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.

L’Anse aux Meadows: A Viking colony in Canada

L'Anse aux Meadows, Viking

The Vikings were some of the best sailors of the Middle Ages. They sailed all over the Mediterranean, far up the rivers of Russia and across the north Atlantic to colonize Iceland and Greenland. For a long time archaeologists wondered if they ever made it to other parts of North America besides Greenland. Although some Viking sagas mention a land called Vinland to the west of Greenland, no reliable traces of further Viking settlement were discovered until 1960.

In that year, a Norwegian archaeologist discovered a Viking village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, Canada. Called L’Anse aux Meadows, the site includes several houses made from sod put over a wooden framework. One building was identified as a smithy, and another as a carpenter’s workshop. Several distinctively Viking artifacts were found, proving they really did make it here.

The settlement has been dated to about 1000 A.D. and doesn’t appear to have been used for very long. One interesting aspect of L’Anse aux Meadows is that it looks like a typical Viking base camp for hunting and exploration. That hints at more Viking sites waiting to be found. Archaeologists found butternuts at the site, a plant that doesn’t grow this far north, suggesting the Vikings were sailing to the south or perhaps trading with the Native Americans.

%Gallery-150700%L’Anse aux Meadows is now a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visitor center explains the history of Viking exploration, and reconstructed sod huts give you a feel for what it was like in those days. Re-enactors explain Viking shipbuilding, cooking, ironworking and navigation. You can even listen to a Viking saga!

There’s a lot of natural beauty to the site too, including rare plants and sweeping views of the sea. Icebergs are a common sight. Although L’Anse aux Meadows is a bit out of the way for most visitors to Canada, you’ll be rewarded with some fascinating history and a harsh but beautiful landscape.

While L’Anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Viking site in west of Greenland, several controversial sites in Canada and the United States have been proposed as evidence of an extensive Viking exploration of North America. Tomorrow I’ll be writing about those, so stay tuned!

Photo courtesy user Rosino via flickr.

Runestone erected by Christian Vikings added to UNESCO list

runestone
A Viking runestone bearing a cross and the first written mention of Norway found in the country has been added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. This program aims to protect important documents that contribute to our global heritage. The runestone, called the Kuli Stone, is the oldest document on Norway’s list.

It’s important for its early mention of the country’s name and also because of its Christian significance. Not all of the runes are clear and part of the inscription broke off in antiquity. The most accepted translation of the remaining text reads, “Þórir and Hallvarðr raised this stone in memory of Ulfljótr(?). . .Christianity had been twelve winters in Norway. . .”

Just what date that refers to is unclear. King Olaf Tryggvason tried to force the Norwegian Vikings to convert to Christianity in 995, leading many pagans to become martyrs for their faith. Nevertheless, a couple of generations later the Thing (Viking parliament) decided to convert the entire country in the year 1022 or 1024.

For many centuries the Kuli Stone was at the original site on the island of Kuløy off Norway’s northwestern coast. It’s now in the NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in Trondheim and a replica stands at the site. Viking runestones, both pagan and Christian, can be found in many places. Three of the best collections are at the British Museum (London), the National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen), and Uppsala (Sweden).

Photo courtesy Kjell Jøran Hansen.

Viking hoard highlights the value of responsible metal detectoring

Viking, Silverdale horde
When I used to work as an archaeologist, I heard a lot of bad-mouthing about metal detectorists. These guys scan the ground for coins and other metal objects. Most of the time they only find a few old pennies. It’s when they discover something of historic value that some archaeologists get grumpy. Many archaeologists don’t trust metal detectorists, saying they disturb ancient sites and pocket their findings.

This week’s discovery of a Viking hoard of silver in England shows how responsible metal detectorists, far from being nosy snoopers into the sacred soil of archaeology, can actually help us learn more about the past.

The hoard, found near the appropriately named village of Silverdale, Lancashire, includes silver brooches, coins, arm-rings, and ingots. There are 201 pieces in all, weighing more than two pounds, and they were buried around 900 AD. While artistic value of the jewelry is priceless, it’s one of the coins that tells us something really significant. It’s of a type never before seen and bears the inscription AIRDECONUT which may represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut. There’s a famous Viking king by that name, but he lived a century later and his coins look different, so this appears to be a previously unknown Viking king.

Interestingly, the other side reads DNS (Dominus) REX, with the letters arranged in the form of a cross. This was a period when Vikings were beginning to abandoned the old gods like Thor and Odin and turn to Christianity. Also in the horde was a fake silver coin made from copper with a thin silver wash, and Islamic coins from the Middle East.

This isn’t the first time a metal detectorist has found evidence for an unknown ruler. Back in 2004, a man using a metal detector uncovered a Roman silver coin in Oxfordshire dating to 271 AD and bearing the face of Emperor Domitianus II. This military officer had been garrisoned in Britain and took advantage of the chaotic political situation to proclaim himself emperor. He minted some coins to celebrate the occasion but his rule only lasted at most for a few weeks. The coin was part of a hoard of about 5,000 coins. This coin is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

In both cases, the lucky guys did the right (and legal) thing–they reported their finds to the proper authorities. Laws governing such finds differ from country to country, but it’s always important to report anything you find that may be of historical significance. You never know, you might have discovered a new king.

Photo courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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Archaeology reveals the best way to drink: from a human skull

archaeology, skull, skull cup
Archaeologists in England have discovered three prehistoric skulls that were used as cups, the BBC reports.

The skulls were carefully worked into the shape of bowls. They were found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and are 14,700 years old. These make them the oldest skull cups discovered. Investigators found other human remains in the cave that suggest people split the bones to get at the marrow. As any dedicated carnivore knows, the marrow is one of the richest and most nutritious parts of any animal, humans included.

Skull cups were used by many cultures for many reasons. Some were involved in rituals to remind one of death, like this carved Chinese example photographed by user Shizhao and posted to Wikimedia Commons. Other cultures, like the Vikings and Scythians, drank from the skulls of their enemies to brag about their victory or get the power of the slain warrior for themselves. The archaeologists studying the Somerset skulls have published an interesting article about skull cups. The BBC also interviewed one of the researchers and their video of the skull cups is below.

So next time you’re in a museum, keep a sharp eye out for skull cups. The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has one, as does the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. London’s Natural History Museum sponsored the research and is making a reconstructed skull cup that will go on display in March.

Have you seen skull cups in other museums? Tell us about it in the comments section!