Swedish Study of the Kensington Runestone

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , .]

i-99e17a64e823299d6c7b23c48f713e2b-KensingtonRunestone-225.jpgThe Kensington runestone is a 19th century fake from Minnesota. It purports to be a monument left behind by a Scandinavian expedition in the 14th century, but uses anachronistic turns of phrase and runic characters typical of 19th century popular culture. The runestone is nevertheless touted as authentic by enthusiastic local amateur scholars.

"8 Geats and 22 Norwegians on acquisition venture from Vinland far to the west We had traps by 2 shelters one day's travel to the north from this stone We were fishing one day. After we came home found 10 men red with blood and dead AVM (Ave Maria) Deliver from evils.

I have 10 men at the inland lake to look after our ship 14 days travel from this wealth Year of our Lord 1362"

In 2004, the stone was exhibited at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. The exhibition did not take sides in the debate over the thing: it centered on the idea that people use remains from the past to construct their identities. Myself and many colleagues felt that this exhibition was a disgraceful exponent of the post-modernist leanings of the museum's non-archaeologist director, who has since been replaced. At the time, however, the runestone also underwent some scientific examination in Sweden that has not been reported on in print.

A few weeks back, fellow Kensington skeptic Carmen Moe contacted Fornvännen's editors and asked if we knew anything about these scientific results. We did not. I became curious and wrote to the people responsible. Geologist Rune Löfvendahl of the National Heritage Board has kindly permitted me to translate & quote his reply:

"A company in Gothenburg did some 3D mapping with a stereo scanner for Dr. Laila Kitzler-Åhfeldt to study regarding the carving technique and groove profiles. In the end she didn't receive any funding to actually perform the study, but the data is still around and useable. We also studied the stone by eye for a few hours. In this brief interval, however, we collected no quantitative data. Furthermore, we exchanged views with Scott Wolter, a geologist who has examined the stone. Neither his investigations nor our own impressions can date the inscription. As you can see, we don't have enough material or results to write a reasonable paper."

"The runological content is still more important to the dating issue than any available natural-science criteria. I'm sure the last word hasn't been said yet: sooner or later someone will figure out a better method to pinpoint the date. But a method for direct dating of rock-carvings is hard to conceive of! The stone hasn't exactly been treated with silk gloves since it was unearthed!

I have no problem with confessing my uncertainty in this case. I do, however, feel that it is suspect. I recall that when the exhibition opened, a journalist asked me if I could determine the stone's age after looking at it for a minute or two. When I said 'no', he mumbled something about 'scientific idiot' -- pretty laughable, really!"

So the runestone's visit to Stockholm unfortunately didn't really add anything worthwhile to the discussion of the inscription's date.

I don't believe any Scandinavian reached Minnesota until long after 1492. But solid archaeological evidence shows that they did reach Newfoundland in the 10th century. Did you know that L'Anse-aux-Meadows means "Jellyfish Cove"?

More like this

Most rune stones are written with the late 16-character futhark and date from the 11th century when the Scandies had largely been Christianised. Their inscriptions tend to be formulaic: "Joe erected the stone after Jim his father who was a very good man". But by that time, runic writing was…
The Kensington runestone of Minnesota is a rather obvious 19th century fake. But in a recent paper in Saga och Sed 2010, Mats G. Larsson shows something less obvious: the hidden signature of the stone's carver, who also was its finder. Olof Ãhman came from Forsa in Hälsingland, central Sweden. He…
Högby near Mjölby in Ãstergötland is a magical place because of a serious lack of historical sensitivity. In 1876 (which is really late as these things go in Sweden) the locals demolished their little 12th century church and built a new bigger one a mile to the south. This meant that the parish…
The Lion of Pireus is a large 4th century BC marble statue that was moved from Pireus, the port of Athens, to Venice in 1688. It is now at the city's Arsenal. The Lion has unmistakeable Swedish 11th century runic inscriptions which have been known to Scandinavian scholars since 1798/99. Clearly…

Is there actual archaeological evidence of viking presence in Newfoundland? I know about the travel descriptions in some of the sagas, but I wasn't aware of any remains.

You bet. A farmstead with a number of non-native-style buildings, a shipwharf and a 10th century copper-alloy ringed pin. Follow the above link.

what does the kensington "rune stone" actually say?

