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.
The Kensington Runestone. Image via Wikicommons.
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.
Go to Columbus was Second-ish: Who Discovered America Anyway? or Where the Vikings Weren’t for more on this series.
Blegen, Theodore Christian
1968 The Kensington Rune Stone: New Light on an Old Riddle. Minnesota History Society. USA. http://books.google.com/books?id=DU2LbIbBK7oC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 7/08/2013.
Faram, Arthur D.
2013 Solving the Runestone Mystery. The Kensington Runestone : An Ancient Mystery Solved. Updated: 02/11/2013. http://www.thekensingtonrunestone.com/. Retrieved 2/18/2013.
Feder, Kenneth L.
2006 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 5th ed, McGraw-Hill, New York. NY.
1976 The Case of the Gran Tapes: Further Evidence on the Rune Stone Riddle. Minnesota History Society #45 152-156. Winter. <http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/45/v45i04p152-156.pdf>. Retrieved 2/18/2013.
1951 “Olof Ohman’s Runes” <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,859375,00.html>. 8 October. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,859375,00.html> Retrieved 7/08/2013.
1958 The Kensington Stone, A Mystery Solved. University of Wisconsin Press. Retrieved 7/08/2013.
2012. “The Kensington Runestone: Fact and Fiction” . The Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 63 (1): 3-22.