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cover art | chuck watson

Verified at Last
The Strange and Terrible Story
of the Kensington Runestone

By Jim Richardson and
Allen Richardson

The comfortable scientific and scholarly worlds of history, archeology, runology and Scandinavian linguistics have all been rocked by recent developments surrounding a single stone in west central Minnesota.

The Kensington Runestone, thought for over 100 years to be a hoax, now stands verified as a genuine artifact commemorating the deaths of 10 medieval Scandinavians in Minnesota in the year 1362.

A recent piece of linguistic scholarship by Dr. Richard Nielsen has hit the scene, which seems to demonstrate conclusively that the Kensington Runestone inscription is genuine. Nielsen’s 75-page paper took 12 years of research to write, and was published in the spring 2001 issue of Scandinavian Studies, the peer-reviewed journal of Scandinavian linguistics.

Nielsen’s work has been joined by long-overdue scientific testing on the surface of the stone, coordinated by chemist and design engineer Barry Hanson.

Nielsen and Hanson’s findings reveal more than just the authenticity of a runestone, however. Their work points plaintively at 100 years of scientific incompetence and knee-jerk skepticism regarding this valuable historic artifact. The shock waves are just beginning to reverberate through the scientific world.

A Partial Chronology of the Kensington Runestone

1362 The stone is erected by medieval Europeans on an expedition to the center of North America. The inscription was probably carved by a priest from the Swedish island of Gotland, who was also familiar with the law codes of Vastergötland.

1820–1880 Numerous unusual runeforms are discovered and documented by various linguistic scholars. These same runeforms, when later discovered on the Kensington Runestone, are declared “impossible” by various “experts” in their debunking of the stone, even though the discovery of these runeforms predates the discovery of the Kensington Runestone itself.

November 1898 Olof Ohman and his 10-year-old son Edward are winching over trees to clear their land in Kensington, Minn. They unearth the stone. It spends its first couple of months displayed in a bank window.

January 1899 A translation is attempted, by Olaus Breda at the University of Minnesota, from a hand-rendered copy of the inscription. Although he never sets eyes on the stone, and states that he is not an expert in runology or the language of Old Norse, Breda yet comes to the conclusion it is a forgery. He makes his recommendation to the university: Do not procure the stone for further study. He is later cited as an expert.

February 1899 The stone is sent to George Curme, professor of Old German at Northwestern University. Curme and his amateur geologist associate John Seward study the stone for several weeks. Curme states that although he is not an expert in the language or the runes, his opinion is that the stone is a hoax because it contains double dots (similar to umlauts) over a few of the runes, and the invention of umlauts came after the date on the stone. Curme is later cited as an expert. It is eventually discovered that double dots were a medieval convention indicating vowel lengthening or insertion of a letter. For his part, Steward observed that the carved-out features of the Kensington Runestone showed as much age as the weathered surface of the stone. This is what is expected from a stone that has been hewn out of a rock and then carved; the rock’s surface and its inscription have been exposed to weathering for the same amount of time. Steward’s observation is ignored by future skeptics.

March 1899 The stone is returned to Ohman. It languishes in his shed for several years.

August 1907 A University of Wisconsin historian, Hjalmer Holand, becomes aware of the stone, studies it, and concludes it is a genuine medieval artifact. Over the years Holand clashes bitterly with the establishment over the authenticity of the stone.

July 1909 Ohman, his son Edward, and several neighbors all give signed affidavits stating the circumstances of the stone’s discovery, the weathered and aged appearance of the inscription, and the way the roots of the tree had grown around the stone “in such a way as to exactly conform to the outlines of the stone” (affidavit signed by Ohman neighbor Nils Flaten on July 20, 1909).

1910 The Minnesota Historical Society designates a committee to study the stone. The committee’s study, based on both language and the geological features of the stone, concludes that the stone is authentic. However, there is some dissent among the membership and the trustees over the issue, and prominent members of the Minnesota Historical Society publicly dismiss the stone many times over the years, continuing to implicate Ohman in the process.
The Illinois State Historical Society issues a 20-page report claiming the stone is a “modern inscription.” The report stops short of implicating Ohman as the carver.

Summer 1911 Holand takes the stone to Europe to have it examined by Scandinavian language experts. Their conclusion: It is a fake. The stone is also exhibited in several U.S. cities.

1929 Harold S. Langland, president of Stanley Ironworks in Minneapolis and trained in the physical sciences, studies the stone for two months and concludes it is authentic because the carved-out parts are just as weathered as the rest of the surface of the stone.

1935 Olof Ohman dies.

Early 1940s The managing editor of the Minnesota Archeologist, R.H. Landon Ph.D., has the stone coated with engine oil and scrubbed with a powerful solvent, in an attempt to “clean” it. No one knows how much damage this may have caused to the testable features of the stone’s surface.

August 1967 The infamous “Gran tape” is made, recording an interview with Walter Gran, wherein it is alleged by many that Gran claims his father, a neighbor of the Ohmans, “confessed” on his “deathbed” that Olof carved the stone. There is no actual confession related on the tape.

