Today we talk with Douglas Hunter about his new book Beardmore: The Viking Hoax that Rewrote History. We talk about what the interesting history of the Beardmore relics, how they affected Canadian history, and what lessons we can learn from the hubris of our past.
So what have we learned so far about the Viking presence in America?
Well, we’ve looked at all the past usual suspects:
The Newport Tower. – Where we discuss where the tower came from and why it looks so much like a Norse tower. The reality of this structure seems to be that it’s really a windmill built by Gov. Benedict Arnold in the 17th cen, and the passing resemblance to a Norse tower was a creation in the mind of Carl Christian Rafn gotten from looking over some poorly drawn images of the tower, and never actually seeing the tower himself.
The Vinland Map – One of my favorite hoaxes of all time! Not just because it deals with maps, for which I have a fondness, but because it’s so old a hoax, it’s practically a real artifact itself now. Granted Yale would probably be really happy if it would turn out to be the real deal somehow, but with all the tests that have been done over the years, the evidence is really starting to weigh against that chance.
The Kensington Runestone. – The Runestone Museum in Minnesota still sort-of touts this one as being a real artifact when all evidence points to it being a hoax. The most convincing of all includes a detailed confession of how the hoax was set up and a then there is the major lack of any supporting evidence that it is remotely real.
Wisconsin Viking Horse Skull – This one is interesting because it’s not really about whether or not the skull is that of a Viking horse or not (it’s not BTW), but over if the skull found was the skull that was planted by pot hunters, or a different skull actually buried with the human remains it was found with.
Beardmore Relics – These are indeed Viking relics, but where and how they were found is the real question. Still, after confessions brought the truth to light, the Royal Ontario Museum still got the last laugh. They gamely put the relic’s back out on display explaining the whole situation, and showing that they could take a joke.
But with the dismissal of all of these fun, yet unreal, stories about Viking’s in America, lets not overlook the real evidence of their presence here.
Please let’s all ooh and aah over L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada once more. Because, as I’ve explained many times, Vikings are cool, and we have evidence they landed here long before Columbus! Yay! Still as awesome as my beloved Vikings were, they were sadly not the first people to reach the new world.
So who were, you ask? Well, we still have several candidates out there. Mayhaps the Chinese?
This week we have another puzzler, unlike the Wisconsin Viking Horse Skull, we know these artifacts are real. The question becomes, how did they get here?
In 1930 or 1931, a gold prospector named James Edward Dodd was prospecting just south of the Blackwater River (Elliott 1941a:254.) Dodd says while prospecting he blew up an old tree stump and a small clump of trees. When the smoke cleared he went to shovel the remains away and in the debris he says he found several iron objects (Currelly 1939:4, Elliott 1941a:254.)
According to Dodd, these objects were initially of no interest to him, so he left them there on the side of the ditch for a while. At some point he decided to go back for them, apparently in an attempt to see if anyone would buy them (Currelly 1939:4.)
As Dodd tells it, no one really showed in any interest for almost 10 years. He eventually took them to Port Arthur, Ontario and showed them to an Aaron Lougheed who then mentioned them to a John Jacob who went to Dodd’s home to see the bits of iron (Currelly 1939:4.) Lougheed and Jacob were so impressed by Dodd’s artifacts that they went to the local public library and through their own research they decided the artifacts were indeed Viking in origin (Currelly 1939:4.)
Armed with this conclusion, Jacob decided to contact C. T. Currelly at the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology. Apparently, nothing came of this call, and Dodd decided to again either throw away the iron bits or sell them to whoever would buy (Currelly 1939:5.) This time Dodd reached out to an Ontario geologist named E.M. Burwash, who again tried to contact C. T. Currelly, but again, this apparently went nowhere (Currelly 1939:5.)
Dodd couldn’t catch a break until one O.C. Elliott then at the Collegiate Institute in Kingston, Ontario saw the things Dodd was trying to hock, recognized them for what they were, and then sent a drawing of the items to Currelly personally (Currelly 1939:5.) At last Currelly got the message. He took one look at the picture, realized that they were indeed Viking weapons, and immediately had Dodd bring the artifacts in (Currelly 1939:5.)
Currelly judged the weapons to be a set, describing two bits of a sword, an ax head, and what could be shield grip (some say this is rattle). He concluded that the artifacts were made around 1000 A.D. and speculated that the weapons were part of a Viking burial. So impressed, Currelly purchased the artifacts for the Royal Ontario Museum (Currelly 1939:5), who still own them today.
