The Kensington Runestone and other Viking mysteries in America

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher asked me what I thought was an easy question.

“Who discovered America?”

“The Indians!” I replied.

My teacher frowned at me and asked, “No, what EUROPEAN discovered America?”

“Oh, Leif Erikson. He was a Viking.”

Obviously annoyed, my teacher told me, “No! COLUMBUS discovered America.”

“But the Vikings came here in the year 1000. Columbus didn’t arrive until 1492.”

“COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA!!!”

I learned two important lessons that day: (1) self-appointed experts are often wrong, and (2) showing you know more than an authority figure is a good way to get into trouble.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with the possibility that ancient civilizations in the “New” and “Old” Worlds had contact with one another. Ocean currents and trade winds make it fairly easy to cross the Atlantic. Surviving the voyage is another matter. Certainly, boats from one side of the ocean would occasionally get blown off course and end up on the other. Their crews would probably be dead by then and their arrival on a foreign shore would have had little effect on the civilizations that discovered their remains.

But what about ancient explorers? There was no shortage of civilizations with ocean-going capability: the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Chinese, etc. Did they visit America? Did Native Americans visit Asia, Europe, and Africa?Sadly, other than the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, there is no hard proof for Pre-columbian contact. Though, that hasn’t stopped people from looking. A range of researchers, including professional archaeologists, dedicated amateurs and outright quacks, have searched for evidence that other contacts occurred.

The evidence looks a bit thin. There are plenty of supposedly “Old World” artifacts in North and South America. Some are laughably bad fakes. Others are misinterpreted Native American artifacts or even natural objects. One artifact, though, has kept scholars arguing for more than a century.

Kensington Runestone, courtesy George T. FlomThe Kensington Runestone was supposedly discovered in 1898 in Minnesota by Swedish-American farmer Olof Ohman. This rectangular stone slab is covered on two sides by Runic writing, the script of the Vikings. The translation goes:

“Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil. There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island). Year 1362″

Vinland is the Viking name for the area they explored in North America. Götaland is a region of Sweden. It wouldn’t be strange for Vikings to write “Ave Maria” in 1362 because they had converted to Christianity by then. Most supporters of the stone believe the inscription is proof that Vikings ventured inland from their coastal settlements.

Runic experts say it’s a modern fake, pointing out that the language is simply 19th century Swedish written in an ancient script. For example, the text lacks the case endings and plural forms that were common in the Middle Ages but had died out in modern Swedish. Runic alphabets were widely published in the 19th century and it was later reported that Ohman had one in his possession. Archaeologists also point out that the inscription looks too fresh to be more than 600 years old.

There has been much nit-picking back and forth about specific Runic letters, weathering on stone, styles of 14th century Swedish, etc. The vast majority of linguists and archaeologists believe it’s fake, while the locals in the area where it was found support it enough to have opened the Runestone Museum and Kensington Runestone Park. This being an area with a large Scandinavian-American population, the idea that Vikings settled here has obvious appeal.

Another intriguing find is the Maine penny. Minted in Norway between A.D. 1065 and 1080, this small silver coin was discovered at a prehistoric Native American village in Penobscot Bay, Maine. It’s now housed in the Maine State Museum. Whether the Vikings visited this site is debatable. The penny may have made its way down the coast as a trade item.

There are other purported runestones in the United States. Two of them, the AVM Runestone and the Elbow Lake Runestone, were later admitted to be fakes by their creators. The Heavener Runestone, found in Oklahoma, is often purported to be genuine in alternative publications, but is written in an old style of Runic that was no longer used by the time the Vikings were voyaging west to Greenland and North America. Two smaller stones with fragmentary inscriptions were found in the same area. The Poteau Runestone, also from Oklahoma, is written in a mix of two Runic alphabets and is even less convincing. Yet another Oklahoma find, the Shawnee Runestone, has an inscription that looks too fresh to be medieval.

The Heavener Runestone State Park in Oklahoma has a small museum dedicated to these curious objects.

Shawnee Runestone

Did the Vikings explore the interior of North America? Take a road trip to Minnesota and Oklahoma and decide for yourself, basing your conclusion on facts and evidence rather than personal bias. And don’t let your fifth-grade teacher browbeat you into her way of thinking. Columbus did NOT discover America!