This is one of these "too good to be true-fakes".
Rune stones in Minnesota aknowledges scandinavian presence in Minnesota, just like the Piltdown man made the Britons the forefathers of mankind. ;)

But on another matter. Actually the runic-carving tradition didn't die out fully until the earliest 20th century in Scandinavia. In the county of Dalarna this tradition was alive very long. I think it's very easy for the trained eye to see if it's written in dalecarlian style or dalecarlian local language.

What is so "solid" about the evidence for viking presence in Newfoundland? As I see it, Helge Ingstad made the assumption that the site were a viking settlement out of his interpretation of some sagas. As for the findings of "norse" origin, well it can be explained as a result of trading done by the inhabitants before coming to America, or to be a fanciful explanation done by Helge Ingstad.
Radiocarbon dating of material out of the blacksmith's fireplace gave the dates AD 860 +-90 and AD 1060 +- 70, which also gives the alternative explanation that if there were vikings in Newfoundland, they may have settled in an area already occupied and abandoned by some other european settlers.
And yes, I like to play the devil's advocate >:)

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

It's really a case of Ockham's razor. The site is non-native. Who is most likely to have been there in the 10th century?

Also, I saw the ringed pin in Oslo once, and it looked quite Scandy to me.

Ah, mere fragments washed up on the seashore, and assumptions based on old men's ramblings...

Ockham's razor could be a convenient way to end a weak case, and the meaning of a post-modern approach in a specific context is in the eye of the beholder... :)

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

And here I should write something like:
"I'm no expert, but they were probably some cod-fishers...basque or west-african or whatever..."

But my point was, that there are no "solid" evidence for viking presence in Newfoundland. The sagas are not reliable, the finds are few, and the dating gives two contrasting results: "possible-viking" and "pre-viking".

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

Never mind the sagas. We know archaeologically that these people were in Greenland and Iceland.

Neither of the radiocarbon dates you quoted is pre-Viking. And even if they were, there is always the possibility of old driftwood. Are the dates, by the way, calibrated or uncalibrated?

The ringed pin is more similar to Scandy finds than to any other European finds of that period.

All sciences rely on Ockham. It would of course be possible for the L'Anse-aux-Meadows evidence to be insufficient for judgement. But in my opinion, and in that of all Viking period scholars I've read on this subject, that is not the case.

Let's hope they find the settlement's cemetery soon -- that's where the Scandy combs and weapons and decorative metalwork will be. And two or three neighbouring settlements of the same character would be good too!

My term "Pre-viking" should be understood in connection with your Ockham, that is, the probability for the site being a viking one is, from your point of view, depending on it's accordance with the time period which the sagas tell us about, when Erik the Red went westward.

One scholar, and a very prominent one, disagreed with Ingstad's hopeful interpretation of the finds made near Pistolet Bay. Erik Wahlgren, a former professor of Scandinavian languages at UCLA, writes about Ingstad's finds in The Vikings and America: "Ingstad's dilemma stems from his natural preference for a thoroughly identified Old Norse habitation site over a theoretical one that has not been physically confirmed."

Further findings like graves and such should be made on the shores of Pistolet Bay, where W. A Munn, a Newfoundland historian, wanted to place the main site long before the finds had been made at nearby L'Anse-aux-Meadows. But if those graves are not norse, where do we stand then?

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

Nonono, the house types and the ringed pin show the site to have been inhabited by Scandies in the 10th century. Forget about Erik the Red, this is archaeology. The Icelandic literature of the High Middle Ages isn't source-critically robust for the Viking Period.

Erik Wahlgren may offer his opinion on the archaeology if he allows me to question his opinions about the literature. (-;

I would be very happy and intrigued if 10th century graves full of Basque or West African artefacts were found in Newfoundland. But I consider it highly unlikely that there are any.

You are not consistent in your argumentation.

If it is, as you said, a case of Ockham's razor, that it is more likely that vikings stayed there for 10 years in the 10th century, then you are relying on the sagas. Your Ockham-comment comes entirely from the assumption, that what the sagas tell is true!

