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?
Even though I’m only going to focus on one of the American Runestones (of which there are several), to date, none are thought to be authentic by anyone who is knowledgeable of such things. This doesn’t stop the conspiratorially minded however.
Probably the most popular of the American Runestones is the Kensington Runestone. Named for Kensington, Minnesota, the settlement it was discovered near in 1898 (Blegen 1968:6, Fridley1979:152). Specifically, it was found in the largely rural township of Solem, Douglas County, Minnesota (Blegen 1968:6, Fridley1979:152).
As the story goes, a Swedish immigrant farmer Olof Ohman and his son found the stone lodged into the roots of a tree they were removing from a field to be plowed (Blegen 1968:6, Fridley1979:152). According to the story, the two didn’t even notice the inscription until much later, after Ohman’s son dusted the stone, and dug the dirt out of the engravings with a stick (Blegen 1968:6). From there the story gets a little blurry, apparently there was an excavation looking for artifacts associated with the stone, but all they found were pieces of stone originally thought to be bone (Blegen 1968:36). Future exactions found nothing associated with the stone (Fagan 2006:119). Currently the stone rests in a Runestone Museum, located in downtown Alexandria, Minnesota.
The stone itself is a large slab of greywacke, roughly the shape of a tomb stone, that has runic inscriptions on two sides (Blegen 1968:10). The inscription tells the story of an ill-fated Norse excursion in the area that would become Minnesota (Fagan 2006:118). However, from the time of its discovery, the stone has been a source of controversy that still lasts today.
Very briefly and incompletely, runic scrip is the written language of the ancient Norse. Metaphysics aside, the script consists of somewhere between 16 -24 individual symbols that represent consonants and vowels, exactly like the English Alphabet. Rumor has it that it once competed with our own letter system for dominance during the medieval period, if true, it obviously lost. So to find something like this, even in 1898, was quite the discovery.
After the initial buzz around the stone died down, the stone apparently dropped out of public eye until sometime in 1907, when Norwegian-American journalist, Hjalmar Rued Holand became aware of the existence of the runestone and purchased it for about $10 (Blegen 1968:10). Holand spent most of his life trying to prove a Norse voyage into the American Midwest sometime in the 14th century (Fridley1979:152), which the stone’s authenticity would have supported nicely.
Holand took his new possession to Europe with him to a very cold reception. Swedish linguists dismissed the stone as inauthentic and the general public was simply not interested. Holand persisted, writing articles and books arguing for the stone’s authenticity, briefly getting support from William Thalbitzer and S. N. Hagen, who agreed with the stones authenticity (Wahlgren 1958, Time 1951). However, prominent linguists Sven Jansson, Erik Moltke , Harry Anderson, K. M. Nielsen, and Erik Wahlgren denied it flatly (Wahlgren 1958, Time 1951). The stone again dropped out of the public eye until about 60 years later.
In 1968, Theodore C. Blegen decided to take-up the Runestone again, this time returning to the place where it was found, and giving all the evidence a much more thorough going over (Fridley1979:152). He looked over the original major criticisms about the stone; the authentication of the inscription, the linguistics of the inscription, the discovery of the stone, and the testimonies of involved parties (Fridley1979:152).
Blegen focused particularly on an interview done by Dr. Paul Carson, Jr. in 1976 with Frank Walter Gran about Frank’s father, John P. Gran (Blegen 1968, Fridley1976:154). The interview centered around John confessing that he and Ohman had carved and hidden the stone as a prank against “people who were really educated (Fridley1979:154).” This was significant because it was suggested that the inscriptions were carved by two different individuals, one right handed and one left, and John was left-handed (Fridley1979, Blegen 1968). Supporters of the stone’s authenticity try to dismiss this confession as one made out of jealousy by Gran (Williams 2012:11).
Belgen also found that the Scandinavian runic scholars who studied the inscription, nearly unanimously, condemned the stone as a fraud (Wahlgren 1958, Fridley1979:152).
The inscription on the Kensington Runestone tells about an ill-fated voyage of thirty individuals who came to America in 1362 (Fagan 2006:118-119). Basically, they came, they saw, they got hassled badly, they went home. If their trip was true and correct, it would have made these Norse explorers the earliest known in the interior of North America. But the problem is, the story of the runestone doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny.
