A Viking Myth at the Smithsonian?

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Dr. William W. Fitzhugh (L) and Dr. David M. Krueger (R) holding a replica of the Kensington Rune Stone made by the Smithsonian Institution in 1948.

The Kensington Rune Stone, currently located in the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, is not merely a local curiosity. It has gained world-wide fame since it was allegedly unearthed by a Swedish immigrant farmer named Olof Ohman in 1898 near the village of Kensington, Minnesota. Over the years, it traveled to Europe, the New York World’s Fair in 1965, and even the Smithsonian Institution where it was exhibited from 1948 to 1949.

A September 1948 article in National Geographic quoted a museum official named M. W. Stirling who stated that the rune stone was “probably the most important archaeological object yet found in North America.” At the time, Viking enthusiasts in Minnesota celebrated this as proof that the artifact was indeed medieval in origin and, therefore, conclusive evidence that Minnesota had been visited by Norsemen in 1362. But did the Smithsonian Institution really endorse the Kensington Rune Stone as authentic? No, it did not.

After this article was released, Smithsonian officials stated that neither Stirling nor other staff members at the time were qualified to analyze runic inscriptions. They said that Stirling merely offered his “personal opinion” and that the Smithsonian took no official position. In 1955, the museum officially endorsed the conclusions of the Danish archaeologist Johannes Bronsted, who said that the inscription was not carved in the fourteenth century.

The question remains as to why the Smithsonian would choose to feature the Kensington Rune Stone even though it had been declared specious by a long line of geologists and linguists. The tireless promotional efforts of Hjalmar Holand no doubt played a big part. He was instrumental in generating popular appeal for the artifact. It seems reasonable to conclude the the Smithsonian would have welcomed the publicity (and visitor revenue) that the controversial artifact could bring.

Regardless of what the Smithsonian’s intentions were in displaying the rune stone, it is clear that the artifact’s supporters back in Minnesota had a great deal invested in its authenticity. In the third chapter of my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, I reveal how the rune stone emerged in the twentieth century as civic “totem,” which represented the aspirations and anxieties of western Minnesotans. The artifact became the foundation for a myth that “America” began in Minnesota 140 years before Columbus reached the Bahamas. A twenty-eight-foot-tall fiber glass Viking stands in Alexandria, Minnesota today holding a shield declaring that the town is the “Birthplace of America.”

In early May of 2016, I traveled to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. While there, I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. William Fitzhugh, the museum’s curator of archaeology and director of the Arctic Studies Center. William Fitzhugh is an anthropologist who conducts fieldwork and research on circumpolar archaeology.  Along with Elisabeth I. Ward, he co-edited a terrific volume called Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga published the Smithsonian in 2000. Dr. Fitzhugh showed me a replica of the Kensington Rune Stone made during the 1948 visit. The replica itself is of great historical value because it shows the exact coloring and texture of the surface before it was further manipulated by researchers in coming decades. In one of the photos, an inscribed “H” is visible. The source of this marking is none other than tireless researcher Hjalmar Holand.

Many thanks to Loraine Jensen, president of the American Association of Runic Studies (AARS) for making this visit possible. AARS works along with Dr. Henrik Williams of Sweden’s Uppsala University, Dr. Richard Nielsen and others who wish to promote historically accurate and research-based information about runes and rune stones.

Talking Vikings at the Minnesota History Center

Last night I had the privilege of speaking at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul Minnesota. It is the home of the Minnesota Historical Society. While I was researching for my book Myths of the Rune Stone Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, I spent many days here reading newspaper microfilm and scores of other historical documents. The event had been scheduled to take place in a smaller seminar room, but they had to move it to the main auditorium because of the crowd (167 in attendance!) I think that Mike Mullen’s recent article in the Minneapolis City Pages generated a lot of interest. Many thanks to Danielle Dart, coordinator of public programs for lifelong learners, for making this event possible. You can listen to the podcast above.