1963 Hjalmar Holand, one of the few lifelong defenders of the stone, dies.

1968 Theodore Blegen, who had initiated the making of the Gran tape above, publishes a book “debunking” the Kensington Runestone. The book alludes to a scandalous tale on the Gran tape and helps to cement Ohman’s reputation as an unscrupulous forger.

1973 The BBC films a skeptical Kensington Runestone documentary, which leans heavily on the bogus Gran tape as its source.

1976 The director of the Minnesota Historical Society, Russell Fridley, publicizes the Gran tape in his articles in Minnesota History.

2001 After raging for years, the controversy is settled by the linguistic scholarship of Dr. Richard Nielsen, and simultaneously, by the scientific studies spearheaded by Barry Hanson, in concert with American Petrographic Services of St. Paul and scientists at the University of Minnesota’s department of geophysics.

The Story of the Stone
In 1898, just outside of Kensington, Minn., farmer Olof Ohman found an intensely enigmatic artifact ensnarled in the roots of a tree. It was a large stone tablet, weighing over 200 pounds, and covered with medieval Scandinavian runes. The inscription on the stone, which now resides in a museum in Alexandria, Minn., reads: “Eight Goths and 22 Northmen are on this acquisition expedition from Vinland far to the West. We had traps by two shelters one day’s travel north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home I found 10 men red with blood and dead. Avé Maria deliver from evils! I have 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ship, 14 days’ journey from this island Year 1362.”

Many features of the Kensington Runestone were so far outside the experience of the experts of the day that it was quickly branded a hoax. Ohman’s life was never the same. His reputation was destroyed, and he and his family endured a virtual reign of terror that, arguably, helped drive his daughter to suicide. And the stone itself, like Ohman’s reputation, has remained an object of derision ever since.

The reputation of Ohman (who died in 1935) seems to finally be cleared, but only after a terrible human cost was exacted upon him and his family. Olof’s last surviving son is quoted by family friends as saying (in a 1995 interview conducted by Ove Pederson with Ione and Einar Bakke) that discovering the stone was the worst thing that ever happened to the Ohman family.

A long line of scholars examined the stone’s inscription and saw unfamiliar runes, grammatical structures and numerical notations, and nearly everyone loudly pronounced the stone a fake, and a poor one at that. Such words were impossible for the 14th century, they said. However, the unknown numbers, letters, words and sentence structures ascribed to Ohman’s criminal genius began to turn up in authenticated Scandinavian texts almost immediately after the stone’s discovery. Indeed, several “unknown” runes had turned up even before the stone’s discovery, yet went completely unrecognized by the top scholars of the day.

If the experts had done the proper research at the time, the stone could have been well on its way to authentication. Ohman’s reputation and family could have been saved. Instead, the story of the discovery of the Kensington Runestone, America’s first known written document, will go down in the annals of linguistic shame.

How it Happened
Olof Ohman was a man with 36 weeks of education, nine children and a marginal farm. Hanson wrote in his book The Trail of Olof Ohman, “Olof Ohman’s character, after endless scrutiny by people who were trying as hard as they could to show the KRS as a modern forgery, survives unblemished. Every person who knew Ohman said the same thing; he was honest, he was honorable and he would not or could not have carved the inscription, nor would he lie to his sons as part of any conceivable activity he might be engaged in.” And yet this unlikely hoaxer got stuck with the reputation of perpetrating a brazen fraud. How did it happen? What was the case against Olof Ohman and the stone, and how did the notion of a hoax falsely perpetuate itself for so long?

The case against the authenticity of the stone was primarily made using linguistic arguments. It is not too far off the mark to suggest that the way the linguists handled the case of the Kensington Runestone provides a study of how not to approach a scientific anomaly. The geological analyses of the stone have always supported its medieval pedigree, with the geologists in question always adopting a “wait and see” attitude toward the disputed runes. As we now know, this was apparently the correct approach.

Thirty-two experts in Scandinavian linguistics have declared the Kensington Runestone inscription fraudulent over the past 100 years. Ten of those experts actually published papers and/or books about the stone. One thing that helps explain their stunning collective failure is that most of them hailed from the small, closed, conservative world of European linguistics. When seen from this stodgy milieu, the stone was nothing short of an outrageous affront. In addition, at the time the stone was found, the linguistic study of medieval runology was actually a fairly young science, and in many ways, woefully incomplete. Looking back on it now, this is obvious, as the past 100 years have seen developments in the field that, perhaps, could not have been anticipated back then. For instance, old manuscripts have been continually uncovered, yielding previously unrecognized medieval runeforms, words and elements of grammatical style. There are still piles of medieval writings that present-day scholars have not even been able to get around to studying yet. However, in 1898, the most accomplished experts of the day were at the pinnacle of their profession. And no stone from America could tell them otherwise.

The Kensington Runestone contains 23 different runic letters (or “runeforms”), which are used to write an inscription of 46 words and 7 numbers. Eleven of the runeforms, and more than a dozen of the words, were unknown to the experts of 1898. In addition, the numbers on the stone failed to conform to the proper notation conventions as they were then known. For these and other reasons, time and time again, the case was made for fraud. Once the first couple of investigators had proclaimed the stone to be a forgery (and they weren’t even experts, see p.8 sidebar), it seems as if the taint of scandal became so intoxicating to the academic community that the stone simply couldn’t get a fair hearing for the hysteria. Once it was “known” to be a hoax, whole reputations and careers were made by trashing the stone and its few defenders.

