Kensington Runestone

From Academic Kids

The Kensington runestone is a roughly rectangular slab of greywacke covered in runes on its face and side. Its origin and meaning have been disputed ever since it was found in 1898 near Kensington, Minnesota. Many scholars and historians dismiss it as a prank or hoax. Its supporters claim it is evidence Scandinavian explorers reached the middle of North America in the 14th century.

Contents

Early history

Swedish-American farmer Olof Öhman said he found the the stone when clearing his land of trees and stumps before plowing. It measured about 30 by 16 by 6 inches, weighing about 200 lb (90 kg). Reportedly, it was on a small knoll or hillside, lying face down and buried in the root system of a tree believed to be at least ten years old. According to several witnesses, some of the roots were flattened and fit tightly around it. Öhman's ten year old son noticed some markings and the farmer later said he thought they'd found an "Indian almanac".

When the stone was discovered, the journey of Leif Ericson to Vinland (North America) was being widely discussed and there was renewed interest in the Vikings throughout Scandinavia, stirred by the National Romanticism movement. Five years earlier, a Danish archaeologist had proved it was possible to travel to North America in medieval ships. There was also some friction between Sweden and Norway due to the latter's recent independence: Some Norwegians claimed the stone was a Swedish hoax and there were similar Swedish accusations because the stone is inscribed with a reference to a joint expedition of Norwegians and Swedes at a time when they were both ruled by the same king.

Soon after it was found, the stone was displayed at a local bank (there is no evidence Öhman tried to make money from his find). An error-ridden copy of the inscription made its way to the Greek language department at the University of Minnesota, then to Olaus J. Breda (a professor of Scandinavian languages and literature there from 1884 to 1899 [1] (http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/publications/volume25/vol25_2.htm)) who had little interest in the find and whose runic knowledge was later questioned by some researchers. He made a translation, declared it a forgery and forwarded copies to linguists in Scandinavia. Norwegian archaeologist Oluf Rygh also concluded the stone was a fraud (based on a letter from Breda, who never saw the stone), as did several other linguists. Archaeological evidence of Viking settlements in Canada wouldn't appear for another half a century and the idea of pre-Columbian Vikings wandering through Minnesota seemed incredible (if not eccentric) to most academics.

By now the stone had been sent to Northwestern University in Chicago. With scholars either dismissing it as a prank or unable to identify a sustainable historical context it was returned to Öhman, who is said to have placed it face down near the door of his granary as a "stepping stone" which he also used for straightening out nails (years later his son said this was an "untruth" and that they had it set up in an adjacent shed). In 1907 the stone was purchased, reportedly for ten dollars, by Hjalmar Holand, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Holand created renewed public interest and further studies were made by geologist Newton Horace Winchell (Minnesota Historical Society) and linguist George Flom (Philological Society of the University of Illinois), who both published opinions in 1910.

According to Winchell, the poplar tree under which the stone was found had been destroyed but several nearby poplars of the same size were cut down and by counting their rings it was determined they were 40 years old. Since the surrounding county had not been settled until 1858 it seemed unlikely the stone could be a forgery. Winchell also concluded that the weathering of the stone indicated the inscription was roughly 500 years old.

Meanwhile Flom found a strong apparent divergence between the runes used in the Kensington inscription and those in use during the 14th century. Similarly, the linguistic forms didn't match surviving written examples from that era.

Most discussions over the Kensington Runestone's authenticity have been based on an apparent conflict between the linguistic and physical evidence. The Runestone's discovery by a Swedish farmer in Minnesota at a time when Viking history and Scandinavian culture were such popular and sometimes controversial topics casts a stark shadow of skepticism that has lingered for more than a hundred years.

Historical support

In 1354 King Magnus Erikson of Sweden issued a letter of protection (or passport) to Paul Knutson for a voyage to Greenland. The Western Settlement of Greenland had been found abandoned (but for some cattle) a few years earlier and it was believed the population had rejected the Church (and its ownership of the local farms, which had been gradually acquired in payment of various fees), reverted to paganism and gone to what is now known as North America.

In 1887 the historian Gustav Storm mentioned the journey, suggesting it returned in 1363 or 1364. This appears to be the first published work that documents a voyage to North America matching the date on the stone. It has since been confirmed by a 1577 letter from Gerard Mercator to John Dee, which excerpts an earlier work by Jacobus Cnoyen (now lost) describing a voyage beyond Greenland that returned with 8 men in 1364. Cnoyen also mentions that a priest accompanied the voyage and wrote an account of it in a book called the Inventio Fortunate which is cited in a number of medieval and Renaissance documents, although no copy remains.

