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The Kensington runestone is a roughly rectangular slab of greywacke covered in runes on its face and side. Its origin and meaning have been disputed ever since it was found in 1898 near Kensington, Minnesota. It suggests that Scandinavian explorers reached the middle of North America in the 14th century. Its origin is uncertain, and opinions are divided as to its authenticity, with some (including reknowned Minnesota geologist Newton Horace Winchell) suggesting it is an important Medieval artifact, and others (including eminent runologists such as R.I Page and James Knirk) arguing the Runestone is a hoax.
Swedish American farmer Olof Öhman said he found the stone while clearing his land of trees and stumps before plowing. It was reportedly on a small knoll or hillside, lying face down and buried in the root system of a tree believed to be at least ten years old. According to several witnesses, some of the roots were flattened and fit tightly around the stone. Öhman's ten-year-old son noticed some markings and the farmer later said he thought they'd found an "Indian almanac." The artifact is about 30 x 16 x 6 inches or 76.2 x [sign in to see URL] x [sign in to see URL] centimeters in size and weighs about 200 pounds (90 kg).
When Öhman discovered the stone, the journey of Leif Ericson to Vinland (North America) was being widely discussed and there was renewed interest in the Vikings throughout Scandinavia, stirred by the National Romanticism movement. Five years earlier a Danish archaeologist had proved it was possible to travel to North America in medieval ships. There was also friction between Sweden and Norway due to the Norway's independence from Sweden in 1905: Some Norwegians claimed the stone was a Swedish hoax and there were similar Swedish accusations because the stone is inscribed with a reference to a joint expedition of Norwegians and Swedes at a time when they were both ruled by the same king.
Soon after it was found, the stone was displayed at a local bank (there is no evidence Öhman tried to make money from his find). An error-ridden copy of the inscription made its way to the Greek language department at the University of Minnesota, then to Olaus J. Breda, a professor of Scandinavian languages and literature there from 1884 to 1899, who showed little interest in the find and whose runic knowledge was later questioned by some researchers. Breda made a translation, declared it to be a forgery and forwarded copies to linguists in Scandinavia. Norwegian archaeologist Oluf Rygh also concluded the stone was a fraud (based on a letter from Breda, who never actually saw the stone), as did several other linguists. Archaeological evidence of Viking settlements in Canada wouldn't appear for another half a century and the idea of pre-Columbian Vikings wandering through Minnesota then seemed implausible to most academics. Minnesota appears to be a far less likely Viking landfall than L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, where archaeological evidence of a Viking presence from around the year 1000 was found in 1960.)
By now the stone had been sent to Northwestern University in Chicago. With scholars either dismissing it as a prank or unable to identify a sustainable historical context it was returned to Öhman, who is said to have placed it face down near the door of his granary as a "stepping stone" which he also used for straightening out nails (years later his son said this was an "untruth" and that they had it set up in an adjacent shed). In 1907 the stone was purchased, reportedly for ten dollars, by Hjalmar Holand, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Holand created renewed public interest and further studies were made by geologist Newton Horace Winchell (Minnesota Historical Society) and linguist George Flom (Philological Society of the University of Illinois), who both published opinions in 1910.
According to Winchell, the poplar tree under which the stone was found had been destroyed but several nearby poplars of the same size were cut down and by counting their rings it was determined they were 40 years old thus suggesting the original poplar was around 30 years old at the time of the discovery. Since the surrounding county had not been settled until 1858 it seemed less likely the stone could be a forgery (if it had truly been found wrapped in the roots of a similar poplar tree). Winchell also concluded that the weathering of the stone indicated the inscription was roughly 500 years old. Meanwhile, Flom found a strong apparent divergence between the runes used in the Kensington inscription and those in use during the 14th century. Similarly, the linguistic forms didn't match surviving written examples from that era.
Most discussions over the Kensington Runestone's authenticity have been based on an apparent conflict between the linguistic and physical evidence. The Runestone's discovery by a Swedish farmer in Minnesota at a time when Viking history and Scandinavian culture were such popular and sometimes controversial topics casts a stark shadow of skepticism that has lingered for more than a hundred years.
In 1354 King Magnus Erikson of Sweden and Norway issued a letter of protection (or passport) to Paul Knutson for a voyage to the Norwegian dependency of Greenland. The Western Settlement of Greenland had been found abandoned (but for some cattle) a few years earlier and it was believed the population had rejected the Church (and its ownership of the local farms, which had been gradually acquired in payment of various fees), reverted to paganism and gone to what is now known as North America.
In 1887 historian Gustav Storm mentioned the journey, suggesting it returned in 1363 or 1364. This appears to be the first published work that documents a voyage to North America matching the date on the stone. It has since been confirmed by a 1577 letter from Gerard Mercator to John Dee, which excerpts an earlier work by Jacobus Cnoyen (now lost) describing a voyage beyond Greenland that returned with 8 men in 1364. Cnoyen also mentions that a priest accompanied the voyage and wrote an account of it in a book called the Inventio Fortunate which is cited in a number of medieval and Renaissance documents, although no copy remains. That Ivar Bardson had returned either in 1363 or early 1364 is documented from a Norwegian Diploma dated 25 June 1364 where 'Ivarus Barderij' is confirmed by Bishop Botolv in Stavanger to have delivered collected tithes.
The Inventio is cited on some 16th century maps as a source for their depiction of the Arctic. It is not known if the voyage went as far as Hudson Bay but some maps are claimed to have depicted the bay at least a century before its first known exploration and this reportedly influenced Columbus in planning his own voyage west across the Atlantic. So while a clever forger could have deduced the correct date to put on the Runestone from information available at the time of its discovery, an expedition does seem to have taken place beyond Greenland, although there is no specific evidence for a journey to Minnesota as inscribed on the stone.
When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey
Oct/20/2007, 5:30 pm
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