So here is an interesting puzzle for us to consider. Not because there is any evidence that the artifact was left by Vikings, but because of the controversy over if the artifact is the real fake one or not.
A little background is required here:
Back in 1935 and 1936, Ralph Linton and W.C. McKern, from the University of Wisconsin, led summer excavations at Spencer Lake Mound (Hirst). Their team of college students those years was a who’s-who of soon-to-be well recognized Archaeologists of the 1940’s. From all accounts they used good recovery and recording procedures of the time and published their findings in peer reviewed journals (McKern 1942, 1964, P. 1964, Ritzenthaler 1964).
During the excavation they encountered several burials and recovered several artifacts, one of which was a horse skull missing its lower jaw (McKern 1964:120). The skull was removed, noted, and later identified by the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Mammologist as being a Western Mustang, a breed of horse introduced to the Wisconsin area in the early 20th century (Ritzenthaler 1964:121). McKern mentions the skull in his article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 1942 along with the other artifacts found, suggesting the skull as evidence of western influence during the time the mounds were built (McKern 1942:157). He further supports his idea of western influence with a piece of charred wood, apparently found along with the skull, demonstrated evidence of being cut by a steel ax (McKern 1942:157).
Now, at no point did anyone ever think the skull was evidence of anyone other than Native Americans, specifically the Chippewa (McKern 1942:157), and 20th century Europeans were involved in this situation. There is no suggestion or evidence that anyone other than the above mentioned groups were involved.
But let’s beat this dead horse anyway shall we?
Despite being debunked over a hundred years ago by Cyrus Thomas in 1894, and fifty years before McKern’s excavation at Spencer Lake Mound, some individuals still want to believe that the mounds, found all over the American Midwest, were not built by Native Americans. Some claim Ancient Hebrews, some go with white Europeans, others use the old fallback of Ancient Astronauts. In this case we’re asked to believe that these specific mounds were built by early Vikings, because of the horse skull.
For starts, the horse skull was identified as that of a Western Mustang. If it had been a horse of a Viking explorer we would be expecting it to be more like the Norwegian Fjord Horse. According to the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry, this is one of the oldest breeds in the world, selectively bred for 2000 years, and found in Norse burial sites in Europe.
I’m guessing the similarity between the European Norse burials found with horse skulls and this one found in an old burial mound is the link needed to make this a Viking burial. Otherwise I can’t figure out why there is a link here. There are no other artifacts that were recovered that might lead one to believe this was Nordic in origin. The recovered remains were not identified as anything other than Native American. There isn’t even a random runestone to puzzle over. As far as I can see there is no reason to think this was Viking in nature.
The real controversy over the horse skull was whether or not it was planted there as a hoax.
See, in 1942 as McKern was preparing to publish a paper on the Spencer Lake Mound excavation, along with his thoughts on the horse skull, a mysterious gentleman came forwards and claimed to have planted the skull in the mound (McKern 1964, P. 1964, Ritzenthaler 1964).
The gentlemen requested to be known only as Mr. P., and came to McKern’s office to tell him an interesting story about his childhood spent pot-hunting with a friend.
“The boys dug a sizeable hole, consuming the better part of a hot afternoon, without encountering any kind of a recognizable feature. They were about to backfill the opening when one of them suggested that they bury a horse’s skull that lay along the edge of a nearby field a short distance away. This seemed like a brilliant suggestion to the undisciplined minds of the boys, so the skull was retrieved and carefully laid in an oriented position at the bottom of the excavation before backfilling commenced. Anticipation of the probable results of this piece of mischief somehow eased the monotony of the backfilling, and the miscreants mutually agreed that in about two hundred years some archaeologist would dig up the skull and conclude that he had found something really worthwhile (Mr. P. 1964:120).”
McKern’s 1936 publication in American Antiquity mentioned the skull as an important find, but he puzzled over its presence in the absence of any other western trade goods;
“The most important discovery in this mound was the complete skull of a horse found associated with one of the burials. This was clearly an inclusive feature, and dictates a proto-historic or early historic date for the erection of the tumulus. However, the absence of any trade objects of European provenience, or any other indication of contact with white traders, renders it difficult to ascribe to the mound an age under two hundred years. It is highly improbable that the horse could have been introduced into Wisconsin from the northern Plains earlier than two hundred fifty years ago. The time limitations so defined point definitely to the Dakota Sioux as the author of these relatively large northwestern Wisconsin mounds (McKern 1936 via Baerreis 1964:104).”
However, when McKern published “The Clam River Focus” in 1963 he left out the skull (Baerreis 1964:104). This caught the attention of reviewer David Baerreis, who apparently aked McKern why he’d left it out.
In a series of letters in the 1964 issue of Wisconsion Archaeologist Vol. 45 number 2, Baerreis, McKern, Mr. P., and Robert Ritzenthaler discuss the validity of the horse skull as an artifact and of the validity of Mr. P’s confession.
In brief, McKern did hear Mr. P’s confession, but in light of the plank found along with the skull, and the fact that there didn’t appear to be any evidence of previous digging in the Spencer Lake Mound, McKern didn’t think the skull was the same skull Mr. P buried (McKern 1964:118). Also, McKern felt that Mr. P’s description of the mound in which he buried the skull didn’t fit the description of Spencer Lake Mound (McKern 1964:119). McKern did believe that Mr. P had buried a skull as a childhood prank, he just didn’t think it was the same one he found (McKern 1964:118).