The Inventio is cited on some 16th century maps as a source for their depiction of the Arctic. It is not known if the voyage went as far as Hudson Bay but some maps show the bay at least a century before its first known exploration and this reportedly influenced Columbus in planning his own voyage west across the Atlantic. So while a clever forger could have deduced the correct date to put on the Runestone from information available at the time of its discovery, an expedition does seem to have taken place as inscribed on the stone.

At Cormorant Lake in Becker County, Minnesota there are three boulders with triangular holes similar to those used for mooring boats along the coast of Norway in the 14th century. Holand found other triangular holes in rocks near where the stone was found. Some have speculated the explorers could have come down the Nelson River from Hudson Bay to Lake Winnipeg, then taken the Red River of the North to Cormorant Lake. A 14th century Scandinavian firesteel was found between the lake and Kensington, where the Runestone was found.

Other Viking artifacts dating from the 14th century have turned up in Minnesota but apparently none were recovered under controlled archaeological conditions and it has been impossible to eliminate the possibility they were brought by Europeans centuries later. Similarly, the dating of any Viking-like mooring holes cut into rocks in the region has been elusive.

Opinion Swings

Holand took the stone to Europe and while newspapers in Minnesota carried articles hotly debating its authenticity, the stone was quickly dismissed by Swedish linguists.

For the next 40 years Holand struggled to sway public and scholarly opinion about the Runestone, writing articles and several books. He achieved brief success in 1949 when the stone was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution and scholars such as William Thalbitzer and S. R. Hagen published papers supporting its authenticity. However at nearly the same time published opinions by Scandinavian linguists Sven Jansson, Erik Moltke, Harry Anderson and K. M. Nielsen (along with a popular book by Erik Wahlgren) again threw the Runestone's provenance into doubt.

Along with Wahlgren, historian Theodore Blegen flatly asserted Ohman had carved the artifact as a prank, possibly with help from others in the Kensington area. Further resolution seemed to come with the 1976 transcipt of an audio tape made by Walter Gran several years earlier. In it, Gran said his father John confessed in 1927 that Ohman made the inscription. John Gran's story however, was based on second-hand anecdotes he had heard about Ohman and although it was presented as a deathbed confession, Gran lived for several years afterwards saying nothing more about the stone. Even so, by now the Kensington Runestone was widely believed to be a hoax.

The possibility of a Viking provenance for the Runestone was renewed in 1982 when linguist Robert Hall of Cornell University published a book (and a follow up in 1994) questioning the methodology of its critics. He showed that the odd philological problems in the Runestone could be the result of normal dialectic variances running out from standard Old Swedish at the time. Further, he asserted that critics had failed to consider the physical evidence, which he found leaning heavily in favour of authenticity.

In 1983, inspired by Hall, Richard Nielsen (an engineer and language researcher from Houston, Texas) studied the Kensington Runestone's runology and linguistics, disproving several earlier contentions of forgery. For example, the rune which had been interpeted as standing for the letter J (and according to critics, invented by the forger) turned out to be a rare form of the L rune found only in a few 14th century manuscripts.

Nielsen also noted that the dialect found on the Runestone was an a dialect unlike the far more common e dialect spoken by most Swedes including Ohman. This dialect was used primarily near the Bohuslan region of southeast Sweden, next to the border of Norway and near a Danish area. According to Nielsen the language on the stone appears to combine dialectic forms from intersecting languages.

A Century Goes By

In December 1998, just over a hundred years after the Kensington Runestone had been found, a detailed physical analysis was made for the first time since Winchell's report in 1910. This included photography with a reflected light microscope, core sampling and examination with a scanning electron microscope. In November 2000, geologist Scott Wolter presented preliminary findings suggesting the stone had undergone an in-the-ground weathering process that would have taken a minimum of 50-200 years.

For example, Wolter noted a complete loss of pyrite on the inscribed surface of the stone. Samples from slate gravestones in Maine dating back 200 years showed considerable pyrite degradation but not the complete absence of it apparent on the runestone. Given that the gravestone samples were not subjected to the same conditions as the runestone, the comparison still suggests the runestone was buried long before the first modern European settlement of the area in 1858.

Some critics have noted the surviving sharpness of the chisel work, asking how this could have endured centuries of freeze-thaw cycles and seepage. However, the back of the stone has crisply preserved glacial scratches that are thousands of years old. Other observers say the runes have weathered consistently with the rest of the stone.

In 2001 Nielsen published an article on the Scandinavian Studies website countering other arguments, including one that the runes were Dalecarlian (a more modern form). He showed that while some runes on the Kensington Runestone are similar to Dalecarlian runes, over half have no connection and can be explained by 14th-century usage.

