The surviving evidence suggests that there was a long-standing and geographically widely-distributed tradition of runic writing in Norway. Relatively large numbers of inscriptions in the older futhark have been found in the country, on both portable objects and memorial stones. There are more medieval inscriptions known from Norway than anywhere else, mainly on objects found in the trading centres of Bergen, Trondheim and Tønsberg, but also in the form of church graffiti and on grave stones. Yet despite this apparently long-lasting habit of runic literacy through a millennium and a half, there is a surprising paucity of evidence from the middle period between the earliest and the latest inscriptions: Norway has very few surviving Viking Age rune stones compared to Sweden or Denmark, and only a little more than the Isle of Man.
In fact, scholars disagree on the number of Viking Age rune stones in Norway. According to Barnes (2012a) there were 60 (compared to around 220 in Denmark and 2,600 in Sweden), while Barnes (2012b) and Spurkland (2005) counted 50, and Page (1983) only 40; all three scholars cautioned that these numbers are approximate. There has been relatively little work on the Norwegian Viking Age rune stones as a corpus (though see Krøvel 2001, 2003), and it is clear that some basic definitions and classification are still needed. In relation to its small size, the corpus appears to be remarkably varied in terms of the size, type and function of the monuments and the nature of their inscriptions, which has perhaps contributed to the difficulties of defining it. The corpus is also varied in its geographical distribution, not surprising in a country as large and regionally distinct as Norway, but raising questions about the nature and extent of runic literacy across such a wide area and throughout a substantial period of time.
The aim of the paper will be to establish what, if anything, characterises the Viking Age rune stones of Norway, and how they compare to the better-known and larger corpora of Denmark and Sweden. Attention will be paid both to the form and functions of the monuments, and to the content and character of the inscriptions.