Photo of Kensington Runestone courtesy George T. Flom. Photo of Shawnee Runestone courtesy Heironymous Rowe.

Nazca lines face threats from elements, negligence

Nazca lines
The Nazca lines are some of the world’s most mysterious ancient monuments. Giant images of people, animals, plants, and geometric shapes scratched onto the surface of the Peruvian desert by three different cultures from 500 BC to 500 AD, they’ve made generations of researchers scratch their heads over their purpose and meaning.

Now it turns out these unique figures aren’t so unique after all. They’re among the many ancient wonders under threat from the natural and man-made causes. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has been listed in the World Monuments Fund’s 2012 Watch because of threats from flooding and tourism. As you can see from these pictures, roads actually cut through some of the images.

Popular Archaeology has reported that trash has accumulated at the site and that tourism facilities are crowding the area. Some mudslides and flooding nearby didn’t seriously hurt the designs, but serve as a warning of what could happen. The regional government is working on a plan to save the situation. The region makes a good deal of money from tourism, so they have every reason to preserve these enigmatic figures for the next generation.Nazca linesSadly, there’s another threat to the Nazca lines–the threat of ignorance. Most of what you see about the lines in the media is New Age pseudoarchaeology about Atlantis and aliens. I’ve written before about how the ancient astronaut theory is racist, being implicitly based on the assumption that cultures with dark skin couldn’t possibly have scratched out designs in the dirt without help from beings from another planet.

Yes, they’re so big they can only be seen from the air, but all you have to do is make a smaller drawing you can see easily and then expand the dimensions to create your final product. There’s also a theory that the builders had hot air balloons, although there is no direct evidence of this. There’s no direct evidence that they were UFO runways either, like Erich von Däniken would have us believe. While I’m not sure I buy the balloon theory, that’s no reason to immediately jump to the least plausible explanation.

[Condor image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Monkey image courtesy Maria Reiche]

New Age archaeology tours rooted in racism

Last week’s discovery of some tombs of the pyramid builders in Egypt left me a bit confused. The archaeologists triumphantly claimed the tombs prove the builders were hired workmen, not slaves. Slaves wouldn’t have been buried in proper tombs right next to the Pyramids, the resting place of the pharaohs.

I used to be an archaeologist and couldn’t understand what they were crowing about. Archaeologists have long known that hired labor built Egypt’s temples and monuments. During the annual flooding of the Nile the farmers didn’t have much to do because their fields were underwater, so the pharaoh hired them to keep them out of trouble and glorify himself. In fact, a similar set of tombs was discovered in 1990. So what’s the big deal?

Then I remembered. If archaeologists don’t keep repeating the facts, the BS will bury the truth.

I’ve been to a lot of ancient sites, and even more annoying than the touts trying to sell me cheap trinkets are the “spiritual travelers” spouting gibberish about ancient astronauts and Atlantis. You’ve heard the theories. The local people couldn’t possibly have built these impressive remains so they got a helping hand from aliens. Another spin is that all the great archaeological sites are survivals of an ancient civilization. It doesn’t matter that there’s not a shred of real evidence to back these claims; these First World fantasies are much more alluring than the simple truth–dark people speaking strange languages built the most impressive monuments in human history.

These ideas aren’t new. Fingerprints of the Gods, Chariots of the Gods, America B.C., The Lost Continent of Mu, all recycle the same old half-truths, out-of-context “facts”, and outright inventions in their quest to peddle nonsense to a public that should have been given a better education in the first place. New Age archaeology tours have become big business. There’s nothing more annoying than having to elbow your way through one of these wide-eyed herds when in the presence of something truly great like Machu Picchu or Giza.

What many New Agers would be shocked to realize is that their ideas are rooted in colonial racism. Early European explorers and scholars couldn’t believe that “natives” were capable of building the great monuments in places like Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Peru and explained them away by thinking up lost white civilizations or wandering tribes of Europeans. Some modern writers have replaced Aryans with aliens, but the Great White Civilization idea still persists. Do a Google image search on “Atlanteans” and you’ll see what I mean.

So please, throw away the crystals and read some real archaeology books. The archaeologists don’t have all the answers, but at least they’re trying. And I can tell you from ten years in the business that despite what New Agers say, archaeologists aren’t conspiring to hide the truth. Repeat: there is no grand conspiracy.

But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Got to go, Venus is calling.