Firstly, the language and the lack of case sensitive modifiers used on the stone was not what one would expect from 14th century Norse. Certain words in the inscription were not in use at that time (Wahlgren 1958, Fridley1979:152, Fagan 2006:119, Williams 2012:13), however, those same words were common to the area that Ohman’s friend, Sven Fogelblad, was from (Fridley1979:153). Fogelbald was an itinerant teacher and former minister originally from an area of Sweden well known for having lots of authentic runic inscriptions lying around, and who had known and apparently studied under Claes J. Ljungstrom, himself a widely known and prominent runologist (Fridley1979:153).
Also suspect were certain runic symbols that were not known to the Futharks (the name of the Runic Alphabets) in use in the 14th century, but again these were know to Fogelbald and apparently were rather specialized to his particular region of Sweden (Wahlgren 1958, Fridley1979:152, Fagan 2006:119, Williams 2012:13).
At first blush there appears to be several versions of the Futharks at use on the stone’s inscription. However, sometime in 2004 it was suggested that the runes mimic those in the notes of an 1883 journeyman named Edward Larsson. Honestly, the only place I can find reference to this is on the Wiki and their reference is in Swedish. My Swedish is not good enough to read a whole paper, sorry. In the same paragraph the runic inscription is tied to the Knights Templar, so, take that how you will (I call it a red flag.)
Based on all this, Blegen put forward the probability that the stone had been carved by two separate individuals working together and that several individuals were involved in the hoax beside Ohman and Gran, including Fogelblad, and Andrew Anderson, Ohman’s neighbor (Fridley1979:153).
So, what all do we have here than?
Pretty much all the authorities from the time of the discovery, as well as modern ones, dismiss the stone as a hoax. The language on the stone is wrong, the runes used are wrong, we have a confession of sorts (though honestly, this is the weakest piece of evidence), and there has never been any other form of evidence to suggest the Norse made it as far inland as Minnesota. Where does that leave us? For me this one gets put pretty solidly in the ‘Hoax’ category. It’s not evidence of anything except someone’s ability to carve runes on a flat stone.
Still there will be those, like the Runestone Museum in Minnisota, who want the stone to be a real artifact. I suppose you can manufacture some kind of debate there if you want to, but honestly, it’s pretty cut and dry.
In our first installment of this series we looked over the actual factual, evidence of both Christopher Columbus and Leif Eiriksson discovering the Americas. Arguably, you could say Columbus discovered South America, and Leif the North. I would say, simply touching a rock on one park of a massive continentcomplex doesn’t equal discovering both bits of America, but that’s my opinion on the matter.
Apparently some folks agree with me, because there have been several claims around North America of evidence of Vikings. We’re going to go over them, and see if there is any merit to these claims.
The Newport Tower.
Newport, Rhode Island is said to have a singular structure, surely evidence of Vikings. The Newport Tower, aka Old Stone Tower, aka Touro Tower, aka Old Stone Mill, aka…anyway you get the point. The Newport Tower stands at the west end of Touro Park. It is a round stone structure that was preserved in 1854 when Judah Touro donated $10,000.00 to the City of Newport to conserve it and the land around it (Barstad 2007, 2008). Until recently, little has been known about the tower, except some speculation that the Tower might have been built by Vikings, but is there evidence?
Certainly there is no other known Norse structures around, or Nordic artifacts, or anything else to suggest the Norse were ever in the area, but you do have to admit, the tower does look strange. It doesn’t look like other known 17th-century structures, which are often square or rectangular and built of wood. New England smock mills are described as tapered, with narrow tops and wide basis, and almost always built of wood (Barstad 2007, 2008). It has a very rustic look to it, made out of stone, it even has those weird arches at the base. Does it match up to any other known Nordic structures? Not as far as I can tell. Still there is enough going on here that it’s worth looking at the unusual structure.
William S. Godfrey Jr. conducted a dig around and under the tower and published his findings in American Antiquity in 1951. He appears to have been pretty thorough. He lifted the sidewalk surrounding the tower (placed there by the city, I believe. Don’t quote me.) looking for, and finding, the construction trench and taking his units down to the sterile layers of soil. He describes the soil surrounding the structure thus:
“We cleared the area with great care, but found the yellow clay, as before, completely undisturbed; no sign of foundations, no postholes, no Norse artifacts (Godfrey 1951).”
