The American Rune Stone

- A Question of Emigrant Identity

 By Anders Lundt Hansen

For a hundred years the Kensington Stone was a hotly debated mystery. How did a rune stone end up in the middle of the American prairie? Was it a forgery committed by Scandinavian settlers, or was it evidence of Scandinavians in America in the time between Leif Ericson and Columbus?

By one of Mississippi’s tributaries far into the North American prairie a rune stone was discovered in 1898. An almost rectangular slab of rock about one meter high had on two of its sides a long coherent rune inscription. Translated into modern English it reads as follows:

“8 Goths and 22 Norsemen on expedition from Vinland towards the west. We camped at two reefs, a day’s journey north of this stone. One day we went fishing. On returning home we found ten men red with blood and dead. Ave Maria, deliver us from evil. Ten men are stationed on the coast, looking after our ships, fourteen days’ journey from this island, the year 1362.”

Is this inscription genuine? Did Scandinavians travel around in the middle of the American continent and fought against Native Americans about a century and a half before Columbus set sail, and almost 350 years after Leif Ericson had given up his attempt at colonizing the north eastern corner of the continent?

The Find

The stone was found by Olaf Ohman, a settler who had emigrated from Sweden, and who, like so many other Scandinavians at that time, had settled in the northern prairie states of the United States. Many Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian emigrants settled in particular in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, and their successors are still strongly represented in these states.

Ohman had arrived in the northwestern part of Minnesota, close to the Canadian border, and had put up a farm. Clearing the land and making it fit for farming was a tough job, and according to records it was during this work when he and his son were grappling with removing the roots of a big tree that they saw a rock entangled in the roots of the tree. When they had dug it out, they discovered that the rock was filled with characters, and they brought it back to the farm.

Olaf Ohman has related that he took it to be a kind of Indian almanac, however, together with other Scandinavian inhabitants in the area he quickly discovered that the characters were runes, and transcripts and descriptions were soon sent to the nearest universities, and later to runologists in Scandinavia. And then the trouble started.

The Debate

The academic world quickly brushed aside the inscription as a modern forgery. The language on the stone was not medieval Swedish or Norwegian, but seemed to be 19th century Swedish, with Norwegian and English elements. Some of the words did not exist in the Middle Ages, and the grammar was also suspect.

Furthermore the runes differed from the authentic 14th century runes known to be from Scandinavia. But that conclusion was resented among the discoverers of the stone and the local citizens of Minnesota, who disliked being called swindlers. They referred to the fact that the tree’s roots had grown around the stone, which therefore had to have been lying in the ground for many years.

In the more than one hundred years since the find the debate about the Kensington Stone has run high, mainly with the academic expertise on the one hand, and local enthusiasts, often of Scandinavian extraction, on the other. Today the stone is on display at The Runestone Museum in Alexandria in northwestern Minnesota, the major city closest to the find site. Here the status of the stone is presented as a “mystery”.

Runes

The rune characters on the Kensington Stone are the most crucial reason why specialists reject the idea that the inscription is medieval. Runes originate in the Germanic speaking parts of Europe north of the Alps. They were inspired by the Roman and Greek alphabets, but were designed so that they were suited to the Germanic languages and writing materials.

The runes were mainly engraved in wood, consequently they were angular, and horizontal lines that would be indistinguishable from the grains of the wood, were avoided. In the same way as the alphabet is named after its first characters, alpha and beta, the Greek names for a and b, the runic alphabet has been named after its first characters and is called a futhark. In the course of centuries the use of runes and the shapes of runes changed so much that as regards Scandinavia you can roughly distinguish between three different futharks in use in various periods of time.

Considering these known runic alphabets the Kensington Stone runes ought to be similar to the latest futhark, and a number of them are, but it also has runes completely dissimilar. For instance the A-rune in “men(“mans”), the Ø-rune in “red” (“røde”), and the U-rune in ”evil” (“illu”). These were runic forms that were not known from any other inscriptions, and for historians and runologists it was an essential argument for rejecting the text.

