Vikings and Goetalanders got here 130 years before Columbus.
by Frank Joseph
Scientists announced on December 10 that a controversial stone inscription has been authenticated as incontrovertible proof that 14th-century Europeans reached North America 130 years prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
“This is it,” declared Richard Nielsen, a Texas oil-industry engineer from Houston, during a press conference at the Kensington Community Center in Minnesota, “the smoking gun that proves it’s medieval.”
He was referring to a rectangular, 202-pound granite boulder featuring orderly lines of carved runes—glyphs in a written language used a thousand and more years ago by the Vikings and later Scandinavians, who left dozens of rune-inscribed stones across Scandinavia. Nielson’s runestone is special, however, because it was not discovered in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway, but about 145 miles northwest of Minneapolis, in rural Kensington, on November 8, 1898. Also, the Kensington Runestone is unlike any other inscription. It is a unique document that gives a rare peek into the medieval monastic mind.
It was found by a farmer, Olof Ohman, while he, his sons, and some neighbors were clearing a field. Part of their job was removing a 30-year-old poplar on the southern slope of a 50-foot knoll between his farm and that of his neighbor, Nils Flaaten. As they pulled the tree over, they saw that its roots were thickly entwined around a six-inch-thick gray slab, 36 inches long by 15 inches wide, covered with strange writing and lying face-down in the soil about six inches below ground level.
Present at the discovery were Olof’s nine-year-old son Edward and his twelve-year-old son Olof, Jr. Nils Flaaten was some distance away, but was called over. Several neighbors and acquaintances saw the stone the same day. It is unclear when Willie Sarsland and his crew saw the stone; it may have been the same day. They were all surprised to see that all the roots of the tree, especially the largest, were flattened by contact with the peculiar stone, as though it had been in place for a very long time. This was a significant observation, as there had been no European settlers in the vicinity when the roots began to grow around the stone some 25 to 30 years before.
Cut from the grasping roots, the stone was lifted into a cart and eventually stored in a shed. Inaccurate copies of the inscription, made by Ohman and by Samuel Siverts, were sent to Olaus Breda, professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Minnesota at Saint Paul. University-trained linguists from the Twin Cities were able to read the runic inscription with little difficulty because it had been carved in Swedish as spoken during the High Middle Ages.
Although their initial translation was fundamentally correct, Nielsen’s more recent version is probably closer to the spirit of the original text. Covering the front and one side, it relates, “We eight Goetalanders and twenty two Northmen are on this acquisition expedition far west from Vinland. We had properties near two 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.”
The runes appear to have been carved by a 14th-century Cistercian priest who arrived with his Scandinavian companions in what is today west-central Minnesota, where bloodshed resulted from unknown causes. The “Vinland” cited in the inscription was located in either Newfoundland, site of an earlier (and uncontroversial) Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, or somewhere along the coast of Maine. The Goetalanders mentioned were from the Swedish island of Gotland.
The little hill on which Ohman and company unearthed the stone was, in fact, standing above water 600 years ago. The water table was higher in Minnesota then, transforming the knoll into the “island” or “peninsula” mentioned in the runic text.
Accused of Fraud
Immediately after its discovery, the Kensington Runestone was almost unanimously dismissed by professional archaeologists as a deliberate hoax, even though most had never personally examined the object of their condemnation. Despite Olof Ohman’s lifelong insistence that he found the artifact as described, he was repeatedly accused of having faked it. Because he happened to be a Swedish immigrant himself, he was pilloried as a forger who wanted to twist history for his own ethnic advantage. From the day he unearthed the inscribed boulder, Olof was a bitter man.
Disgusted with the treatment he received for telling the truth, he consigned the runestone to his granary. His son suggested that it would make a good doorstop, but it was never so used, despite later reports that originated from his remark. In 1907, Olof gave the artifact to a young scholar, Hjalmar R. Holand. Ohman made no money in the transaction. In fact, he had never tried to profit from his discovery at all— strange behavior for a man supposedly guilty of fabricating a hoax. For the next several decades, Holand promoted its authenticity in numerous lectures and published books.
The evidence he amassed on behalf of the stone’s authenticity gradually began to change both public and scientific opinion in its favor, until the stone was proudly exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution for most of 1948. Even the curator and director publicly praised the once-reviled Kensington Runestone as “probably the most important archaeological object yet found in North America.” It was returned to Minnesota in March the following year, when it was officially unveiled at the capitol in honor of the state’s centennial. Six months later, it was enshrined at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota (phone 320-763-3160), where it may still be seen.
But it was not long before mainstream scholars resumed their drumbeat against the Kensington Runestone’s medieval authenticity. On the centenary of its discovery, it was even taken on tour around the country as the worst example of fraudulent archaeology.
“From the very beginning,” declared conventional archaeologist Erik Wahlgren, “the Kensington inscription was recognized by linguistic scholars on both sides of the Atlantic as a simple, modern forgery.” In fact, 30 years before Wahlgren’s assertion in 1986, Holand cited the opinions of a dozen Scandinavian language experts who affirmed that the Minnesota runic text was authentic 14th-century Swedish.
