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.

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