As if that was not enough, the numerals of the inscription, both the numerals stating the number of travelers and the numerals in the year 1362 were also suspect. On the one hand the characters that represent the numerals are unknown in authentic rune inscriptions, and on the other hand they are lined up like Arabian numerals.

This is the common way to write numerals today as well as in the 19th century, but it was extremely unusual in the Middle Ages when Roman numerals were very nearly the only ones in use. A medieval explorer would not write “22”, but “XXII” when he had to explain the number of Norsemen making up the company of explorers.

Furthermore the entire wording of the text contradicts its being genuine. In the 14th century runes had become obsolete in Scandinavia, but for instance on Gotland they were still used for memorials. An authentic inscription might be worded like the one on the Heinum stone:

“Gaivatr of Norderby rests here, and also his wife Rudiaud. Do well and pray for them. They will be as you are now, and you will be as they are now.”

Or as on the Groetlingbo stone: “Master Botair made the stone in memory of Bothaith, his wife, born of Jacob of Vaetaborg. May the Lord have mercy on their souls and on all our souls. Oli engraved the runes...”

It is worth noticing that the authentic rune inscriptions follow a certain pattern. The names of those to be remembered, the names of those who have paid for the stone, and in some cases also the name of the one who has carved the stone. Those are the standard wordings on the rune stones, and it is a consistent pattern right from the 9th century and up until 14th century Gotland. Think for example of Harold Bluetooth’s bragging inscription on the big Jelling stone: “King Harold erected this memorial after Gorm, his father, and Thorvi, his mother…”

On the other hand almost no authentic rune stone with numerals can be found, and certainly not with dates. For centuries runologists have struggled to arrive at as precise a dating of rune inscriptions as possible, and all that hard work would have been unnecessary if it was standard procedure for the rune engravers to date their inscriptions.

As regards the medieval use of runes in Scandinavia it is obvious that the Kensington stone deviates from that use. It has neither the name of the originator or the engraver, but on the other hand it has distinct numerals and a date as almost the only rune stone in world history. Not surprisingly the scholars quickly deemed the inscription to be a forgery.

Counter Arguments

The arguments that the inscription on the stone dates from the 19th century did not have any effect on the supporters. Those who support the authenticity of the text, point out the roots of the tree that have even left marks on the stone, and they emphasize Ohman’s upright character and honorable way of life as an argument against his having carried out a hoax.

While the debate was raging the stone traveled far. It was on tour in the US and also in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century. The stone was likewise on exhibition at The Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, and they took several casts of the stone.

Around the 1990s the debate reached a point where the positions were at a deadlock. With impressive thoroughness the supporters had gone through all late medieval source material in the fields that the critics of the stone pointed out as evidence against its authenticity. In this way they succeeded in finding examples of several of the script phenomena that discredited the inscription.

Against these arguments you could argue that although something is possible theoretically, it is far from likely, and the chance that so many anomalies should coincidentally materialize on the one stone is almost nil.  Finally the unusual style with dating and the lack of names could still not be explained.

Geology

The next step was an investment in a geological analysis of the stone, and the result was a great victory for the supporters. The analysis consisted in the measuring of silicate mica, the small glittering grains found in many kinds of rock, among others the greywacke rock that the Kensington Stone is made up of. Mica is more perishable than the other elements of rock, so by measuring the erosion of mica due to weather conditions and comparing it to the mica erosion of known, dated inscriptions found in similar climates, you can ascertain which inscription is the oldest.

The analysis showed that the runes on the Kensington Stone were at least 200 years old and consequently could not be a forgery from the late 19th century. That was an amazing result and opened up for the possibility that the “soft” humanities had to bow to the so-called “hard” sciences.

In Sweden

In 2003 the success of the stone brought it to The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm where it was examined by Swedish experts and put on display. But in Stockholm the stone was also noted by a linguist who thought that the unusual runes on the stone looked like something he had seen before. At The Institute for Dialectology, Onomastics and Folklore Research in Umeaa he was writing a paper on two letters from 1880s, i.e. about ten years before the Kensington Stone was pried out by Ohman in Minnesota.