Wahlgren and his colleagues despised Ohman because the artifact had the misfortune to have been found, not by a respected university don, but by an uneducated immigrant farmer in uncontrolled conditions. Then, as now, all consideration of pre-Columbian sea voyages to America was regarded as the worst form of scholastic heresy, punishable by ostracism for dissenting fellow professionals or defamation for critical outsiders.
Typical was Russell Fridley, former head of the Minnesota Historical Society. Confronted with credible new evidence establishing the Kensington Runestone’s 14th-century origins, he refused to reconsider it as anything more than “a monument to Scandinavian frontier humor.”
Editors of major publications parrot the party-line of no-foreigners-before-Columbus for public consumption, a case in point being journalistic reaction to Nielsen’s announcement confirming the Kensington Runestone’s medieval authenticity. Instead of welcoming the news as an important scientific discovery, Laura Billings wrote in her front-page story for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press that “it might be easier to prove that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.”
Her flippant remark was preceded in an earlier issue (December 12) of the same newspaper by Jim Ragsdale, who suggested that the Kensington Runestone was being used as a commercial ploy to hook gullible tourists. Both reporters treated Nielsen’s proofs as equivocal, at best, leaving readers with the distinct impression that only a handful of oddball amateurs support the artifact’s Norse provenance against amused professionals, who know better. In the same spirit that prejudiced Olof Ohman’s Swedish background, Ragsdale emphasized Nielsen’s Scandinavian ancestry.
Ragsdale suggested that his readers consult Chapter 29 of Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000) “a debunking of the Kensington Runestone and similar finds.” However, in an article published by the distinguished Journal of the New England Antiquities Research Association, historical investigator Michael Zalar identified 37 errors of fact in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. (To her credit, the Smithsonian author owned up to at least ten of them.)
Lost in all this unabashed bias were the results of nearly two decades of research confirming the controversial object’s genuine historical significance.
The New Evidence
Hired by the directors of Alexandria’s Runestone Museum, Saint Paul geologist Scott Wolter studied weathering of grooves in the carving and found they were made many centuries ago. His examination revealed that most if not all of the artifact’s runes had been individually “gone over” with a modern tool sometime after the object’s discovery at the close of the 19th century, probably to make the weathered letters more easily discernible.
This tampering caused skeptics to declare that the inscription had been newly created. But Wolter’s microscopic scrutiny of the runes showed that the modern scratches were made on top of the original runes carved centuries earlier, as indicated by oxidation residue surrounding each of the written characters.
Comparing variously weathered areas of the stone’s exterior likewise suggested a date for its inscription anterior to the 1898 discovery by at least two hundred years. In order for Ohman to have faked the runestone, he would have had to induce “mineralization within the carved-out runes after they were carved,” Wolter said, and “induced mica degradation on the split side of the stone to match a five-hundred-year effect.”
Opponents of the Kensington Runestone’s pre-Columbian authenticity insisted that certain words, numbers, grammatical marks, and individual letters of the inscription were not found among Scandinavian runic writing until historic times, if then. The English from for example, appears in the Kensington text, but was allegedly unknown to 14th-century Scandinavians. Nielsen, however, found contemporary Swedish manuscripts which do indeed use from. The letter j, too, supposedly never appeared as a rune, but Nielsen produced several 14th-century examples.
Conventional scholars further argued that the highest runic number was only 19. Yet the number 22 is cited in the Minnesota inscription. Dr. Nielsen presented 14th-century runes going as high as 26.
An early expert in Old High German pointed out what he took for umlauts over several of the Kensington runes and concluded that the stone must be fake, because umlauts were not introduced until the 17th century. The double dots do not represent umlauts, however, but were part of a grammatical convention in use throughout the 1300s.
Perhaps the most persuasive of Dr. Nielsen’s discoveries was the identification of an “e”-dialect evidenced by the Kensington Runestone inscription. Olof Ohman, the alleged faker, spoke an “a”-dialect used in his native Rosander; he was ignorant of the “e”-dialect. The text mentions a mixed crew of Goths, or men from Gothenland and the island of Skahne, where the “e”-dialect was spoken.
No less than 11 medieval rune-forms on the Kensington Stone were unknown to scholars in Ohman’s day, but have since proven authentic. It additionally features manuscript abbreviations of the High Middle Ages unknown to Scandinavian experts in 1898.
Smithsonian Institution scholars examined 24 rune-forms on the Kensington stone they had never seen before and consequently condemned it as a fraud. Yet, Nielsen points out, all these formerly unfamiliar rune-forms have since been found to have been in use on the island of Gotland during medieval times. Similarly, about a dozen words numerous experts judged “impossible for the 14th century” were located by Nielsen and his colleagues in surviving records of medieval Dalsland, Bohuslan, and Vastergothland, all in the same area of western Sweden.
Thanks to an abundance of such evidence assembled by Richard Nielsen and Scott Wolter in their book, The Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence (www.kensingtonrunestone.com), the medieval identity of this long-disputed object has been confirmed. And, with it, the saga of Norsemen in America.