Monday, March 25, 2013

The Kensington Rune Stone is a White Whale

Recently, I have been watching the new Viking show on the History Channel.  It is a nine part miniseries about the Viking raids into northern England in the 8th century.  It is historical fiction, not a documentary.  It is a bloody and lusty tale.  I have no idea if the clothing or props are accurate or not.  In general, it is good entertainment.

Of course, as a side show, the publicizing of everything Viking or Norse is now ticked up a notch.  In the US that means the Kensington Rune Stone, the Heavener Rune Stone and the Newport (RI) Tower get some additional attention.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for the newsletter of the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society about proposed evidence for Viking exploration into North America (Moore 2001).  It is reproduced below.  Its title was “Hoaxes and the Norsemen of Canada,” and was a response to a Viking exhibit that was on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, March 2 - May 28, 2001.  I’ll have some additional comments afterward.

The difference between myth and reality is often a fine line, particularly when the story is too good to be true.  No matter how much data is presented or how tight the argument is made some people will believe the version of it they prefer.  This often happens with archaeological research.  Every now and then, we get to debunk an idea, enjoy the two minutes of limelight, and then our findings are ignored because the other story is more appealing.

Two appealing stories are the continued claims for Viking, or Norse, explorations in the upper Midwest, mostly Minnesota, and in New England.  The former is said to have been visited by a Swedish-Norwegian expedition in 1362; the other is linked to the "Vinland Voyages" chronicled in the Norse stories The Greenlanders' Saga and Erik the Red's Saga.  While the sagas do contain useful hints about eleventh century Norse sojourns in parts of Canada, there is little credibility to these ‘Viking Hoaxes’.

These two stories are worthy of attention.  The oldest concerns the origin of the Newport Tower in Newport, Rhode Island.  The tower is an unusual stone structure commanding the view over the town and bay.  In 1837, a Danish professor named Rafn published a book presenting evidence for Norse settlement in the New World.  His interpretation of the sagas placed the colony of Vinland within New England.  This news led to a flurry of attempts at finding the physical remains of Vikings.  Some believed the tower was Norse because it was thought to be different from other English structures from the early days of the town.  Others felt that it was English, dating to the seventeenth century.  The debate about the tower went on for several years and evidence for Norsemen was brought forth from many places within New England.

To resolve the issue, William Godfrey (1949, 1951, 1955) excavated the area within and around the tower in the 1940.  He found numerous artifacts in the builder’s trench dating to the seventeenth century and interpreted the structure as a windmill.  Even so, people still refer to it as evidence that Norsemen had been in New England.

The other story is a hoax from Minnesota (Guralnick 1982).  In 1898, a rune stone was found outside the town of Kensington.  Rune stones are rocks that have been inscribed with some message, often a memorial, in the runic alphabet, common in Northern Europe in Medieval times.  In some parts of Scandinavia this script was used into the early twentieth century.  Many of these stones have been found in Sweden.  The Kensington Stone inscription read:

            8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on
            an exploration journey from
            Vinland to the west We
            had camp by 2 skerries one
            day's journey north from this stone
            we were to fish one day after
            we came home found 10 men red
            of blood and dead  AVM

            We have 10 men by the sea to look
            after our ships 14 day's travel
            from this island       Year 1362

Certainly, this tale is intriguing.  But, soon after it was found, the rock was studied by a linguist and shown to be a fake.  Its alphabet is nineteenth century runic not fourteenth, as the date indicates.  The language is a dialect of Swedish found only in parts of Minnesota, including the Kensington area.  And, the inscription was not weathered, as it should have been if it was older.  However, the rock received much attention, and, after a promoter got onto the story, people began to believe that it was real.  Suddenly many more rune stones were found.  Today, one occasionally hears stories about Vikings in Minnesota.