The letters were meant to be sent round to local journeymen guilds and contained a number of secret, but rather simple, code alphabets. Two of these alphabets were runic alphabets, and these runes were identical to the otherwise unknown runes on the Kensington Stone.

At the same time the geological analysis also came under fire. The mica on the Kensington Stone was of another type than the mica on the stones it had been compared with, and is decomposed at another velocity.

Moreover, differences in the microclimate around the stones, that is everything from precipitation to annual variations of temperature, humidity and the acidity and chemical composition of the soil, all these contribute to the decomposition of mica, and therefore making comparisons an extremely uncertain method of dating. Neither did the analysis take into account the treatment that the surface of the stone had been exposed to since 1898, for instance the chemical treatments it had gone through in connection with the casts that had been taken of it. Likewise, the geological conclusion has not been published or exposed to peer review, i.e. a systematic evaluation by other experts.

With these blows the last remains of the text’s credibility crumbled away. The mica analysis is not reliable, and the runes of the inscription originate from journeymen’s circles in 19th century Northern Sweden.

Identity

The urge to believe in the text on the Kensington Stone is, however, so strong with a group of its supporters that apparently nothing can make them change their minds. The last straws that the text’s supporters are now clutching at are some details in the shapes of a few R-runes on the stone. They desperately over interpret some unintended or natural cuts in the stone’s rough surface in order to make the stone’s runes differ from the Swedish rune letters from the 1880s.

Seeing that the Kensington Stone is written in modern runes, and this was demonstrated right from the beginning and since then corroborated numerous times, why are there people who still have faith in the words of the inscription and spend so much time attempting to refute something so obviously correct?

In order to comprehend the urge to believe in the text despite all evidence to the contrary one should look at the context in which the stone appeared, and have a look back at the 19th century. This was an extremely dynamic period in human history. Inventions like steam power, railways and the telegraph turned upside down the fundamental premises for most people on earth. Economies, religions, populations, even geography, were pushed around by the great discoveries and scientific changes. Countries, nations, and empires went under, and new ones emerged.

One of the nations emerging during the 19th century was the United States of America, and a major part of this nation’s success consisted in its ability to attract human resources and put them in an ideological framework that allowed an efficient exploitation of the enormous values in the North American continent. The human resources were among others pioneers like Olaf Ohman.

The settlers’ personal histories, their immigration, changes in their nationality, their language, their trade, and all the uncertainty and danger connected with such great personal upheavals meant a change of identity. Their former self-perception could not be upheld against the pressure of changes in their own lives and the general dynamics of the epoch.

Changing identity is no easy matter. Even though the pressure against one’s established identity partly stems from one’s own actions, it is quite another matter to accept the changes.

All through history there are thousands of examples of people who would rather die than give up for instance their nationality, language, religion, loyalty, or what else they might believe was essential for their identity. But the violent changes in the 19th century forced hundreds of millions of people to reconsider their identities. And the Kensington Stone is part of that process.

This is the reason why it is defended so passionately. It is part of the identity that the Scandinavian settlers constructed in order to make sense of their lives in America. The runes created a connection between the Scandinavians’ old identity and their new life. It became a symbol for the Scandinavian immigrants and was for instance the inspiration when the state of Minnesota got a professional team in American football, a team still bearing the name “Minnesota Vikings”.

Therefore the academic analyses of the text have been rejected so categorically. Naturally people do not like being told that their laboriously constructed identity does not rest on a solid foundation. It is almost naïve to believe that people will accept such a conclusion no matter how massively it is substantiated by the source material. It has been the underlying premise for the debate about the Kensington Stone for more than a hundred years. It has been a battle about identity.

The battle has not been mitigated by the fact that it has been a debate between two close-knit identity groups, the settlers and their successors against the academic world. On the contrary, the battle lines have been in perfect keeping with the traditional stereotypes about Europeans versus Americans. The mainly European scholars, who dismissed the stone as a hoax, could be seen as a bunch of intellectual snobs with no respect for honest, hard working American settlers.

