John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
The Kensington Runestone
Kensington is a small community in central Minnesota, well-known for having attracted relatively large numbers of immigrants from Scandinavia. However, a reported discovery in 1898 seemed to suggest that the area was home to Scandinavians centuries before the Minnesota Territory became a state in 1858.
In 1898, a farmer of Swedish extraction, named Olof Ohman, claimed to have found on his land a stone slab that was carved with an ancient inscription in runic lettering – runes are a type of alphabet that was once widely used in northern Europe, including by the ancient Vikings.
It was known that explorers from northern Europe had reached the North American continent about 500 years before Columbus set sail, but could they possibly have advanced as far as Minnesota? The runes on the stone slab seemed to suggest that this was possible.
The Message of the Runes
When translated, the inscription read as follows:
“Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to the west. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out [to] fish. One day after we came home [we] found 10 men red of blood and dead. AVM Save [us] from evil. [We] have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 days’ travel from this island. [In the year] 1362.”
(A skerry is a small rocky island. AVM is an abbreviation for Ave Maria)
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Quite Clearly a Fake
There are many reasons to suppose that the Kensington Runestone was a fake.
For one thing, one has to wonder why a group of explorers who had set up camp and lost some of their numbers to a raid (presumably by Native Americans) would have bothered to go to the trouble of carving a message on a stone that they clearly had every intention of leaving in place before heading back to their ships. Who did they expect would read it? And what would the purpose have been of leaving such a message?
On the other hand, a farmer with Scandinavian roots who was also a former stonemason might well have thought that this was a good way of establishing some sort of ancient claim to the territory for his fellow Scandinavians.
People who have examined the Runestone have been quick to point out that nobody writing in 1362 would have expressed themselves in the language used on the stone. It uses phrasing that was common among Swedes and Norwegians living in 19th-century Minnesota but not 14th-century Scandinavia.
The runes are a mixture of letters known to have been used in the 9th to 11th centuries, plus some homemade symbols. However, by the 14th century, runes were only used for monumental and celebratory inscriptions, and not for general messages. On the other hand, they would not have used Arabic notation for the date.
Could a Scandinavian Expedition Have Taken Place?
When the Kensington Runestone was first “discovered” by Olof Ohman there were plenty of people who were perfectly happy to accept it as genuine. Many settlers from Europe were unhappy with the notion that they were usurpers in someone else’s land, and they, therefore, welcomed evidence of former settlement by people of the same genetic background as themselves.
However, there is no evidence that any such event as detailed on the stone could have happened. Mention is made of “Vinland”, this being an area – possibly in what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick – that was settled very briefly by Viking explorers in the early 11th century. It was certainly not in Viking hands in the mid-14th century.
Various claims have been made for the authenticity of Viking “finds” on mainland North America, but none have been convincing. The only item that looks to be at all genuine is an 11th-century Norwegian coin that was found at a Native American site in Maine. However, there is nothing to suggest that this could not have been “planted”.
The evidence all points to the fact that, although Scandinavians did reach the mainland of North America towards the end of the 10th century, they did not stay for long. They had little reason to settle and did not do so.