Not all the stories about Norsemen in North America are hoaxes (Ingstad 1977; McGhee 1984; McGovern 1981, 1990).  During the late eighth through the eleventh centuries, there was a major population expansion out of Scandinavia.  Norsemen spread across the northern part of Europe and to their west.  Iceland was settled in the decade 860-870.  Erik the Red colonized Greenland from Iceland in the 980s.  By 1500, this colony either was abandoned or had died out, possibly due to Eskimo warfare.  About the year 1000, several voyages were undertaken from Greenland to explore further west.  Three places are recorded in the Sagas that were either settled or temporarily used:  the southern part of Baffin Island, called "Helluland," the coast of Labrador below the medieval tree line, named "Markland," and the northern part of Newfoundland, the legendary "Vinland".

Archaeological evidence for Norse settlements or contacts in North America is sparse but they definitely did land in parts of Canada.  The best known site is L'Anse aux Meadows, located along the northern coast of Newfoundland, which was excavated in the 1960s by Anne and Helge Ingstad and by Parks Canada in the 1970s.  There, the remains of ten houses, four boat sheds, refuse heaps, and two cooking pits were recovered.  The houses were medieval Norse long houses, similar to ones found in parts of Iceland and Sweden.  Some of the artifacts, such as a spindle whorl and some rivets are typical Norse products.  Twenty-one carbon dates clustered around the early eleventh century, correlating well with the Sagas.  Anne Ingstad is cautious about calling this site the Vinland colony.  However, it is a very good chance that it is.

Relations between the Norse and American natives, or "skraelings" as they called them, were mostly hostile.  Three groups were probably encountered: the Dorset Eskimos in northern Labrador, the Thule Eskimos in Greenland and eastern Arctic Canada, and the people of the archaeological complex called Point Revenge, found in southern Labrador and Newfoundland.  The Dorset and Thule Eskimos differed in their material culture, the latter having a more complex marine technological system.  The Point Revenge people may be the ancestors of the historic Algonquian speaking Naskapi, Montagnais, and Beothuck tribes.

Fascinating as this archaeology may be, the Norsemen did not leave much of an impact on the New World.  The modern stage of North America does not start with their presence.  There is no evidence for major epidemics, battles, or changed economies.  All of that would come later.  The existing evidence suggests sporadic and wide-ranging contact between Norse and Native Americans, whose legends apparently do not remember them.  Their memory lives on in our culture in the form of runic stones, strange towers, and the all too often vague line between fact and fiction.
Since 2001, there have been many claims that these two “hoaxes” are in fact truth.  The Newport Tower has been featured in recent cable shows (e.g. America Unearthed), once again arguing for a Viking or a Knights Templar connection.  Godfrey’s research can’t be accepted because it is too boring; people just want more.  I admit I shouldn’t have called the tower a “hoax” because the structure is very authentic.  It was built for a real purpose, as a windmill, a gristmill, built in the 17th century.  Those perpetuating the “fringe” interpretations about it are con artists trying to make a buck or a name from selling silly ideas.

However, the Kensington Stone has actually gained some respectability in the last few years.  Two recent books (Kehoe 2004; Nielson and Wolter 2005) sum up the sordid story and argue for the stone’s authenticity.  Nielson has done much new research on the linguistics and history of runic writing in Scandinavia.  He actually documents that many of the linguists who first looked at the stone were wrong in their understanding of runic history.  His research seems like a valid contribution to the case.

Wolter’s contribution to the story is his petrographic analysis from which he argues that the inscriptions are older than when the stone was found; in other words, it had to be older than 1898.  Unfortunately, petrographic analysis isn’t an established dating method, so he can’t tell us when the stone was inscribed.  He assumes the date on the stone is correct.

Since their joint publication in 2005, Nielson and Wolter have soured their relationship.  Several physical scientists have waded in on the discussion and Wolter’s petrograhic analysis is considered to have failed.  The best evidence against Wolter is now found on Nielson’s web page, under the Discussion tab.  Wolter has gone on to be a shill for the Knights Templar/Holy Grail in America theme, using both the Kensington Stone and the Newport Tower as a backdrop.