The Text

The inscription on the face (where a few words may be missing due to spalling and calcification of some of the stone) reads:

8 göter ok 22 norrmen paa opthagelse farth fro winlanth of west Wi hathe läger weth 2 skylar en thags norder fro theno sten wi war ok fiske en thag äptir wi kom hem fan X man rothe af bloth og ded AVM frälse af illum

Translation: 8 Geats (South Swedes) and 22 Norwegians on acquisition venture from Vinland far to the west We had traps by 2 shelters one day's travel to the north from this stone We were fishing one day. After we came home found 10 men red with blood and dead AVM (Ave Maria) Deliver from evils!

The lateral (or side) text reads:

har X mans we hawet at se äptir wore skip 14 thag rise from theno odh Ar wars Herra 1362.

Translation: I have 10 men at the inland sea/lake to look after our ship 14 days travel from this wealth/property Year of our Lord 1362

The English translation is Nielsen's 2001 version. Typically, a modern Swede can barely make out the meaning. The AVM is historically consistent since any Scandinavian explorers would have been Catholic at that time. Earlier translations routinely interpreted skylar as skerries (or small, rocky islands) but Nielsen's research suggests this meaning is unlikely.

As an example of the linguistic discussion that has surrounded this text, the Swedish term opthagelse farth (journey of exploration), or updagelsfard as it often appears, is not known to have exisisted in Old Swedish during the 14th or 15th centuries. However, in a conversation with Holand in 1911 the lexicographer of the Old Swedish Dictionary (Soderwall) noted that his work was limited mostly to surviving legal documents written in formal and stilted language and that the root word opdage could have been a borrowed Germanic term.

Nielsen suggests that the à translated above as th or d could also be given a t sound, so for him the word translates as uptagelsfart (accquisiton expedition), also an acceptable 14th century expression (a problem with this is that in the rest of the text the TH-rune regularly corresponds to modern scandinavian d-sounds, only occasionally to historical th-sounds and the T-rune is used for t-sounds).

While many words in the inscription need lengthy explainations to fit a 14th century origin, no linguistic characteristic that disproves it has been identified.

Also, the inscription contains runic (or pentadic) numerals that have never been found on any other verified rune stone. Usually, numbers were written as words using individual runes. For example, to write EINN (one), the runes E-I-N-N were used (not numerals), and the word EN (one) is in the Kensington inscription. Writing all the numbers out (such as thirteen hundred and sixty-two) would have severely cramped the available surface space, so the stone's author (whether a forger or 14th century explorer) simplified things by using pentadic runes as numerals in the Arabic numbering system, which had appeared in Scandinavia by the 14th century.

Edward Larsson's notes
Enlarge
Edward Larsson's notes

Many runes in the inscription deviate from normal 14th century fuþark, but in 2004 it was discovered that these appear along with pentadic runes in the 1885 notes of an 18 year old journeyman tailor with an interest in folk music, Edward Larsson. A copy was published by the Institute for Dialectology, Onomastics and Folklore Research in Umeå, Sweden and while an accompanying article suggested the runes were a secret cipher used by the tailors guild, no usage of futharks by any 19th century guild has been documented.

Without a source for Larsson's runerows (for example an ancient book or modern guild derivation), it is difficult to give them any particular sway. The runes could have been available for use by a 19th century forger, but Larsson's notes eliminate any possibility that the unusual runes were made up on the spot by the stone's author.

Conclusion

The Keninsington Runestone could be a stunning prank left by someone with knowledge of obscure medieval runes and intersecting word forms apparently unknown to most professional linguists at the close of the 19th century, or a haunting message left by 14th century Viking explorers in the heart of North America. Much less likely but still vexing, it could be a medieval stone created by Vikings and later moved for some reason, or a serious but misgauged forgery that seemingly failed to earn money or have a political effect. Any discussion of it (such as suggesting the runestone's runes were used by 19th century guilds, or that the knoll on which it was found may have been a small island 600 years earlier) is fraught with opportunities for misinterpretation and speculation.

By 2002, further analysis by Nielsen suggested the stone's linguistics were plausible for the 14th century. Evidence for all of the unusual word and rune forms has reportedly been found in medieval sources. Historically, it appears there was an exploratory trip beyond Greenland in the year mentioned on the stone and so far, geochemical analysis suggests the stone was buried prior to the first arrival of Europeans in the region.

In a joint statement for a 2004 exhibition of the stone at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm, Nielsen and Henrik Williams, a professor of Scandinavian Languages at Upsala University and a proponent of the forgery theory, noted there were linguistic discrepancies for both 14th and 19th century origins of the inscription and that the runestone "requires further study before a secure conclusion can be reached."

See also

References and external links

da:Kensingtonstenen pl:Kamień z Kensington sv:Kensingtonstenen de:Runenstein von Kensington

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