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Although I have given numerous presentations on the book since its release last October, I made a special effort to locate the Kensington Rune Stone story in the long history of the American obsession with pre-Columbian Vikings in North America. Although we didn’t have credible evidence of a Norse presence in North America until the discovery of Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows archaeological site in 1960, some white Americans went to great lengths to prove Vikings reached as far south as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and even as far west as Minnesota. They used this American “pre-history” to address anxieties related to the nation’s growing racial diversity and the troubled way that white Americans came to terms with living on land once occupied by someone else. The Kensington Rune Stone must be understood within this context. Additionally, my talk addressed the question of the artifact’s authenticity and the status of science literacy in American culture today. Information on Mike Scholtz’s documentary film Lost Conquest can be found here. CORRECTION: I mistakenly described Tom Trow as a geologist. He is actually an archaeologist. A link to his article debunking Holand’s rune stone theory can be found here.

I also include a short video below. A young woman posed a question about myths. She joked that her grandmother was very excited about her coming to see my presentation until she heard the title. She asked about how people cope when they learn that their myths are proven to be false. Here’s my answer…

Minnesota’s Favorite Myth

City Pages article April 2016Welcome to the the website for Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. Mike Mullen of the Minneapolis City Pages just published an article today titled  “Why the Kensington Runestone is Minnesota’s Favorite Myth.”  The article comes out just in time to promote my next speaking event at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul on Tuesday, April 19 at 7:00 pm. The event is open and free to the public. Visit the Facebook Event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/990162487725703/

Feel free to browse this website for many resources, articles, podcasts, and videos related to the book. You can also visit my author website at https://davidkrueger.org/.

 

Possible New Viking Site in North America

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Swedish American farmer Olof Ohman believed that the stone found in his Minnesota farm field in 1898 is proof that Norse explorers had visited the region in 1362. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

New satellite evidence suggests that Vikings may have reached another location in  Newfoundland. This one is 300 miles south and west from the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement discovered in the 1960s. There will be a PBS Nova special “Vikings Unearthed” appearing online Monday, April 4 at 3:30 pm EDT and Wednesday,  April 6.

As my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America shows, there has been a long history of the American fascination that Vikings traveled to North America prior to Columbus. There are multiple racial, religious, and cultural reasons that fuel this fascination, even when the evidence is thin. Some Viking enthusiasts think they even reached what is now Minnesota. Although most of the evidence to support this is deeply suspect (i.e. the Kensington Rune Stone), this new evidence suggests that Vikings may have traveled at least a little bit further west than we had previously thought.

Why Myths Matter to Americans

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From left to right: Nate Wright, Katie Oxx, Dave Krueger, Jim McIntire, and Jon Pahl.

For an author, it is always gratifying when someone reads your book carefully and takes the time to prepare a thoughtful response. Last week, Myths of the Rune Stone, was featured in a forum dedicated to the theme of American myths. Two historians, a sociologist, and a theologian delivered outstanding presentations on the relevance of the book for reflecting on important dimensions of U.S. history, religion, and culture.

The “Why Myths Matter” forum is the second in a two-year series of forums dedicated to the theme of American myths. It was held on February 24, 2016 at the Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia PA. Click hereto view information on the entire series. Speakers are listed below along with a guide to navigate the podcast. You can fast forward using the the arrow keys on your keyboard. I hope you enjoy it!

1:00 – Welcome and short reflection by Rev. Robin Hynicka – Jeremiah 10

6:18 – Speaker introductions and overview of the book Myths of the Rune Stone – author David M. Krueger

24:50 – Dr. Jon Paul – Lutheran Theological Seminary – What about the role of fantasy and playfulness in the rune stone story? References to novelists Ole Rolvaag and Louise Erdrich.

33:00 – Dr. Nathan Wright – Bryn Mawr College – Despite the dangers of myth to exclude and dominate, they are necessary for societies to function. References to Durkheim, Bellah, and other sociologists.

45:50 – Dr. Katie Oxx – St. Joseph’s University – The ways that Catholics negotiate American identity. A comparison of the “Pope stone” and the “rune stone.” References to “new materialism.” How do material artifacts act on us?

54:00 – Rev. Jim McIntire – Havertown UMC – Myth fills a gap in public discourse. Conspiracy theorists like Scott Wolter profit handsomely from propagating myths.  Reflections Joseph Campbell’s book on myths.