Into this fray came well respected Anthropologist and archaeologist Alice B Kehoe who argued for the stone’s authenticity and supported Nielson and Wolter in her own book and by writing a Forward to their 2005 book.  In the Forward, Neilson and Wolter are described as “hard scientists” with appropriate resumes.

One has to wonder about Kehoe’s stance in this controversy.  She has spent much of her professional life arguing for a multitude of pre-Columbian contacts from the Old World to the New, and across the two continents of the New.  She seems to particularly dislike the idea that Columbus “discovered” America.  Two essays summarize her position (Kehoe 2003; 2010).  Today, it is widely accepted among archaeologists, myself included, that Polynesians, Basques, Chinese, and others came to the New World long before Columbus.  I would love to see a rigorous analysis that Jomon Japan is connected to Mesoamerican antiquity.  She seems to ignore this commonly held view and acts as if opinions like mine don’t exist.

The Norse certainly lived in Newfoundland; the Chumash probably saved the lives of some Polynesians and adopted their boat making skills and words; and the Basques left words in Micmac.  But none of these events changed the world the way Columbus did.  Archaeologists don’t have to prove that fact.

If Kehoe and others want to argue that pre-Columbian cultural contacts were indeed momentous events then the burden of proof is on them.  Find the evidence, make a good presentation, and convince us that Columbus wasn’t THE watershed event.

Unfortunately, the Kensington Stone has fallen into a terrible state of affairs.  Around 2002 a cast of the stone was made and now a black silicon layer covers the stone.  Physical analysis isn’t possible until the contamination is removed.  Moreover, it is not clear on how to do this without destroying underlying patina and the surface of the stone itself.

Like Indy, all I can say is the stone belongs in a reputable museum.  Regardless of its authenticity, the story of the Kensington Stone is wonderful American folklore that continues to inspire people to do inspiring things.  It shouldn’t be treated as some commercial object.

This whole sad discussion reminds me of the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  There, the scarred, tortured, and obsessive character of Captain Ahab chases the elusive goal, destroying his life and everyone else around him.  He never really catches the whale but becomes tied to it, cannot escape, and goes down with it.  Only the narrator, Ishmael, survives.

Nielson, is that you?


Godfrey, W. S. (1949). The Newport Puzzle. Archaeology, 2(3), 146-149.
Godfrey, W. S. (1951). The Archaeology of the Old Stone Mill in Newport, Rhode Island. American Antiquity, 17(2), 120-129.
Godfrey, W. S. (1955). Vikings in America: Theories and Evidence. American Anthropologist, 57(1), 35-43.

Guralnick, E. (Ed.). (1982). Vikings in the West. Chicago, IL: Archaeological Institute of America.

Ingstad, A. S. (1977). The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Kehoe, A. B. (2003). The Fringe of American Archaeology: Transoceanic and Transcontinental Contacts in Prehistoric America. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 17(1), 19-36.
Kehoe, A. B. (2004). The Kensington Runestone: Approaching a Research Question Holistically. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Kehoe, A. B. (2010). Consensus and the Fringe in American Archaeology. Archaeologies, 6(2), 197-214.

McGhee, R. (1984). Contact between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence. American Antiquity, 49(1), 4-26.

McGovern, T. (1981). The Vinland Adventure: A North American Perspective. North American Archaeologist, 2(4), 285-308.
McGovern, T. (1990). The Archeology of the Norse North Atlantic. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19(1), 331-351.

Moore, L. E. (2001). Hoaxes and the Norsemen of Canada. All Points Bulletin, 38(3), 1-2.

Nielson, R., & Wolter, S. F. (2005). The Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence. Eden Prairie, MN: Outernet Publishers.

1 comment:

  1. Do some more research. The first "experts" who studied the Kensington Runestone weren't experts at all. They considered it a hoax based on unknown characters and linguistic patterns, patterns which have since shown up in older Norse documents. And early viewers of the stone claimed the inscription was weathered as much as the stone.