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?
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.
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.