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.

American Runic Tour 2016

henrik-williams

Uppsala University runic scholar Henrik Williams seated next to the Kensingon Rune Stone.

The aim of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America is to tell the story of how the Kensington Rune Stone emerged as sacred, civic totem that embodied the aspirations and anxieties of Minnesotans in the twentieth century. Furthermore, it illuminates the various reasons that Minnesotans have wanted so badly to believe that Vikings visited the American Midwest long before Christopher Columbus reached the “New World.” The question of “is the rune stone real or fake?”is not the most important part of my analysis.

My working assumption has been that the runic inscrption unearthed in a Swedish immigrant’s farm field in 1898 was most likely created in the late nineteenth century. When people press me on the specifics of why I don’t consider it to be an artifact created in the fourteenth century, I refer them to the work of researchers who are better equipped to answer the geological, linguistic, archaeological, and historical questions pertinent to the Kensington Rune Stone. I remind people that I am primarily a 19th and 20th-century historian who specializes in social theory, religion, and American culture. Given the somewhat superficial attention I give to the question of the rune stone’s authenticity in my book, I have listed some additional resources here that will help readers to wrestle with the many scientific questions involved. Among the researchers I have found to be the most persuasive is runic scholar Henrik Williams.

Dr. Williams is a professor of Scandinavian languages at Uppsala University in Sweden and he is also the lead researcher for the American Association of Runic Studies, which is committed to historically accurate, peer-reviewed, scientific analysis of runes and runic inscriptions. The organization also coordinates academic exchanges between Sweden and the United States. In coming weeks, William will be traveling across the U.S. and may be speaking at a location near you (see full itinerary below).

I’m particularly excited that Dr. Williams will be speaking along with me at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, November 19 at 600 pm. The title of our panel is “Vikings, Pioneers, and Natives: the Kensington Rune Stone and the Contested History of the American Midwest.” Follow the links for the Penn Museum announcement and the Facebook event page. We will be joined by Dr. Ada Kuskowski (Department of History) and Dr. Brian Daniels (Penn Cultural Heritage Center) who are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. The conversation will be interdisciplinary and will consider how ideas about race, religion, and science play out through the artifact known as the Kensington Rune Stone.

A light reception will follow the event and I’ll be there to sign books as well.

A complete list of the Henrik Williams events in the United States:

October 25, Seattle, WA
Norwegian Heritage Museum, Cracking the Runic Code


October 26, San Francisco, CA
6:00 p.m., Swedish American Hall at 2174 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Runic Women

October 29, Northfield, MN
Norwegian American Historical Assn (NAHA) Annual Meeting, Saint Olaf College, (private event)

November 1, Saint Paul, MN
Minnesota History Center, Rune Stones American Style

November 2,  Minneapolis, MN
American Swedish Institute, Henrik Williams: A Day with the Runic Scholar

November 3rd,, Alexandria, MN
Celebration Dinner, (private event)

November 5th, Bloomington, MN
Torske Klubben,“Cracking the Runic Code: Runes and Runic Inscriptions in Norway”, (members only event)

November 6th, Minneapolis, MN
Uppsala University Recognition: Minnesota Vikings vs. Detroit Football game

November 8th
Presentation/Discussion with UCO students Medieval Association. “Runes in Sweden and on Gotland” (class participation)

November 9th
“Forbidden Archaeology” with Dr. Andy White, University of South Carolina, Topic: Kensington Rune Stone, (class participation)

November 9th
Presentation/Discussion with UCO students, Historical Research Course, “Runes and North American Runes”, (class participation)

November 9th, Edmond, OK,
Oklahoma, Sons of Norway, (private event)

November 11,  Sierra Vista, AZ
Windemere Conference Center, Henrik Williams: Runic Inscriptions in the Mustang Mountains

November 14, Philadelphia, PA
6:00 p.m., Rainey Auditorium, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3620 South Street

November 17, Washington, DC
Smithsonian Associates, Henrik Williams: Cracking the Runic Code: The Alphabet of Mystery

Kensington Rune Stone Featured on the Travel Channel

img_2698

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

Follow me on Twitter

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

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

 

Myths of the Rune Stone Featured on the New Books Network

nbn_logoIt was a pleasure to talk about Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America with Kristian Petersen from the New Books Network. I was able to share a bit about how I got interested in the scholarly study of history and religion. I also discussed the process of how I transformed my fairly voluminous dissertation (around 360 pages) into a slim and readable volume intended to reach a broad audience.  This hour-long interview provides some of the highlights of the book and touches on topics such as myth, small town life and Minnesotan civic identity, martyrdom, secularization, the Cold War, Vikings, Marion devotion, Native Americans, Christian identity in Minnesota, American civil religion, and the multiple venues for using the book in the classroom.

If you are visiting this website for the first time, be sure to explore the various resources here to help you dig deeper into the topic. To learn about how the book can useful in a classroom setting, you can read this blog post from last year. Thanks for stopping by!

Viking Ship Didn’t Make it to Minnesota…Again.

5.1 Holy Mission booklet

A pamphlet from 1959 touting the Kensington Rune Stone as proof the Vikings visited (the future) Minnesota in 1362.

Back in April (2016), a Viking ship named the Draken Harald Hårfagre set sail from Norway.It made it all the way across the North Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Michigan. The ship’s crew had planned to make it all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. However, the ship ran into problems when it was discovered that U.S. required that foreign ships were required to hire a pilot at an exorbitantly high rate. The crew had previously thought their ship was exempt from this regulation. You can read about the latest events in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article, a New York Times article, and the Viking ship’s Facebook page.

Although donations were raised by supporters for the ship to travel as far as Chicago, the ship will head back east after it docks in Green Bay Wisconsin.

As my book describes, Midwestern Americans have long been fascinated by the notion the Vikings reached the heart of the continent. The dubious Kensington Rune Stone has long been touted as evidence that Vikings reached what was to become Minnesota in 1362. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, scores of Minnesotans have wanted to believe that Viking reached their region long before Christopher Columbus. Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America tells history of this fascinating myth.

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.

Best wishes to the crew of the Draken Harald Hårfagre. Even though they weren’t able to reach Minnesota, they certainly traveled further than the Vikings who reached Newfoundland in the year 1000!

Review: Myths of the Rune Stone and Imagined Medieval History

1954 - Immortal Rock book jacket

The novel Immortal Rock, published in 1954, tells an imaginative story of Norsemen traveling to what is now Minnesota in 1362.

A new review of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America came out in July 2016. View the complete book review at H-Net/H-Skand here. Reviewer Adam J. Oberlin brought up an interesting perspective I had not considered before:

“Krueger’s analysis of the civic, religious, and political life of the Kensington Stone and its supporters through almost a century of American history is indeed a study in medievalism, even if it is an imagined medieval history and not the appropriation of authentic events, peoples, and monuments.”

Besides the research I have done for this book, I have not looked into other examples of how Americans have appropriated medieval history to address contemporary issues of identity. However, I suspect this book would be useful in making comparisons.

The review also notes how the book would be “useful in the classroom as a coda to the ever-popular course on Viking history or mythology.” I think that is a great idea!

 

A Viking Myth at the Smithsonian?

IMG_2601

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.