1:10:50 – Audience Response

Myth Matter flyer

Forum: Why Myths Matter to Americans

Myth Matter flyerWhy do people believe myths that have been disproven by science? What is the difference between history and myth? Why have Americans fought over stories about who was here first? What does Viking enthusiasm have to do with white supremacy? This event is a conversation with author David M. Krueger about his book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America.  Responding speakers include historian Jon Pahl, historian Katie Oxx, sociologist Nathan Wright, and Jim McIntire, a pastor and activist.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2016
7:00 — 8:30 PM
ARCH STREET UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
55 NORTH BROAD STREET
PHILADELPHIA, PA

Whether or not you’ve read the book, all are welcome to attend and participate in the conversation. Copies will be available for sale at the event and can be signed by the author.

Using Myths of the Rune Stone in the Classroom

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Your students will be mesmerized as they ponder the myriad cultural meanings of this controversial American artifact.

It’s not too late to add another book to your spring syllabus!  Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America is a multi-disciplinary text and would make a useful addition to courses in U.S history, sociology, religious studies, American studies, and Native American studies. The book is intended to appeal to both undergraduate and graduate students. It is a highly readable, slim volume at 159 pages, but it contains an additional 34 pages of notes for those looking to dig deeper. Lecture notes, discussions questions, and other resources will soon be available on this website. Below are some suggestions for how to use the book in the classroom. Intersecting themes in the book include:

  • Myths: how they are created, adapted, propagated over time; mythic genre i.e. Christian nation, origin, blood sacrifice, homemaking, and more.
  • History: collective memory, popular challenges to dominant historiography, the quest for Europeans in pre-Columbian America
  • Sociology: how social groups use martyrdom narratives, scapegoat theory, identity formation
  • Religion: theories of religion via Bourdieu, Durkheim, Girard, Tweed, Eliade, Pahl, and others; sacred spaces and landscapes, local adaptations of American civil religion, Catholic American identity
  • Native Americans and Race: white appropriations of Native Americans, the construction of whiteness, the ongoing cultural impact of Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862
  • Ethnicity: Scandinavian American identity, immigrant religion/history
  • Region: Midwestern/small town identities and regional tensions
  • Science: Anti-intellectualism, psuedoarchaeology, pseudo-history; why belief persists when science contradicts

How the book is organized…

Myths of the Runestone coverThe book is organized thematically and individual chapters could be useful if assigned on their own. Below is a guide to the themes and time periods unique to each chapter.

Introduction: A Holy Mission to Minnesota

  • Opens with a dramatic civic pageant held in 1962, illustrates the high point of Kensington Rune Stone belief.
  • Outlines a theoretical frame looking at the rune stone story

1. Westward from Vinland: An Immigrant Saga by Hjalmar Holand

  • Illuminates what Viking discovery narratives meant for immigrants from Sweden and Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Shows how Hjalmar Holand used the rune stone to further his ethnic aims

2. Knutson’s Last Stand: Fabricating the First White Martyrs of the American West 

  • Links the creation and interpretation of the runic inscription to the Dakota War of 1862.
  • Illustrates how Minnesotans used the rune stone story as a way to scapegoat Native Americans and justify the white conquest of the American frontier

3. In Defense of Main Street: The Kensington Rune Stone as a Midwestern Plymouth Rock

  • Shows hows Minnesotans used the rune stone to restore the cultural prestige of rural and small town life
  • Illustrates how the rune stone emerged as a sacred civic artifact starting in the 1920s

4. Our Lady of the Runestone and America’s Baptism with Catholic Blood

  • Demonstrates how Catholic leaders used the Scandinavian artifact to both fashion a Catholic American identity and proselytize Lutherans

5. Immortal Rock: Cold War Religion, Centennials, and the Return of the Skrælings

  • Dramatizes how Minnesotans defended the rune stone as a symbol of the Christian faith.
  • Places the rune stone narrative in the context of Cold War religion and the fear of secularization.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of American Viking Myths

Connect With the Author!

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I’m the guy without the historically-inaccurate Viking horns.

I live in Philadelphia but I can speak to your classroom via Skype or other video technologies. This past October, I spoke to a graduate history seminar at St. Cloud Sate University and also at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota. In April 2016, I’ll be speaking at the Minnesota Historical Society and I am available to for lectures and discussions groups in Minnesota. Please be in touch!