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.
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.
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.
The Vinland map is an interesting artifact, one that captured my attention as a child. Frankly, I think the evidence points to the map being a fake, but there are a some who still fight for it to be real.
The Vinland map first surface in 1957 glued inside the of the cover of a bound volume of Hystoria Tartarorum (Feder 2006:119, Wiki). Apparently, the book was originaly owned by a Spanish-Italian book dealer named Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry. He hired London book dealer Irving Davis to offer the book to the British Museum. When that offer was refused Ferrajoli sold the volume, for $3,500, to an American dealer Laurence C. Witten II, who offered it to Yale University, who took the book (Wiki).
At first, it was dated to around 1440 and people suggested that the map was actually a copy of an earlier map based on Viking knowledge of Canada and Greenland (Feder 2006:119). Yet, even from the beginning there were skeptics.
One reason the British Museum had turned down the map when offered was because their Keeper of Manuscripts detected elements of handwriting style not developed until the 19 century (Seaver 2004). Also, map Scholar Douglas McNaughton pointed out that the map was in a style unlike any other 15 Cen map (Feder 2006:119). There was no delineation boarder showing the dived between heaven and earth, the orientation was wrong, and there was no mention of the map in the book in which it was bound (Feder 2006:119). The parchment appeared to have been soaked in some unknown substance that was not able to be tested for and the out line of the map seemed to consist of two separate tracings, one in a feint graphite or ash, the other one more yellowish (Baynes-Cope 1974). This yellow line was of more interest because the black ink used to outline the continentsappeared to have a diffused yellow band around it, which was typical for old inks, and normally takes hundreds of years to form. However, under the microscope it was discernible that the yellow line had been drawn on first, then retraced with the black in to mimic the appearance of old ink (Feder 2006:119).
Also, there is the appearance that they map was on drawn on a single sheet of paper, but rather two separate pieces (Baynes-Cope 1974). Evidence of this is that several place-names start or finish right before the inner edge of the map instead of being written straight across it (Baynes-Cope 1974). Even the rivers of eastern Europe run parallel to it (Baynes-Cope 1974). In 2005 a team from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, led by Dr. René Larsen, studied the map and confirmed that the two halves of the map were entirely separate (Larsen and Poulsen 2005). It was suggested that two separate blank leaves in the original “Speculum Historiale”, of which the first dozen or so pages are missing, could have been used to create the map (Seaver 2004). This would explain the chemical treatment of the pages to disguise differences in color and texture, and the noticeable notch in the bottom could have been cut to disguised the slight size difference (Seaver 2004). All of which were common tricks of the fake antique trade.
All of this before we even discuss the ink!
The ink was instantly a point of contention as it was not conventional iron-gall ink, and didn’t match any known formula available at the time (Baynes-Cope 1974). Also, microscopist Walter McCrone, examined the physical characteristics of the map with a scanning electron microscope and election and ion microprobes (Feder 2006:119). He found the presence of titanium dioxide, the name for a yellow pigment called anatase or titanium white, which was not manufactured until the 1917 and required a knowledge unknown until this time (Feder 2006:119). His conclusions are backed up by a second study and by British researchers Katherine Brown and Robin Clark (Feder 2006:119). Interestingly, this ink is not found on any of the pages of the book (Feder 2006:119).
As always there must be deceters, one of which is Larsen himself. At the International Conference on the History of Cartography in July 2009, Larsen revealed that his team had continued their investigation after publishing their original report, which was apparently not in support of authenticity. He letter explained to Reuters that:
“All the tests that we have done over the past five years — on the materials and other aspects — do not show any signs of forgery” (Acher 2009).
He says that his team studied the ink and the wormholes in the document and found that the wormholes were consistent with the book the map is bound in (Acher 2009), which contradicts earlier studies (Feder 2006:119), and that the ink could have gotten it’s traces of anatase from sand that could have been used to dry the ink (Acher 2009). Of course there is no evidence of this and Larsen and his team did not examine the crystals of the anatase to see if it matched up with anatase found in sand.
Kenneth Towe, a retired geologist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. says,
“The problem is if the anatase…came out of gneiss or any other natural source, it is going to have a totally different appearance than the anatase that appears on the Vinland map ink,” he notes. Towe says the Vinland ink has small round crystals produced chemically, whereas sand would have larger fractured crystals from grinding along with other minerals like quartz. “Even if sand has been found on other maps,” he adds, “it still has never been found on the Vinland Map.” (Borrell 2008)
Though it is true that the parchment on which the map is drawn does carbon date to about 1440 (Acher 2009, Borrell 2008, Feder 2006:119), that doesn’t actually mean the drawing of the map itself was made at that time. Clever forgers of the past have used old papers to create the look of authenticity. So why exactly did Larsen change his story? We may never know.
Still, the map is an interesting item, though at this point I would guess most scholars don’t believe in it’s real. What’s more important, we don’t need it to be. We have other, very credible evidence of a Viking presence in America long before Columbus. At this point the authenticity of the map is more to do with Yale than with history.
2009 “Vinland Map of America no forgery, expert says”. Reuters.com. Reuters. 17 July 2009. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
1974 “The Scientific Examination of the Vinland Map at the Research Laboratory of the British Museum”.Geographical Journal (The Geographical Journal, Vol. 140, No. 2) 140 (2): 208–211. doi:10.2307/1797077.JSTOR1797077.
2008 Pre-Columbian Map of North America Could Be Authentic–Or not, Scientific American. July 22 2008. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
Feder, Kenneth L.
2006 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 5th ed, McGraw-Hill, New York. NY.
René Larsen & Dorte V. Poulsen,
2005 “Report on the Assessment and Survey of the Condition and Technique of the Vinland Map and the Bindings of the Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale.” Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
Seaver, Kirsten A.
2004 Maps, Myths and Men. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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.