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.”


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.

The 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.

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.

Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum

Amsterdam owes its wealth to the sea. In the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch sailed around the world looking for rare products to bring back to Europe. They were one of the great maritime powers and are still important in shipping today.

Amsterdam is a city made for the sea. Its canals are laid out like a spider’s web, where every family that could afford it built a narrow house on one of the canals, complete with a private warehouse and crane on the upper floor. This maximization of seafront property allowed a large section of society to share in the nation’s wealth.

To really understand Amsterdam and The Netherlands, you need to visit the National Maritime Museum, called Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Dutch. This museum, reopened earlier this year after a major remodel, offers a history of Holland’s maritime adventures from the past 500 years.

Just a short walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the museum is housed in a large 17th century arsenal. Inside are modern interactive displays explaining how early mariners found their way by the stars, how ships were built, and where and for what they traded.

One of my favorite displays is a set of reproductions of sailors’ photo albums from the past century. You sit in an easy chair flipping through the pages while listening to an audio commentary explaining the photos. It was like sitting with some old Jack Tar as he spun tales of the sea. There’s also a large collection of ship’s ornaments, nautical equipment, and an art gallery of maritime paintings.

%Gallery-139729%Another big draw is the Amsterdam, a beautiful full-sized replica of an East Indiaman from the Age of Sail. This is a big hit with Dutch kids, if the squealing school groups crawling all over it were anything to judge by.

Some locals have complained that the remodeled museum has been “dumbed down”, and while I applaud the many exhibitions specifically directed at children, I have to agree the museum lacks a certain something. There’s a large amount of wasted space and as I finished every floor I was left with the feeling “that’s it?” Yes, the displays are artistically lit and well labeled, and the whole execution is well conceived, yet I was left feeling I’d missed out on something.

Another problem is the price–a tooth-grinding 15 euros ($20.23) for adults and 7.50 ($10.12) for kids and seniors. Thankfully I had the I amsterdam City Card, which got me in for free. If you don’t have the card, I’m sad to say that unless you’re a serious history or nautical buff, the price simply isn’t worth it. It’s a shame the high entrance fee will drive people away, because there are some really beautiful artifacts and works of art here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

A classic sailing ship in northern Spain

If you’ve been following my travels here at Gadling, you know I’ve moved to Santander in northern Spain and am busy settling in. I’ve had my first of many hikes in Cantabria and have even ventured into the chilly northern surf. I need to buy a wetsuit.

One advantage of living in a port is you get to see sights like this, a reconstructed sailing ship from the Golden Age of Sail. Called the Nao Victoria, it’s a Spanish ship from the 16th century and is currently on tour around the coast of Spain.

A nao, also called a carrack, was a type of sailing vessel used by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a precursor to the galleon. The Nao Victoria was the first ship to circumnavigate the globe on Magellan’s voyage from 1519-22. Magellan didn’t survive the voyage and the commander to bring the boat back to Spain was Juan Sebastián Elcano. I saw his hometown while hiking the Basque coastline.

The Fundación Nao Victoria also manages a second ship, a reproduction 17th century Galeón Andalucía.

The reconstructed nao is a floating museum where you can see how a ship was run back in the olden days. It had a large storage capacity and could handle rough seas, important for long voyages to unknown parts of the globe. It’s not a completely faithful reconstruction, though, what with its flush toilet and electricity. I suppose the folks sailing this thing shouldn’t be expected to suffer from the filth and scurvy the old sailors did!

Downdecks is an exhibition on Spain’s first constitution, adopted in 1812 as Spain and her allies were busy pushing Napoleon out of the country. The constitution allowed for universal suffrage for men, extended numerous rights to citizens, and ended the Inquisition. The constitution was abolished two years later with the reinstatement of absolute monarchy. It came back a couple of times in Spain’s tumultuous history before other constitutions were introduced in later times.

The project is funded by various regional and municipal governments and government institutions. The stress they put on the Spanish constitution appears to me to be more than just celebrating the bicentennial. Deep fissures are appearing in Spanish society as various regions, especially the Basque region and Catalonia, are pushing for more autonomy or even outright independence. In Spain, any emphasis on national unity carries a political message.

If you like old sailing ships, be sure to check out Madrid’s Naval Museum.


The five explorers of the future

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years pondering the future of exploration. As we creep into the 21st century, what exactly is the definition of exploring? New lands have essentially all been discovered, we’re no longer out looking to plant flags on new territory. These days we are spending more time attempting to discover new energy sources over new finds of gold, silver or silk. Ending disease is today a far more prominent search than trying to discover what’s just over the horizon.

Some direction to my big question was provided recently at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. I had the privilege of sitting in on its annual, two-day Explorer’s Symposium and hearing from some of its newly-appointed class of “Emerging Explorers.” The emphasis among the bulk of the 14 young explorers was definitely science, focused more on agroecologists and molecular biologists than hard-bodied climbers eyeing new peaks simply because they are there.

The program goes back eight years – its first “class” was anointed in 2004 — and focuses on recognizing and supporting “uniquely gifted and inspiring young adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers, explorers who are already making a difference early in their careers.” Each gets a stipend of $10,000, an introduction to the extensive depths of the Society’s in-house media connections and access to the more veteran Explorers-in-Residence and Fellows it supports.

