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The Kensington Runestone: Fascinating find or fake news?
How much of the New World was colonised by Vikings? Icelandic sagas tell of a region in North America called 'Vinland', Norse explorer Leif Erikson is thought to have set foot there hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus embarked on his voyage, and we know of one site – L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland – which was a Viking settlement circa 1000 AD.
But did Norsemen actually go far further into the North American heartlands? The Kensington Runestone suggests they did, but controversy still rages around its authenticity.
What is the Kensington Runestone?
It was in 1898 that Olof Öhman, a Swedish migrant who’d settled in Minnesota, made a curious discovery. While clearing out some land he’d purchased close to the township of Kensington, he found a slab of sandstone lodged within the hard, tangled roots of a tree. His son Edward noticed some strange markings on the stone, prompting Öhman to drag the stone out and take it back to his farm.
The markings were confirmed to be Scandinavian runes, and the find became a regional sensation, covered by Minnesota journalists and put on display at a local bank. News of the stone spread across the world, as international experts weighed in on its authenticity. Today it’s on display at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota.
What is written on the Kensington Runestone?
The Runestone was apparently left by a group of 30 northern European explorers 'on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west'. According to the runes, members of the party went fishing one day, then returned to their camp to find 'ten men red of blood and dead'. The stone also says that there were other explorers left behind on the coastline, a 14-day journey away. Most tantalising of all is the date inscribed on the Runestone: 1362. That’s 130 years before the first trans-Atlantic voyage of Columbus.
Is it a genuine relic or an elaborate hoax?
This is the thorny question at the heart of the Runestone story. When the discovery came to widespread scholarly attention in the early 20th Century, a series of linguists and historians bluntly dismissed it as a hoax – perpetrated either by Öhman or parties unknown. This remains the general consensus today, with both circumstantial and academic evidence often cited by critics.
First, there’s the context to consider. There had, around the time of the discovery, been a resurgence of interest in early Norse adventures in America. Five years earlier, in 1893, a full-scale Viking ship was sailed all the way from Norway to the United States. It rather cheekily stole the show at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a major event held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. This audacious trip sensationally proved that it was entirely possible to cross the ocean in a Viking ship. A few years before that, in 1877, an essay titled America Not Discovered by Columbus, written by professor at the University of Wisconsin, had become widely read even outside the world of academia.
In other words, the Kensington Runestone was dug up during a suspiciously convenient period, when there was a general public appetite for all things relating to Vikings in America. That its discoverer, Olof Öhman, just happened to be a Scandinavian himself is a fact that has further raised suspicious eyebrows among critics.
The grisly nature of the story recounted by the Runestone is also regarded by some scholars as a too-convenient explanation for why the Norsemen didn’t establish a permanent settlement. As an essay in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, puts it, the apparent massacre of ten men 'red of blood and dead' rather neatly 'explained why the various voyages did not have a lasting impact: aggressive Native Americans stood in their way'.
There has also been intense scrutiny of the stone itself. Some of the runes cross into a portion of the slab which is covered by calcite, a mineral that’s softer than the rest of the Runestone. The runes in the calcite section should, therefore, be in worse shape due to centuries of weathering. However, geologist Harold Edwards wrote in 2016 that 'the inscription is about as sharp as the day it was carved… The surface of the calcite layer shows the granular texture that is typical of weathered calcite so it was weathered for some time. The letters are smooth showing virtually no weathering'.
Then there’s the question of the wording of the runes. Much has been made of possible discrepancies between the language seen on the stone and how 14th Century Scandinavian explorers would have spoken or written. Henrik Williams, a professor of Scandinavian languages who specialises in runology, has written that 'In my best judgment as an expert in the field, I cannot find that the [Kensington Runestone] inscription looks like any medieval Scandinavian text I have ever seen'.
Yet Williams has also acknowledged a lack of conclusive evidence either way, saying that 'even though the case for a 14th Century origin still leaves much to be desired, I also want to point out that the case for a 19th Century origin is not complete'. It’s also important to note that some experts have come out in favour of the Runestone’s authenticity. A prominent example is forensic geologist Scott Wolter, who has decried the 'deliberate attempt by academics… to smear the Runestone', and has even suggested, based on his analysis of the runic symbols, that the people who left the Runestone were Knights Templar.
Henrik Williams has dismissed such talk as 'pure Dan Brown', but it’s clear the Kensington Runestone has lost none of its power to intrigue and spark debate about the early European experience in America.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.