Local pseudo-archaeology

Here’s a fascinating old photo.

Farmer Olof Öhman (center), who reported the artifact’s discovery in 1898, at a carnival held to raise funds to buy a park for the Kensington Runestone, 1927.

I’ve seen the Kensington Runestone, it’s in a local museum just north of here. I’ve been to that park several times — it’s nicely maintained, it has a large, mostly empty building used for presentations (it’s always been locked when I visited), and it’s a bit out of the way, several miles away from a town of any size. It’s notable only because a fair amount of money and time has been invested to enshrine this fraud in local culture. It was probably an even bigger deal in 1927, when that photo was taken, and when the old farmer who ‘found’ it was the center of attention.

What I just learned is that there were other runestones all over the country. There’s the Yarmouth Stone and the Narragansett Runestone in Nova Scotia and Rhode Island. The Heavener Runestone in Oklahoma. The Poteau stone, and Shawnee stone, also in Oklahoma. The Braxton Runestone and Grave Creek Stone, in West Virginia. They even found a second runestone in 2001 near Öhmon’s original ‘discovery’ to ‘corroborate’ it. You’d think there were armies of Vikings tromping all over the eastern half of the US in the 14th century, all busily chiseling rocks and scattering them about to entertain tourists in the 20th and 21st.

The article gives a couple of explanations for this curious phenomenon. One is that the Viking sagas were popular at the time. I don’t find that convincing — you’d expect every literary fad to generate a pile of phony artifacts if that were the case. The second is that the wave of Scandinavian immigrants were trying to build validation. I can sympathize with that a little more. If Italian immigrants could take pride in Christopher Columbus, well, Swedes and Norwegians would hold up Leif Ericson as their hero.

I’m inclined to favor their third explanation.

The third factor was the urge to assert European prior claim to land, which predated the Columbus expedition of 1492, and furthermore, gave it a northern European character. At times, this involved the expropriation of Native American monuments as part of a process which sought to belittle Native American cultural and monumental achievements by claiming Viking ancestry for them—and at times, claimed that those responsible were just about anybody, so long as they were not Native Americans.

The Mormons did it. The Mississippi valley settlers who denied that indigenous peoples could have been the Mound Builders did it. All those batty von Dänikenites who claim aliens built every bit of non-European architecture do it. Why couldn’t my Scandinavian ancestors have done it?

The Runestone park is a pleasant little spot, but fundamentally it’s an embarrassment.


  1. wzrd1 says

    Well, there are two known locations for Norse settlements, a longer term pair in Greenland and one in Newfoundland that was short term. Complete with actual artifacts and carbon dating.
    And a dearth of runestones.
    All long abandoned during some little ice age making life impossible or at least highly improbable for a new settlement, then some black plague thingie pretty much crashing European civilization for a fair bit.

    As for early exploration and the two settlements in Greenland, it’s entertaining that some would find Erik the Red a hero, him being banished for three years for manslaughter when he found Greenland. Precisely zero evidence suggesting he found Newfoundland. The same folks who are ever so unforgiving of peers with any form of criminal history.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The Great Zimbabwe structure in southern Africa was also attributed to northern travellers of the biblical era. Because the n***ers could not possibly have done it.

    Ironically, a small pyramid-shaped hill in Indonesia is mostly the result of human activity across several periods. But no Europeans made any claims to it.

  3. raven says

    I see an obvious lack here.
    Where is the Morris, Minnesota runestone?
    There is still time to “find” one. It’s no different from all the other American Runestones.

    The other thing the European colonialists did was destroy most of the Native American monumental landscaping and buildings.
    There were a lot of mounds and other earthworks scattered all across North America. Most of which were destroyed.
    Further south, a lot of early churches and cathedrals were built using stone blocks from Mayan and Aztec buildings and pyramids.

    Merida, Yucatan:

    Cathedral San Ildefonso was built between 1561 and 1598 by architect Juan Miguel de Aguero. The foundation as well as portions of the exterior were built using reclaimed cut stones from Mayan temples found in the city of Th’o, the original name of this Mayan city.Dec 1, 2017

    Cathedral San Ildefonso Merida Historic District – Loco Gringo
    Loco Gringo https://www.locogringo.com › blog › culture › merida-m

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Wxrd1 @1 We cannot blame Leif Eriksson -if thetradition about him is true- for the crimes of his father.

    There was also a quite ruthless Icelandic lady who led a small band to America, but after conflicts with the locals they went back to Iceland or wherever. The place they settled has not been identified but it was probably not far from Halifax.

