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.

Kensington Rune Stone Featured on the Travel Channel


Author and historian David M. Krueger in front of Penn Station on the way home from filming with the Travel Channel in NYC.

Early this summer, I took the train from Philly up to New York City for an afternoon filming session with the Travel Channel’s popular show, Mysteries at the Museum. In case you are not familiar with the show, here is  a description:

“Host Don Wildman digs into the world’s greatest institutions to unearth extraordinary relics that reveal incredible secrets from the past. Through compelling interviews, rare archival footage and arresting recreations, “Mysteries at the Museum” illuminates the hidden treasures at the heart of history’s most incredible triumphs, sensational crimes and bizarre encounters.”  

The episode to which I contributed is titled “Kensington Runestone, Smile! You’re Being Hijacked and Harriet the Spy” – which premieres Friday, September 30 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT 

In this episode “Don Wildman examines a stone tablet which may hold the key to America’s beginnings, a model plane connected to a hijacking and a revolver that once belonged to the first American woman to lead an armed expedition into war.”

matm-travel-channelI wish I could say more more about my contribution to the upcoming show, but I have yet to see it myself! If you enjoy the segment of the Mysteries at the Museum episode, I encourage you to get a copy of my book, Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. It tells the fascinating story of why so many have wanted to believe that Vikings reached what is now Minnesota 140 years before Columbus landed in the so-called “New World.” Feel free to peruse my website to find reviews and other resources related to the topic. Let me know what you think of the episode!

–David M. Krueger, PhD

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For a complete list of air times for this Mysteries at the Museum episode, click here.

    September 30
    9pm | 8c
    October 1
    12am | 11c
    October 13
    11pm | 10c
    October 14
    2am | 1c
    October 16
    11am | 10c
    November 18
    7pm | 6c


A Viking Myth at the Smithsonian?


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.

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:

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


Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862

Click on the image to visit the podcast website.

Click on the image above to access the podcast.

Perhaps the most significant event in Minnesota history is the Dakota War of 1862. While the U.S. was engulfed in the Civil War, hundreds of white settlers in sparsely-populated Minnesota were killed by Dakota warriors. Thousands of other pioneers abandoned their farms never to return. Within months after the conflict, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the Mankato town square and thousands of Dakota people were violently driven from the state whether or not they had anything to do with the conflict.

According to the Kensington Rune Stone inscription, the Norse explorers visited Minnesota and were killed by “skrælings” in 1362. In the book I argue that it is more than a coincidence that there is a 500-year gap between the dates. It is my contention that the Dakota War of 1862 influenced both the creation of the runic inscription in late nineteenth century and its interpretation in the early twentieth century. The podcast “Little War on the Prairie” is from This American Life and provides some helpful background. You will hear from Mary Lethert Wingerd who wrote a blurb for Myths of the Rune Stone.

Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Kensington Rune Stone in the New York Times Magazine!

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published the first of two articles written by famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. You can access the article here. Knausgaard gives an account of his North American adventures, which begin in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northeastern tip of Newfoundland. The Canadian locale is the site of the only known Viking settlement in North America and dates to the year 1000. Knausgaard tells us that his New York Times editor asked him to drive from Canada to Minnesota, where he could view the Kensington Rune Stone, an artifact which many believe to be proof that Vikings visited the region in the 14th century. Knausgaard somehow managed to lose his drivers license and was forced to find alternative means to continue his “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville” sojourn across North America. By the end of this first article, he had made it as far as Detroit.

Among his many observations about American life, Knausgaard writes about the intersection of myth, place, and identity.

“Identity is not something we invest in the landscape, not in the lake or the forest or the mountain. Identity lies rather in our notions about the landscape and in the names we give it, names that are densely layered with meaning. Naming is obviously a way of making the unknown known, of creating a sense of belonging, but the names soon take on a life of their own, embodying history, myths, conceptions and misconceptions — “New York,” I write, and what you are thinking of is not the daily changing of diapers, the stomach upsets or a damp coffee filter that rips so that the grounds spill onto the floor. Seen in that light, it was irrelevant whether the Kensington Runestone was authentic or fake, for what it testified to was the fact that some people wanted it to be seen as authentic, some people wanted the Vikings to have made it to Minnesota and these people were in all probability Scandinavians, who thus would no longer merely be destitute peasants driven to the new country by need but people with a proud past who were directly descended from the very first Europeans in America, who had not simply been content to spend a winter on a spit of land way up in the northeast, but had made their way as far as the Midwest, where almost all Scandinavians ended up, and who wanted in this way to endow themselves with a history, which is one of the many forms that a sense of belonging takes.”

Knausgaard touches on the central theme of my forthcoming book, Myths of the Runestone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. In this book, I tell the story of why so many in the twentieth century wanted to believe the Kensington Rune Stone was authentic despite strong evidence to the contrary. In his first article, Knausgaard assumes that it is merely Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants who have found appeal in the runic artifact discovered in a Minnesota farm field in 1898. Indeed, Swedish and Norwegian Americans were enchanted by the Midwestern Viking saga that emerged in the aftermath of Olof Ohman’s discovery. However, my book shows how the rune stone myth attracted a wide variety of characters including Yankee-born small-town boosters, Catholic bishops and priests, and those looking for a way to commemorate the deaths of white pioneer settlers during Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps Knausgaard will consider more of the complex cultural and religious dimensions of this fascinating part of American folklore. The second installment of Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” will be released March 11.