure has been hid (but few believe that), a great treasure was hid here.[5] Simon sigr (victor) carved (the Runes) and afterwards Inge.

Happy he who may discover this great wealth. Ogdonaegn carried away the goods from this barrow.

Ogdonagn is probably a Gaelic name, perhaps corresponding to the present O’Donavan, and the person alluded to may have been of Scottish or Irish origin.—Professor Rafn.

Plate xi.

No. XXI.

Arnfithr, Raeist, Runar, Thisar, Sonr Stains.

Arnfith risted Runes there, the son of Stain. Thruki Let.

The beginning of an unfinished formula.—Professor Stephens.

Arnfithr, Raeist Runar Thisar Sorn Staeins Thrukr Lit.

Arnfinn the son of Steins engraved these Runes.

The other letters are defective and give no distinct meaning.—Professor Munch.

Arnfithr Raeist Runar Thisar Sonr Stains.
Thrukr Lit.

Arnfinn, a son of Steins, carved these runes. Thrud caused . . . . (incomplete).—Professor


Bot Ær Oktil at Sokua, Suo in Kotalant.[6] Sua Inklant.

Boot (blood money) is also to seek, so in Gothland, so in England.

It may also be a fanciful Alphabet.—Professor Stephens.

There are peculiar Runes, but too obscure for interpretation. Similar ones have been found near Baffins Bay. (Vide Antiquitates Americanæ).—Professor Munch.

This No. represents some signs belonging to the calendar—similar ones have been found in the Paradise cavern, and at Hof in Iceland. (Vide Rafn. Antiquitates Americanæ).—Professor Rafn.


Ikikaethir, Kynana, In, Uaensta.

Inkikaethr, of women the fairest.

Also the figure of an Otter with a fish in its mouth, meant for a decoration.—Professor Stephens.

Ikikaerth Ir Kynana in Uaensta.

Ingigerthr is of women the most beautiful.—Professor Munch.

Igigaerth Ir Kynana In Vaensta.

Ingigerth is the fairest of the women.—Professor Rafn.

Plate xii.


No interpretation of this is offered by the learned Professors.

Nos. XXV. and XXVI.

A Dragon and Worm Knot.—Professor Stephens.

No. XXV.

This is a Dragon drawn with art. There is a similar one on a stone at Hunstead in Scania. It may be ascribed to the heathen times, as well as the construction of the barrow itself.—Professor Rafn.


A serpentine winding like those found on Runic stones in the Scandinavian north and on other monuments from the last period of heathenism, and the commencement of the Christian era.—Professor Rafn.

Plate xiii.

The remaining Nos. are considered by all the learned Professors as “scribbles” or scratches, and must be considered as unimportant.

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Plate VII.

Plate VIII.


Plate IX.


Plate X.

Plate XI.

Plate XII.

Plate XIII.


[1] The country people state that the building was formerly inhabited by a person named Hogboy, possessing great strength. Haugbuie, in Norse, signifies “the ghost of the tomb;” and Haugr, “tumulus.”

[2] Professor Rafn says Lothbrok—a pair of shaggy trousers—was the well-known surname of Ragnar Lodbrok. At the time of the carving of the inscription, a popular tradition current in the Orkneys may have ascribed to far antiquity, and to the said hero of the mythico-historical times, the construction of the barrow; and on account of the want of historical knowledge, since the word lothbrok is of feminine gender, the hero may have been mistaken for a woman, and besides, the accounts in the sagas of his sons may have been repeated, that they were brave and valiant. The account given in the Fridthiofs Saga of the Earl Angantyre, reminds us of the pre-historic times of the Orkneys (vide Tridthjóss Saga, c. 5. Thorsteins Saga Vikings). Here a popular tale preserved to us in Runes, does the same by telling us that this barrow was the sorcery platform erected of old for the use of Lodbrok, and was probably also a temple and place of worship.

[3] The word read by Professor Rafn, Maur, instead of Mar, and considered as a proper name, is read mair or more by Professor Stephens. In the engraving No. 7, the letters are  obviously m, a, i, r—mair. It must therefore be a matter of doubt whether we can receive this word as a proper name, and consequently whether the derivation of the word Maes-Howe, suggested by Professor Rafn, is admissible.

[4] Professor Munch supposes that the Jerusalem travellers, who are described in No. 13 as having broken into the how, were connected with an expedition organized by Earl Ragnvald to the Holy Land. He says “many of the northern warriors joined the Earl in 1152. They assembled in Orkney, and after passing the winter there, sailed in the spring of 1153, and after being in Spain in December of that year, reached the Holy Land in August 1154; they went thence to Constantinople, where they passed the Christmas of 1154-55, returning home by different routes. During their stay in Orkney they had frequent quarrels with the inhabitants.” As some of the inscriptions seem to indicate the existence of treasure in the tumulus, it is not unlikely that it should have been examined by these warriors, and that they afterwards inscribed their names, together with other remarks, on the walls.

[5] There is a similar allusion to hid treasure on the wall of a rock at Berrig, in the Star valley North Throndheim County—“gull faitu nin alna nither”—They hid some gold nine ells deep in the earth.

[6] This (“evidently very difficult carving,” says Professor Stephens) may be taken as a fair specimen of the Bind-rune form of writing.

“The first letter is B, a very rare form; the second an ornamental O, with three side strokes instead of two; the third a T, the strokes being reversed and repeated above and below; the fourth , here used for Æ; the fifth, R; sixth, O, as before; seventh, Kt— and ; eighth,  (i and a), the side stroke being placed below; ninth, At, Bind-rune; tenth, an S; eleventh, O again; twelfth, KU—K and U; thirteenth, the monogram Asuo, A (), the side stroke thrice repeated, then S ( for ), an uncommon form, then U () below, and then () with three strokes; fourteenth, the Bind-rune I N K (); fifteenth, an O; sixteenth, an ornamental T; seventeenth, the monogram Alant—A () L () reversed and below, and  taken again, and N () and T () above twice; then eighteenth, the Bind-rune Sua, S () U () and A () in the centre; nineteenth, The Bind-rune Ink, i , and ; and lastly the monogram lant L (), A , and N , and T in the centre—formed thus .”