Stones are the bane of every farmer’s life. We curse them as we pick them and grumble as we toss them onto the pile along the fence. When we bury them, it’s often with a muttered imprecation that goes something like “good riddance!”
But stones can sometimes have hidden value. A good example of such a thing occurred in 1898, when Minnesota farmer Olaf Ohman was clearing some land. Ohman had pulled out an old cottonwood stump when his 10-year-old son discovered a large flat rock entangled in its roots.
I bet Ohman muttered a curse under his breath and thought, “Just my luck! Bad enough this land is littered with stumps, it has to be stony, too.”
The boy rubbed some of the dirt off the 200-pound stone and found a series of strange markings etched into its surface. Closer examination revealed them to be runes, an ancient form of Viking writing. A date of 1362 was chiseled onto one side of the stone.
And thus began the saga of the Kensington Runestone, named for the nearby village of Kensington.
The runic rock was immediately declared to be an important artifact, indisputable proof that the Vikings had visited the Midwest more than 100 years before Columbus set sail.
The stone was then, just as swiftly, decreed a hoax, a skillful forgery cooked up by a farmer of Swedish descent. This controversy has raged unabated for more than a century.
The Kensington Runestone now resides in a museum at Alexandria. My wife and I recently had occasion to swing through Alex, so we stopped in to gawk at this mystifying rock.
The 31-by-16-by 6-inch slab of stone is covered with primitive-looking symbols and rests in a high-tech Plexiglas case.
Glancing at some of the literature regarding the rock, I commented to my wife, “It says that the stone is made of greywacke. That figures. It’s grey and has obviously taken a lot of whacks.”
It’s difficult to talk to my wife when she’s rolling her eyes at me like that, so I studied a translation of the stone’s inscription. One line mentions coming back to camp to find 10 men I said to my wife, “It appears the Vikings have been getting slaughtered in Minnesota a lot longer than anyone ever thought.”
After viewing the entirety of the museum’s collection – including an outstanding assemblage of butter boxes, one of which trumpets Nelson Butter – my wife and I visited with Julie Blank, executive director of the Kensington Runestone Museum.
I was upfront with Ms. Blank and told her where my prejudices lie, that as a person of Norwegian descent I was totally prepared to believe that the stone is real. This seemed to please Ms. Blank.
“The Ohman family endured a lot of ridicule after the stone was found,” she said. “They were called fakers and charlatans. This despite the fact that Ohman received no monetary gain from the stone.
“After the initial hoopla died down, he used it as a stepping stone for his granary.
So. I surmised, a Scandihoovian came out on the short end of the stick. Nothing new there. Is there any other physical evidence to support the Runestone?
“There are many other Viking-era artifacts, some of which are here in this museum. We have an iron spear point similar to that which the Norsemen would have used, along with some axe heads.
“One of them, a bearded axe that has an Arctic Spruce handle, was found in 1920. It was 3 feet below the ground and tangled in the roots of a large oak tree.”
A bearded axe, you say. Would that be similar to what you might see on a Molly Hatchet album cover?
“Yes, although the Vikings who came here likely didn’t have horns on their helmets,” she said.
Is there any other evidence?
“We also have an ancient Norse firesteel that was dug up in this area. Other runic inscriptions have been found in Ohio and on a mammoth bone in North Dakota.
“And then there are the stories of how Lewis and Clark were surprised to learn that some members of the Mandan tribe had blonde hair and blue eyes.”
Hmm? So, the Vikings had more than just diplomatic relations with the natives.
“It would appear so. It should also be pointed out that the particular dialect used on the Runestone wasn’t discovered until rather recently. This would have made it impossible to create a forgery in 1898.”
My wife and I left the museum totally convinced that the Kensington Runestone is real. As if to drive home the point, across the street from the museum stands a 28-foot-tall statue of a Viking. He’s called Big Ole and his shield is emblazoned with the words “Birthplace of America.”
And if that isn’t proof positive, I don’t know what is.
Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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