Instead he did find pottery sherds, iron nails, clay tobacco pipes, buttons and buckles, all traceable to Scotland, England, or the English Colonies in America. All were dated to between the 17th and 19th centuries (Godfrey 1951,Feder 2006:117). He even found a preserved boot-print in the soil beneath the stone foundation (Godfrey 1951, Feder 2006:117).
Later in 2006 and 2007, The Chronognostic Research Foundation sponsored their own research on the Newport Tower (Barstad 2007, 2008). They used several different techniques that would not have been available to Godfrey, including ground penetrating radar (Barstad 2007, 2008). They identified quite a bit about the history of the park and they increased the amount of 17th, 18th, and 19th century artifacts found in association with the tower, backing up Godfrey’s findings (Barstad 2007, 2008).
I’m mildly hesitant to use Barstad’s work, mainly because of the conclusions she draws at the end of the 2008 report. Specifically that the Tower is really an observatory and that it was built around 1125. Her Observatory conclusions are biased on window orientation, making the case that two windows line up for the sunset on the winter solstice, but she seems to ignore a clearly visible, filled in, window. Not to mention the Chesterton Windmill, thought to be the actual model for the Newport tower, displays similar windows and is clearly a mill.
Also, I have no clue where she is getting her date of 1125 when the oldest artifact her team recovered was dated to the 17th century. She goes on to reference Nordic saga’s, but there is no evidence to support or suggest that she should. Also, the lime mortar bonding the stones together has been radiocarbon dated to 1665 (Feder 2006:117), so…
Other factors that work against the tower being as old as 1125, is that the area was settled in 1639, and no one ever mention the tower (Feder 2006:117). Also the Newport Historical Society explained:
“We’re 99.9 percent sure the tower was built as a windmill by Governor Benedict Arnold in the 17th century.” When asked about the remaining 0.1 percent of doubt, the member added, “Oh, well, the public does so love a good mystery, we like to leave a bit for them.” (Barstad Nd).
The first known mention of the Tower is in Gov. Benedict Arnold’s 1677 last-will-and-testament, where he uses it as a landmark for where he wanted to be buried (Barstad Nd, Feder 2006:118). Arnold was brought up near Chesterton, England and the design of the mill was well-known there (Feder 2006:118). Most likely, he built a similar one when he got to the colonies (Feder 2006:118).
Apparently, the origin of the Norse idea began in 1830, when Carl Christian Rafn, the then Danish secretary of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquities in Copenhagen, suggested that the Tower was built in the 12th century by the Norse. He never saw the tower, so was making a guess based on the descriptions of others, specifically a drawing by F. Catherwood (Barstad Nd). Rafn suggested that the tower was built under Eric Gnupsson, a bishop from Gardar, Greenland, sometime between 1112 and 1121.
The problem here is that Rafn never saw the Tower himself, and as gifted an artist Catherwood was, his picture is known to have inaccuracies, which could have influenced Rafn. For Barstad to use this as evidence of any kind is a little unsettling, especially when there is no other apparent reason to accept such an idea, and the actual evidence is so heavily weighed against it.
There are a bunch of other ideas as to how the Tower got here, all attached to the various contenders for the title of “Who Discovered America First”. Some suggest (Barstad mostly) that the Scott, Sir Henry Sinclair, built it while exploring the coast of North America between 1395 and 1398 as part of a planned community (Barstad Nd). There is a Chinese Theory by a retired British submarine commander named Gavin Menzies, who suggests a Chinese treasure fleet (always a treasure involved somewhere) rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1420’s built the tower as part of their colony (Barstad Nd). There is a Dr. Manuel Da Silva who suggests the CorteReal brothers shipwrecked in the early 1500’s and built the Tower so that rescuers could find them (Barstad Nd). She even put forward the idea that the Basque built it as a kind of whale spotting tower (Barstad Nd).
There are massive and immediate holes in all of these ideas. Hearsay cannot trump evidence, especially in archaeology. We can use a good story to help us formulate a hypothesis, but when the evidence, in the form of artifacts and now ground history, doesn’t support that hypothesis, we must decide on the side of the evidence. Clearly this was not done in this case, and it’s upsetting.
Still, the hard facts point to a 17th century birth for the Newport Tower, probably at the hands of Gov. Benedict Arnold, and very probably modeled after the now famous Chesterton Windmill.
But this isn’t the only supposed Viking evidence out there, oh no. There is also a very questionable map that we’ll look over next week.