From the other side the Americans could be seen as loud, rather stupid, sensation-seeking boasters. In the Kensington debate these stereotypes unfolded beautifully. The Americans consistently dismissed the rational arguments against the text, they were unable to recognize modern runes even though they were right in front of them, and they preferred their lively imagination to cool scientific reason.

And all the way through, the Europeans showed their unmistakable scorn for the background of the stone and the possible motives behind it. Scholars went so far as to point out that the most solid argument for the possible authenticity of the text was that the settlers were too ignorant to have made the forgery.

The Knights Templar

Today the stone’s supporters are reduced to some enthusiastic individuals and perhaps minor local groups in Minnesota. On the other hand the stone has acquired a new, colorful life in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and other fragile minds.

If you surf into the murky corners of the Internet, you will find theories claiming that not only is the text authentic, it was even written by Knights Templar. If you believed that the Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved at the beginning of the 14th century, it is only because you follow established historical research instead of believing in entertaining theories without foundation in sources.

And among these entertaining theories there is one that asserts that it was Nordic Knights Templar who in 1362 travelled far into the North American continent, bringing with them the Holy Grail itself in order to hide it in America far away from its sinister persecutors. Of course there is no foundation for the theory, but that did not keep the American TV-channel “History Channel” from producing a series named “Holy Grail in America” which presented the theory. Incidentally the man behind this fanciful theory is the very same geologist who was behind the discredited geological examination.

Thus the debate about the Kensington Stone has been reduced from being a struggle for identity to being a peripheral phenomenon in line with extraterrestrials, conspiracies, and other modern myths.

Conclusion

The Kensington Stone is not medieval, but it is a monument to the upheavals human beings created and were exposed to in the dynamic 19th century, and to the way in which some Scandinavian settlers managed to re-create their identity by making a connection between their former lives as royal subjects and smallholders and a life as American citizens and landowners.

Their course of life was marked by upheavals and hazards; they changed languages, countries, nationalities, and social status, aided by the explosion of creativity and productivity characteristic of the 19th century. Accordingly the Kensington Stone becomes a monument to the incredible creations and changes of the 19th century and to the amazing human mind that was both behind the violent changes and at the same time was able to adapt to the new world opening up before it.

Anders Lundt Hansen is a historian, MA, Working as lecturer and storyteller

Bibliography

Erik Moltke’s classical work on runes:

E. Molkte: Runer i Danmark og deres oprindelse 2.udg. 1981

(Runes in Denmark and their provenance).

An example of a classical supporter of the stone’s authenticity:

Hjalmar R. Roland: The Kensington stone. A study in pre-Columbian American history 1932.

A more recent supporter illustrative of the desperate hunt for linguistic and runic parallels is:

Robert A. Hall: The Kensington rune-stone is genuine. Linguistic, practical, methodological considerations 1982.

The story about the Knights Templar’s involvement can be found in several places on youtube, among others this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWHtFfJNZsk

The exhibition in Stockholm led to this publication:

Statens historiska museum: Historiska nyheter special. Specialnummer om Kensingtonstenen  2003

(The Swedish History Museum: Historical news special. Special issue on the Kensington Stone 2003).

The damning articles on Larsson’s runic alphabet are published in the following two publications:

Tryggve Sköld: Edward Larssons alfabet i Daum-Katta, vinterblad från Dialect-, ortsnamns- och folkminnesarkivet i Umeå nr. 13 2003.

(Tryggve Sköld: Edward Larsson’s alphabet in Daum-Katta, winter publication from The Institute for Dialectology, Onomastics and Folklore Research in Umeaa # 13 2003.

Tryggve Sköld: “Kensington-stenens språk” in Daum-Katta, vinterblad från dialect-, ortsnamns- och folkminnesarkivet i Umeå nr. 13 2003.

(Tryggve Sköld: “The language of the Kensington Stone in Daum-Katta, winter publication from The Institute for Dialectology, Onomastics and Folklore Research in Umeaa # 15 2005.