Several of the new class are already atop their fields and have gotten some good press. Sasha Kramer’s non-profit SOIL (Sustainable Organic Livelihoods) has been building toilets and trying to transform Haiti’s waste into valuable resources since 2006. Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Hurum has been digging for fossils for several decades and has unearthed the bones of 50-foot long, sea-loving cousins he’s dubbed “Predator X.” Nairobi-based Paula Kahumbu is capitalizing on the Internet to help preserve wildlife in Africa, Asia and South America, as executive director of both WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, which allows interested parties (donors, scientists, the general public) to observe real wildlife problems in real time using blogs, online videos and fundraising tools.

Certainly each of the emerging explorers is already having an impact in their chosen fields, whether as educators or in-the-field scientists. Five to keep your eyes on:
1. Hayat Sindi is introduced as a “Science Entrepreneur.” Her main work focuses on new ways to monitor health in remote and impoverished parts of the world, specifically using low-tech diagnostic tools to test for liver function. Across the developing world, powerful drugs are used to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis. Unfortunately the same drugs often cause liver damage. The result is that millions are dying from the very medications meant to save them, because doctors don’t have the ability to monitor long-term health implications. Born in Saudi Arabia, when she moved to London hoping to attend university there, she spoke no English; she learned by watching the BBC and became the first Saudi woman accepted at Cambridge University in the field of biotechnology. She is now a visiting scholar at Harvard, working on her Ph.D., and she and her team have been awarded prizes by both MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and the Harvard Enterprise Competition, the first group ever to win both prizes in the same year.

2. Ashley Murray’s modest goal is get the world to rethink how it views waste and wastewater. Given that 2.5 billion people on the planet wake up with no access to basic sanitation, her audience is sizable. Her specific goal is to turn getting rid of or recycling wastewater into for-profit businesses. Currently based in Ghana, she founded a company there called Waste Enterprises, which relies on human waste as its primary product and looks for ways to reuse, recycle and profit from it in order to help provide better sanitation for the poor. The options seem endless: Fertilizer for fish farms, as industrial fuel to help make cement, to replace coal or oil as an energy provider. “The real goal is improving basic sanitation, health, and environmental conditions for some of the world’s poorest populations,” she says. “If I can prove this is a viable business model, I hope copycats spring up everywhere. I want to catalyze the use of our ideas in cities all across Africa.”

3. Kevin Hand is no ordinary rocket scientist. His job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, under contract to NASA, is to figure out a way to send a probe to explore Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. Why Europa? Its average temperature is 280 degrees below zero, is devoid of atmosphere and at times is 600 million miles from Earth. But it is believed, below its ice surface, to be home to a 60-mile deep ocean (Earth’s is just seven miles at its deepest), which means it could be home to three times the volume of liquid water as Earth. His is a long-term commitment: The orbiting probe is not expected to be ready until 2020 and will take six years to reach Jupiter, then spend two years touring the planet’s four largest moons before spiraling back to Earth. “By the time we get there,” says Hand, “I’ll be a much older man. This business is not for the faint of heart.” To research the best way to study such a forbidding place, his travels have taken him from the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro to the valleys of Antarctica, testing new tools he hopes will one day be strapped to the end of a robotic arm 600 million miles from Earth.

4. Juan Martinez grew up in a tool shed in South Central Los Angeles, far from anything remotely considered wilderness. Ironically, it was failing a high school science test that led to three months of after-school detail tending a garden begun by its Eco Club. A two-week scholarship to Wyoming’s Teton Science School followed. “Ten years later, I still can’t find words to describe the first moment I saw those mountains rising up from the valley,” Martinez recalls. “Watching bison, seeing a sky full of stars, and hiking through that scenery was overwhelming.” Today he is national spokesman for getting youth, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into the outdoors. Everyone from the Sierra Club to the White House have recognized his efforts; his Natural Leaders Network of the Children & Nature Network creates links between environmental organizations, corporations, government, education and individuals to reconnect children with nature, with an optimistic spin. “Some kids on my trips have been in foster care their whole lives, feeling very disconnected from other people. Suddenly they’re out in the backcountry relying on each other. Nature can be a real facilitator for skills that are so crucial in life-communicating, working together, and realizing you can do things you never thought you could (like hiking six rough miles in one day). I take kids who have been abused, heavily medicated for behavior problems, violent, distrustful, but after a few days outdoors they’re sharing feelings and fears, laughing, and thinking like a team. You may be able to see the stars through a computer screen or book, but it’s nothing like lying on the grass looking up at the Milky Way.”

5. Cambodian Tuy Sereivathana also grew up in an urban setting, but his introduction to wildlife was thanks to the Khmer Rouge, who chased his family into hiding in a remote part of the Cambodian rain forest. So many people were similarly forced into a rural life they quickly began to impede on those that were there first, particularly elephants. “Overnight a traditional elephant migration route would become a rice farm,” says Tuy. With rain forests shrinking, hungry elephants foraged farmlands, destroying crops. The poor farmers fought back, killing elephants to protect “their” lands. As a result, Cambodia’s elephant population dwindled to fewer than 500. Tuy has made a career of trying to introduce a conservation ethic into the country “People were not well educated about conservation,” he says. “They thought the elephants belonged to my project, so they threw all their anger at me. It was difficult to build trust and convince them to join my efforts. But day-by-day we proved that we were concerned not only with elephants, but also with human beings. His efforts have led to construction of schools and encouraged teachers to make conservation part of their curriculum. Since 2005 not a single wild elephant has been killed in Cambodia due to human conflict.

[Flickr image via Paulo Brandão]

Hiking the Basque coastline

While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.