This is where the story of the artifacts themselves ends. The Beardmore relics are real; they are over 1,000 years old; and the Royal Ontario Museum had them on display for about 20 years before they were removed due to controversy (Feder 2010:40.) However, the story of the Beardmore relics continues on in a massive “He said – He said” debacle.
From the beginning there were issues with Dodd’s story. Currelly’s peers began their own investigations and holes in Dodd’s story began to appear (Elliott 1941a & 1941b, Carpenter 1957, Godfrey 1955.) There were a number of discrepancies in the timing of Dodd’s discovery. Though he did have a few friends saying they saw the relics in Dodd’s possession after the discovery, many of these accounts can’t seem to get their dates to match up (Elliott 1941b, Carpenter 1957, Godfrey 1955.)
Also there were the signed affidavits of Eli Ragotte, J.M. Hansen and the Widdow of Jens Bloch stating that the relics really belonged to Hanson as collateral due to a loan he’d given to Bloch (Elliott 1941b: 278, Godfrey 1955:42, Carpenter 1957:877, Feder 2010:40.) Bloch came into possession of the artifacts by way of his deceased father, who had a collection when the Bloch’s lived in Norway. Bloch reportedly brought some of this collection to America with him, against Norwegian law (Elliott 1941b: 278.) Apparently, Bloch passed away before recovering the items, and Dodd, who rented Hansen’s house, helped himself to the relics.
Also in question was Dodd’s own character. Apparently, the man was quite the hoaxster and his knack for storytelling was well known in Port Arthur, Ontario. He was known at the local bar as “Liar Dodd” (Carpenter 1957:876) and would often ‘borrow’ high grade gold ore from his friends and then try to pass if off as ore he had found on his claims (Carpenter 1957:876.) He was also frequently accused of “salting” his claim (Carpenter 1957:876.)
The most damming evidence turned out to be a sworn statement from Walter Dodd, the stepson of Dodd, stating that he had seen his father plant the artifacts before “discovering” them later (Feder 2010:40.) Walter had been present, according to Dodd’s statements, when Dodd discovered the items (Currelly 1939:4.) This final statement on the matter caused the Royal Ontario Museum to pull the artifacts from display (Feder 2010:40.)
But really all the evidence we have up to this point is really just one person’s word against another. Dodd is a dubious character, but that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have really found these items. Still, sworn statements carry legal weight, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But what can the relics themselves tell us?
Let’s consider the type and condition of the relics here. T.L. Tanton of the Dominion Geological Survey, was familiar with the soil and geology of the Beardmore area and gave his professional opinion that iron relics, like the Beardmore relics, should not have survived 900 years buried in the ground beneath a clump of trees in that area (Elliott 1941a:261.) Arguments were made at the time, that there were lots of iron artifacts all over the world that survived long term burial. However, Tanton’s opinion here should hold some weight because soil acidity, salt content, and moisture content change from area to area, so it really all depends on where the artifacts are buried. Tanton, being familiar with the area around Beardmore would know better than anyone if iron could survive the soil there.
The sword in particular is of great interest. The design is that of an eastern Norwegian style that didn’t travel much outside of its origin area (Elliott 1941b.) Also, the sword apparently predates the rest of the relics by about a century, bringing into question the weapons being a set (Elliott 1941b, Carpenter 1957.)
The overall conditions of the relics at the time that the Royal Ontario Museum purchased them were pretty bad. Currelly (1939) mentions immediacy putting them through a preservation technique to prevent further erosion. Elliott (1941b) calls this fragile condition into question in light of Dodd’s apparent rough handling of them. Could they have really survived being blown up, shoveled aside, being left to the elements, and handled bare-handed by several individuals? Elliott didn’t think so, neither do I.
The Royal Ontario Museum tired to salvage their loss, changing the plaque next to the relics to a more ambiguous statement before giving up and putting them into storage in the 1920’s (Currelly 1941, Feder 2010:40.) Still, Walter Dodd’s statement was too much in the end. However, the Relics were given new life in the 1990’s.
In the 90’s the Royal Ontario Museum pulled the Relic’s out of storage and put them back on display, this time not as evidence of Vikings in America, but evidence of an unfortunate hoax that the museum had unwittingly fell for (Feder 2010:40.)
In the end the story of the Beardmore relics was deemed fake, despite the relics themselves being authentic. An interesting twist in the saga of where the Vikings weren’t.