No Ockham without the sagas, for short. But remove the sagas from the case, and look upon what is really there. I have never brought forth Erik the Red, but you have, because you are basing your entire viking-hypothesis upon assumptions made from the saga material! I am not the storyteller here, you are!

Erik Wahlgren makes a perfectly sound and righteous comment, because he is critisizing Ingstad for relying on the sagas, and in putting the sagas as a filter in front of him when Ingstad is looking upon the finds from the site. And Wahlgren is so much of a scientist, that he recognizes a faulty confirmation of evidence when he sees one.

About the finds, if we look upon them without Ockham and the sagas, and that is what I have been trying to make you do here, the finds are too few, too fragmented, and too loosely connected with a certain group of people to pass as proof of viking presence at the site. There is nothing about them that makes it possible to connect them with a viking population at L'Anse-aux-Meadows. The house types and the ringed pin show that the site was inhabited by Scandies in the 10th century, you say, but earlier you stated that the ringed pin is similar to Scandy finds. Could it be similar to other finds as well? Or could it be a traded item, with origin in the Scandies, traded south and then brought to L'Anse-aux-Meadows by whatever people or nation?
The houses are similar to types in Norway and Iceland from ca 1000 AD, and not exclusively Norse. Regarding that the radiocarbon dating tells of two different periods during which the site were inhabited, the first as early as ca 650 AD, makes it difficult to connect the housetype to one common in Norway around 1000 AD. In addition, the dated find from ca 650 AD is a sample of peat from the wall of "House A", which makes it difficult to assume it has been built around 1000 AD...

So where is the solidity?

I too would be very happy and intrigued if 10th century graves full of Basque or West African artefacts were found in Newfoundland. But I also consider it highly unlikely that there are any. That was what I wrote above, if you read between the lines...

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

I am basing my assessment of likelihood on the geography. Basques and West Africans would have had to travel much farther than the Scandies we know were in Greenland to get to Newfoundland. And they didn't make ringed pins. Ockham also advises us to assume that the pin was with its maker, not hypothesise unnecessarily about other people to whom he may have passed it on.

Peat has a high intrinsic age. It is thus not surprising to find peat dates earlier than the known Scandy settlement of Greenland, from which we both appear to believe that the L'AaM settlers came.

I haven't said a word in favour for basques or west-africans, where do you get that from?

So the pin has to be with it's maker, according to Ockham. Am I scientifically correct then to assume that 2 million arabian minters lived in Scandinavia during the viking age?

About peat-samples, a sample from the opposite wall of House A was dated to 990-1190 AD. Should we assume that House A therefore were built in, lets say, 1350?

By Per-Allan (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

The Islamic coins bear inscriptions in Arabic which state clearly where and when they were made.

House A may have stood for a long time and been repaired, or (more likely) the sample may have been contaminated by a rodent nest.

I am confused. What other explanation is Per-Allan offering for the European tech? Are you suggesting the site is post-Colombus, and that all of the items were artifacts that the settlers brought with them?

Also, it seems to me that the sagas are not very reliable in a vacuum, but that the more physical evidence turns up to support them, the better the case for their basis in a real event becomes but then, this is why I'm not a scientist.

Per-Allan doesn't have any other explanation. He's being, as he said, a devil's advocate. It's the same technique as found with creationists, IDers, free-energy nuts... you just point out all the ways that the mainstream interpretation could be wrong, ignore the big picture and on no account have anything approaching a cohesive alternative.

Why he's doing it, who knows. But he's having fun!


I think Per-Allan carved the Kensington rune stone using a 19th century rune manual. Then he traveled back in time to the 14th century and erected it in Minnesota, and went on to 10th century Newfoundland, where he lived for ten years in a turf-wall house and dropped a lot of ringed pins, before returning to the present.

There are few other possible European candidates for building that farmstead in Newfoundland than Scandinavians.

Per-Allan, you confessed that the housetype is common in Norway and Iceland, and then say it is not exclusively Norse?
Norsemen is usually used to refer to the collective cultures of Scandinavia at during the "viking" period. The people on Iceland where "norsemen" as where the people in Norway. The ring needle is indeed very Scandinavian, even if it will occur on other spots settled by Scandnavians such as Dublin, the Shetlands, Orkneys etc...