To back up McKern’s idea was the assurance of the rest of the excavation crew that there was no evidence that the ground around the burial with the horse skull had been disturbed (McKern 1964:118). The ground was described as hard packed, and the skull, along with the rest of the remains, had to be removed with smaller feature tools because the ground was packed into the skull (McKern 1964:118).
McKern did note that a previously dug pit fitting the description of Mr. P’s was located on the Clam Lake Mound not much further away, but it was quickly identified and was empty upon re-excavation (McKern 1964:119). McKern suggested that Mr. P was confused as to which mound he had dug in as a child, and that after he and his friends backfilled their hole, someone else came along and re-dug the hole hoping to find something (McKern 1964:119). (Apparently this is a common occurrence.)
A few things to point out here.
- 1) It’s really easy to identify previously dug/disturbed soils in excavations, especially when they are less then 30-ish years old. So, it’s easy to believe McKern when he says he has no reason to suspect the skull was planted. Still, Ritzenthaler suggests that the youth’s may have dug the pit from the side of the mound and then wedged the skull into it (Ritzenthaler 1964:116). I’m not sure how convinced I am at this one, there still would have been evidence of disturbance, and McKern states the ground was packed into the skull making removal difficult. This wouldn’t be the case if this skull had just been placed there.
- 2) There is the wood plank that had been chopped with a steel ax. Also, McKern and Baerreis both suggest the Spencer Lake Mound was younger than the Clam Lake Mounds, which would allow for the possibility that the mound could have been built in 1700’s which would allow for both western contact and the presence of horses (Baerreis 1964:104).
- 3) Mr. P’s story suggests that the boy’s didn’t find anything interesting in their pot-hunting dig, there was clearly a burial with many other artifacts associated with it. Now it’s possible they stopped digging right before they hit pay dirt, but it’s been my experience that you see burials a while before you find them, in the form of darker soils, feature shapes, and the occasional artifact.
- 4) Mr. P’s story also says that the mound they dug into was the ‘longest’ of a series of mounds, and the Spencer Lake Mound apparently is a solitary mound and is tall, but not long. However, the cluster of Clam Lake Mounds fits the description of Mr. P’s mystery mound, as do several other mound complexes in the area (McKern 1964:118).
- 5) Ritzenthaler points out that after the skull was examined that there were noticeable chewing marks left behind from rodents gnawing on the skull (Ritzenthaler 1964:116). It’s very common to find rodent gnaw makers on bones, especially when they are left on the surface and exposed to the elements, which is what Ritzenthaler suggests (1964). Rodents will burrow and chew on things, but according to Ritzenthaler, for this to have happened there would have needed to be a maze of rodent tunnels all around the skull, which seems highly unlikely, and wasn’t mentioned by McKern.
- 6) What are the chances of there being two horse skulls; one burred for real and the other a prank? I’m a good skeptic, I understand chance is greater than one might think, and from the two stories here, I’m beginning to think that’s just what happened.
- 7) Neither McKern or Mr. P have any reason to be lying here, which makes it even harder to decide. There doesn’t seem to be any motive to either make up a fake hoax or to deny McKern’s account of the skull’s in-situ condition.
From what I can peace together, McKern probably left the horse skull out of his 1963 publication because it was just easier to do so. He still had the wood plank and other bits of dated evidence to base his hypothesis on, he didn’t need the horse skull. Still, it does seem that McKern may have been correct about Mr. P’s story. Since there is no reason to deny that Mr. P did plant a horse skull in some mound during his youth, and there is no reason to deny McKern’s account of discovery and excavation of his horse skull, there seems to be a good chance that there really were two skulls, one planted and lost, and one buried and found.
Go to Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway? or Where the Vikings Weren’t for more on this series.
Griffin, James B.
1964 Review of The Clam River Focus. Wisconsin Archeologist (old series) 45(2):104-111. http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/wisconsin-natural-history-society-archeological-s/the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci/page-25-the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci.shtml. Retrieved July 25 2013.
Hirst, K. Kris.
N.d. There Were No Ancient Vikings in Wisconsin? Prank at Spencer Lake Mounds. About.com. http://archaeology.about.com/od/frauds/a/spencer_lake.htm. Retrieved July 25 2013.
2012 Spencer Lake Horse Skull. http://prezi.com/77nbasbxlerv/spencer-lake-horse-skull/ Retrieved July 25 2013.
McKern, W. C.
1964 The Spencer Lake horse skull, Response to Mr. P.’s letter of June 28, 1963. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):118-120 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/wisconsin-natural-history-society-archeological-s/the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci/page-25-the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci.shtml. Retrieved July 25 2013.
1942 The first settlers of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Magazine of History 26(2):153-169 http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/wmh/id/29076/rec/19 Retrieved July 25 2013.
1964 A Burnett County hoax. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):120-121 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/wisconsin-natural-history-society-archeological-s/the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci/page-25-the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci.shtml. Retrieved July 25 2013.
1964 The riddle of the Spencer Lake horse skull. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):115-117 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/wisconsin-natural-history-society-archeological-s/the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci/page-25-the-wisconsin-archeologist-volume-44-46-hci.shtml. Retrieved July 25 2013.
The Viking Rune.
Top Ten Viking Hoaxes. The Viking Rune: All Things Scandinavian. http://www.vikingrune.com/2009/05/top-ten-viking-hoaxes/ Retrieved July 25 2013.