    BTW quite a lot of walrus ivory was brought from the region at the time, maybe the people at Southern Greenland travelled to Baffin Island and other places in search of prey.

  5. KG says

    I’ve speculated (maybe here, I don’t recall) on what might have followed if a successful Norse settlement had been founded and endured. The Norse were contemptuous of the Indigenous people of the area they visited. They would probably have spread European diseases and would have had some technological edge over the locals in weaponry, but would have lacked the numbers and logistical backup for widespread conquest – unlike the 16th-century Spanish. In time both sides would have had a lot to gain from trading, so it’s possible resistence to the main European diseases, iron-smelting, and horses would have spread through the Americas before Europeans arrived in force.

  6. whywhywhy says

    The latest UNESCO heritage sites in Ohio are a win:

    These include Hopewell mounds and older. I have only been to the Fort Ancient site (so far) and it is amazing with old growth forest and extensive mound structures. These sites have been neglected by the state of Ohio and numerous mounds have been degraded and destroyed. Hopefully this designation will improve funding to preserve the mounds and educate the public on those who built them.

  7. mordred says

    Sadly, the idea that Indians could not construct anything as impressive as a mound, a pyramid or a temple without the help of Europeans, (white) Atlanteans or (probably white ) Aliens shows no sign of dying out, does it?

    Even these obviously faked rune stones are still all over the net as proof of Viking supremacy.

    One theory I found recently is that the Phoenicians mined copper in North America and shipped millions of tons of it home over the Atlantic. Without leaving any trace of their activity in America or Europe. Hilarious if it wasn’t for all the racist crap the accompanies these claims.

  8. wzrd1 says

    birgerjohansson @ 4, that is theorized to be part of why the Greenland settlements failed. The Little Ice Age caused a shift in seal migration, reducing catches of furred seals, plus trade was shifting toward African trade in elephant ivory, at a much lower risk for travel than in such stormy, hostile seas and greater distances.

    KG @ 5, newer research suggests a fair amount of trade between local indigenous peoples and the Norse settlements, much previously ignored in the past, likely over racial prejudice.
    Amazing what one learns when one critically examines all of the evidence present, rather than discarding evidence that doesn’t advance one’s preconceived notions.

  9. beeseevee says

    Have you spoken with chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen about this? Old Norse is her specialty, and she suggests that Olof Öhman really did discover the stone in his field, but that it was buried much more recently by Scandinavian immigrants as part of a celebration of their heritage.

    Also, I encourage you to visit the archive on the fourth floor of Briggs library. There is a humorous parody runestone (called the gall stone) on display in a dusty corner of the archives. I think it was created by Morris students in the past to poke fun at the Kensington Runestone.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    Maybe you could 3D-print a proper Stonehenge replica? They can print entire houses, a few megaliths should be a piece of cake (make sure the astronomical alignments get right).

    There are plenty of other options: Skara Brae, the structure in Irland, Carnac… maybe even the pre-pottery parts of Jericho.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    …and if the local terrain is uneven you should go for replicating Göbleki Tepe, that would put you before the end of the ice age.

  12. says

    PZ is right. Why mess around with chunks of stone with stuff carved on them when you can BS about golden plates. (I hear the reason they can’t be found is that aliens took them to a ‘galaxy far, far away’ to aid in their propagandizing)

  13. Walter Solomon says

    KG #5

    The Norse were contemptuous of the Indigenous people of the area they visited.

    I’m sure the feelings were mutual. Furthermore, the Inuit had their own history of warfare such as with their historical enemies the Dene. So the Norse found an indigenous population who were both willing and able to defend themselves

  14. mikeym says

    Reminds me of a delightful book by Calvin Trillin, Runestruck.

    “When two gas station attendants find what appears to be a Viking runestone while clamming, a (fictional) small Maine town goes agog with Viking enthusiasm. Berryville is set to lay claim to be the site of America’s first Nordic colonists, although there are some skeptics, too. A comic novel, including some fine faux country-music lyrics.”

  15. says

    You’d think there were armies of Vikings tromping all over the eastern half of the US in the 14th century

    The 14th century is way past what is normally considered the end of the viking age.

  16. StevoR says

    @ ^ rsmith : Well, of course! That’s ebcuaes allthe Vikings had left Europe to go trompig across North America.. ;-)

    PS. Wonder what Native Americans think about these supposed Vikings in what’s now the USA and whether they’ve been asked about any close encounters of the Viking-kind?