As for peatdates, they can cut both ways and when they where made, the dating techniques for C14 was not as accurate as they are today. But they land around early medieval anyway. Infact, the style of houses and the needle are the best indictator of date.

But I do partly agree with you. While we may assume that those who built the houses and such at Laux au Meadow (sorry for my spelling) where people from the Scandinavian cultural hemisphere with almost certainty, disregarding any Sagas, I am reasonably sure that this is NOT the site of Leifsbodir.

Obs! When I say Scandinavian cultural hemisphere, I include Scandinavia proper AND places in Scotland and Ireland where Scandinavian settled and intermingled with local people. So it could be that those building the farm was quite mixed, may some norse, some celts and even some saami... Who can say? But by the style of houses and the finds, I think we could sum them up under the quite multi-cultural label as "norse".

But I think that Mats G. Larsson in his book about Vinland, have stated quite good arguments for Laux not being connected to the known sagas. Whatever Helge theorized and wrote, Newfoundland DOES NOT match Vinland as in the Sagas. He had found a site and WANTED it to be the place of Leifsbodir, so he went a long way of trying to prove it.

While it without doubt is a norsestyle "farm" from the correct time period, it seems not to be connected to the Sagas mentioning Vinland. For if we are to, as Mats argues, to give some cred to the sagas, Vinland and Leifsbodir MUST have been located more to the south. I think there is a fair chance of the actual sites being destroyed by some modern activity and we will never know about it.

So the people who tried to settle down at Laux au Meadow left no Saga behind. They where probably another group of opportunistic travellers from somewhere in the Scandinavian hemisphere who sailed westward and became forgotten in history. But archaeology tracked them down.

As for other possible candidates of Europeans in America pre-Columbus (but not as builder of discussed site) the basques are good, as secretive as they are. But they where sailors and fishers, interested mostly in the cod and bringing it back home for sale. Unlikely to have made more than the most rudimentary shelters.

But a group of people who MIGHT have been in the west BEFORE the norse was the irish monks. The cast out with their boats and let the sea, wind and God guide them. Even if St.Brennans voyage is full of fantastic stuff, we should not dismiss the whole story out of hand. There is usually a core of truth in all stories, the problem is usually what part is truth and what is just added to make a good story.
But according to his legend, Brennan sailed west and returned, having visited another land with a group of other monks.
But I do not think we will ever find a true archaeological proof for any irish monk setting their foot on american soil, since they would have had few traces to leave. They lived simple lifes, prefered simple shelters, like a cave or simple hut. And I think they would have left pretty nondescript traces behind.

As for that "runestone", well, raising stones became envogue again in Sweden around the late 1800, but written in swedish with latin letters. It is not strange that some farmer with knowledge in the still used Dalcarlian runes (the last written runes by a traditionally taught "runecarver" was made in 1914 I think in Dalarna, by a woman who herded cattle. God bless her soul)
Being able to claim the right of land was very important in the US and a runestone made by "forefathers" would sit fine indeed.
A shameless attempt to try and claim land that belonged to the native americans anyway.

By Mattias Niord (not verified) on 14 May 2007 #permalink

So the pin has to be with it's maker, according to Ockham.

I think Ockham led a group of Irish monks to Newfoundland the 1300s, dropped the pins, and then invented his Razor to hide his involvement.

"Dont believe anything that you dont want to believe", or...I'm a left wing liberal intelectual, and I don't have to look at all the facts. They would just proove me wrong.

My understanding is that the date inscribed is 1362.
what calender is this number supposed to be based on?
our own Gregorian calender was not created untill 1586.
From everything I can find on vikings, they had little need for a calender. A man marked his age by counting the winters of his life. If I were a viking and decided to set a monument I would inscribe 41, making my age at the time.

By Jimmy Kight (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

The engraving on the Kensington rune stone consists of
50/50 Etruscan/Rune.
Thus it is 2500-3000 years old.
Mail me your E-mail adress, and I will send you
astonishing news.

By Steiner Skailand (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

There is a cave in Maine not too far from Nova Scotia. It is very old and inside is a sundial with a quartz in the center of it. There is also a very old grapevine that leafs but does not produce grapes anymore. There are other interests that make a person think it is medieval, It is also near a lake.