The Runic alphabet was a system of writing based on angular shapes that could easily be carved into wood or stone. It originated and was used mainly in Northern Europe, by the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse tribes. One theory says that Runes evolved from Etruscan writing, however other quasi-runic scripts in other parts of the world (Rovásírás and Orkhon Script) also exist.
Tolkien and Runes
In The Hobbit, Tolkien used Old English runes, or Futhorc, to display the writing of the Dwarves on the Thrór's Map; his Dwarves however were based mainly on Norse culture and their language is influenced of Semitic languages. The texts of course are modern English, and display the use of Westron of Third Age.
The foreword of The Hobbit (50th anniversary edition and later) explains the usage of the Old English runes and help the reader read the Map (although the translations are also revealed in the end of Chapter 3, A Short Rest)
Eventually Tolkien elaborated on a totally original runic writing system while writing The Lord of the Rings. Although most of the letters between historical runes and Tolkien's "cirth" are identical, they do not share the same values, since the Cirth follow the phonetic principles of the Tengwar.
In the history of Arda, a runic script called Cirth was invented by Daeron of Doriath to represent Sindarin words. Runes came to be used widely by races other than the Elves, and especially by the Dwarves.