Science Channel’s “America’s Lost Vikings” Features the Kensington Rune Stone

Americas Lost Vikings Science Channel

The Science Channel has a new series titled America’s Lost Vikings that premiered on February 17, 2019. I don’t have access to cable TV, so I’ve been unable to view all of the episodes. However, I made it priority to purchase access to Episode 4 “Ghosts of the Great Lakes.” Archaeologists have known since the 1960s that Vikings briefly settled North America around the year 1000 in northeastern Newfoundland, at the site known as L’Anse aux Meadows. However, the question that has obsessed many observers is did they travel further south or west?

Episode 4 follows archaeologists Blue Nelson and Michael Arbuthnot on their journey to Minnesota to research the popular claim that Norse explorers reached what is now Minnesota prior to the explorations of Christopher Columbus. The source of this claim is an artifact known as the Kensington Rune Stone, which was unearthed in a Minnesota farm field owned by Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman in 1898. The stone contains a runic inscription which tells the story of an expedition of Norse explorers that purportedly reached Minnesota in 1362. The inscription claims that ten members of the group were found “red with blood and dead” and many view this rune stone as a type of memorial to their deaths.

Nelson and Arbuthnot traveled to the the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota (my hometown, by the way) to get a closer look at the famed artifact. The brief, 42-minute episode tried to address three big questions about rune stone:

  1. Could the inscription date to 1362?
  2. Could Norse explorers have reached Minnesota in the fourteenth century?
  3. Is it possible/likely that Norsemen would have chiseled an inscription of this length?

Using 3-D imaging and an assessment of the soil conditions at the site of discovery, Nelson and Arbuthnot indicated that they would have expected more erosion on the section of the runic inscription on the calcite portion of the stone if it were actually as old as it claimed to be.

Second, Nelson and Arbuthnot attempted to follow (via a small boat specially-crafted for the show) a possible passageway of the Norse explorers to Minnesota. The episode shows the hosts learning basic winter camping survival skills and briefly paddling down a stretch of the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior. Nelson and Arbuthnot conclude that it would have been technically possible for intrepid Viking explorers to travel into what is now Minnesota, but they questioned their willingness to do so. What the episode did not mention is the fact that the St. Louis river is a long way from where the rune stone was unearthed on Ohman’s farm. If Norse explorers had gone up the St. Lawrence River, traversed the Great Lakes, and paddled up a portion of the St. Louis River, they still would have had to walk nearly 200 miles to reach Kensington, Minnesota. The use of a Minnesota map in this episode would have have offered some helpful perspective!

In addition to their short canoe trip, Nelson and Arbuthnot spent some time with rune stone enthusiast and rock carving expert Janey Westin. After some clumsy attempts to chisel runic letters into a slab of greywacke stone, they determined that it would have taken several days to chisel an inscription the length of the one found on the Kensington Stone. They rightly question whether Norse explorers would have taken time required to create a memorial presumably just after their co-travelers had been killed.

Although Nelson quips that the Kensington Rune Stone inscription has “more red flags than a socialist revolution,” the episode still portrays the question of authenticity as open to debate. (See Jason Colavito’s review of this episode.) In reality, the overwhelming majority of the scholarly evidence indicates the runic inscription was chiseled by the Scandinavian immigrants of western Minnesota in the late nineteenth century.

One of the frustrating things about these types of shows is that they often fail to connect on-camera speculations to larger scholarly conversations. One of the most damning pieces of evidence not considered by this Science Channel episode, is that the use of language in the inscription shares similar word choices as a known Swedish dialect in 1880s Sweden. To learn more about these linguistic conclusions, consult Henrik Williams of Uppsala University and the American Association for Runic Studies.

While the scientific and historical evidence surrounding the Kensington Rune Stone is interesting, what I think is far more fascinating is to explore the reasons why so many have believed in the authenticity of the rune stone despite evidence to the contrary. That is the subject of my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. The book summary according to the University of Minnesota Press is as follows:

What do our myths say about us? Why do we choose to believe stories that have been disproven? David M. Krueger takes an in-depth look at a legend that held tremendous power in one corner of Minnesota, helping to define both a community’s and a state’s identity for decades.

In 1898, a Swedish immigrant farmer claimed to have discovered a large rock with writing carved into its surface in a field near Kensington, Minnesota. The writing told a North American origin story, predating Christopher Columbus’s exploration, in which Viking missionaries reached what is now Minnesota in 1362 only to be massacred by Indians. The tale’s credibility was quickly challenged and ultimately undermined by experts, but the myth took hold.

Faith in the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone was a crucial part of the local Nordic identity. Accepted and proclaimed as truth, the story of the Rune Stone recast Native Americans as villains. The community used the account as the basis for civic celebrations for years, and advocates for the stone continue to promote its validity despite the overwhelming evidence that it was a hoax. Krueger puts this stubborn conviction in context and shows how confidence in the legitimacy of the stone has deep implications for a wide variety of Minnesotans who embraced it, including Scandinavian immigrants, Catholics, small-town boosters, and those who desired to commemorate the white settlers who died in the Dakota War of 1862.

Krueger demonstrates how the resilient belief in the Rune Stone is a form of civil religion, with aspects that defy logic but illustrate how communities characterize themselves. He reveals something unique about America’s preoccupation with divine right and its troubled way of coming to terms with the history of the continent’s first residents. By considering who is included, who is left out, and how heroes and villains are created in the stories we tell about the past, Myths of the Rune Stone offers an enlightening perspective on not just Minnesota but the United States as well.

This past fall, I went on a lecture tour discussing the role that religious and racial anxieties played in the fueling of popular enthusiasm for the Kensington Rune Stone and other purported Viking artifacts in North America. Many white Minnesotans have embraced a popular narrative that the Norsmen were on a journey to spread the Christian faith and claim land for their descendants. Sadly, popular TV shows seem less interested in analyzing the cultural forces fueling pseudo-scientific beliefs and rely instead on keeping mysteries alive.

You can watch one of my lectures here.

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