Saturday, February 11, 2006

Vinland 1

On November 8, 1898, a Norwegian immigrant farmer, Olaf Ohman, unearthed a large stone block covered with runic writing while cutting down a tree on his land--or so the story goes. Ohman lived about 145 miles northwest of Minneapolis. This "Kensington Runestone" was translated most recently as follows:

We eight Goetalanders and twenty-two Northmen are on this acquisition expedition far west from Vinland. We had properties near two stone shelters one day's march north from this stone. We went fishing one day. After we came home, I found ten men red with blood, dead. Ave Maria, save us from evil! I have ten men by the sea to look after our ships fourteen days' travel from this site. Year of the Lord 1362.

Archaeologists have generally regarded the stone as a fake. Recently, however, Fate magazine hopefully announced "Kensington Runestone Proved Authentic" in an article based on the release of a new book by a long-time advocate for the stone's veracity.

Let's look, then, at the skeptics' arguments first. Actually, there are two of them: the runes themselves and the suspicious timing of the discovery.

1. The timing. In 1893, thousands attended the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marking the four-hundredth (plus 1) anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first trip to the Western Hemisphere.

The fair's Norwegian pavilion included a replica of the Gokstad ship, a 10th-century ship found buried near Oslo in 1880. It's easy to see a message there. Norway was still in a political union with Sweden (dissolved in 1905), but as did other European countries, had its own flourishing romantic nationalist movement. Replicating the Gokstad ship also made the statement, "We Norse were the first to sail the Atlantic."

The Norwegian explorer-scientist Fridtjof Nansen was one of many to pore over the ancient Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga with their descriptions of voyages to North America around the year 1000. But despite the sagas' evidence (and that of some medieval maps), Norse exploration beyond Greenland was not officially accepted until an archaeological dig in Newfoundland led to undeniable evidence of at least one small settlement--or seasonal work station, depending on the interpretation.

Likewise, the skeptics continue, Ohman's "discovery" of the runestone was part of a typical American tale of immigrants negotiating their place in the new society, a manifestation of "Norwegian pride" more than a genuine artifact. And how coincidental that it closely followed the Columbian Exposition!

2. The skeptics' second argument involves the runes themselves. Even in the 1890s, some Norwegians continued to use runic writing for short inscriptions, part of that "romantic nationalism," perhaps. Ohman also had been trained as a stonemason and had come from an area of Norway (Hälsingland) where runes were used occasionally.

Most of the experts who examined the stone, however, found reasons--too complicated to summarize here--to argue that the language and runes used, while Norse, did not fit with other examples from the 1300s. Their conclusion was that the Kensington Runestone was a clever fake, a prank, and "a memorial to the creativity of Scandinavian immigrants," to quote the editors of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.

More to come. Meanwhile, here is a Kensington Runestone links page.

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