The way the Kensington Runestone, and Olof Ohman, became objects of scorn says more about the psychological opposition to fresh ideas than about the proper conduct of science. The way some of the experts comported themselves, in the face of the unknown, does a disservice to the ideals of the scientific method. Personal attacks took the place of data collection. Sloppy scholarship and unreferenceable claims became the order of the day. Invoking “the experts” took the place of doing actual research. The general attitude toward the Kensington Runestone was one of contempt, as evidenced by Professor Jon Helgason’s remark to Kensington Runestone “debunker” Erik Moltke, which Moltke quoted in a 1951 article for Antiquity magazine: “In my opinion the inscription on the Kensington Stone is such that no philologist with any self respect could in any decency write about it.” The stone posed an effrontery to these men’s sense of expertise, and Moltke’s contempt for the stone was as great as Helgason’s. But rather than thrusting his nose up in the air and ignoring it, as Helgason deemed to be the proper response, Moltke expressed a more aggressive opinion as to how one should approach the anomaly. “There has been so much fuss made about this inscription that a stop must be put to it,” Moltke wrote.

Sloppiness and hubris pervade the quality of scholarship that the stone has been subjected to through the years. In his zeal to “put a stop to it,” Moltke resorted to some extremely heavy-handed rhetoric, as when he wrote of the stone in 1949, “See what an abortion it uses as an a-rune.” In addition, Moltke claimed that the n-rune had gone out of use by 1100 and that was reason enough to declare the Kensington Runestone a forgery. But the n-runeform as shown on the stone was later discovered to have been in use well into the 14th century, as documented by various scholars since J.E. Liljegren found one in 1832. When this information became known, both Moltke and another skeptic, Sven Birger Frederik Jansson, quietly dropped it from their list of complaints. As for the a-runeform, it is found on the Lye Church inscription from medieval times on the island of Gotland.

So many of the runes, flatly declared to be “impossible” in 1898, could have been found with a little research. The runes in question simply hadn’t made it to the runic dictionaries yet, but they each existed in referenced works, and in principle, they could have been found. Simply put, the Kensington Runestone was never seriously studied by those most qualified to do so. It was merely written off, when in reality, it had much to teach. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that if the stone had been subjected to serious scrutiny and authenticated in 1898, it would have advanced our knowledge by 100 years in the fields of Scandinavian linguistics, runology, history and the archeology of North America. As it stands, some doors in these fields are only now beginning to open, but the keys have been available for four generations.

A case in point: One of the most prominent Scandinavian linguistics texts cited in the Kensington Runestone controversy was Old Swedish Grammar with Inclusion of Old Gotlandic, published by Adolf Noreen in 1904. Moltke, and others, heavily utilized Noreen’s text to “debunk” the stone in a series of articles in various scholarly journals. However, whereas Noreen’s book was “a monumental achievement for its day,” according to Einar Haugen and Thomas L. Markey’s 1972 book The Scandinavian Languages: Fifty Years of Linguistic Research (1918–1968), it “has not been reprinted since it first appeared and, as many texts not readily accessible to Noreen and his readers have been published subsequently, it is badly in need of revision.”

Of course, in fitting with the overall pattern of the Kensington Runestone story, Moltke became one of the prime “experts” invoked by others as they dismissed the stone, even though he had used Noreen’s outdated linguistic text from 1904 as the basis for his own conclusions made as late as the 1950s. This is currently cause for no small degree of embarrassment in scientific circles, as all of those who ever built a house of cards against the Kensington Runestone, in part by citing Moltke’s (and others’) “expert” work, now find themselves on the wrong side of the issue, and their arguments hopelessly outdated.

Many of the claims made against the inscription on the stone appeared in the form of unreferenceable claims, which often take the form of something like, “This word is impossible for the 14th century.” Stated authoritatively by an “expert,” this type of claim appeared to carry weight, and inevitably became cited by others in lieu of citing actual data. This is why Nielsen’s paper is considered so significant. It represents the only comprehensive paper on the language of the Kensington Runestone yet published in a serious professional journal. Each claim is referenced, and each bit of data has been verified by the reviewers.

When it was discovered that Ohman owned a couple of books that contained runes, the experts went wild. Here was the clincher for them. The books, each published in Stockholm in the late 1800s, were The Well-Informed Schoolmaster by Carl Rosander and Sweden’s History From the Earliest Time to Our Time by Oscar Montelius. It was claimed that Ohman had used these books as the source material for his hoax. However, as is the case with so many other arguments leveled at Ohman and the Kensington Runestone, the accusation that he used these books was never seriously investigated, but merely thrown onto the pile of already-existing accusations. If the issue had been seriously looked into, it could have been easily exposed as an impossibility. The runes available to Ohman from the Rosander and Montelius books account for only half of the runes on the stone. And of the remaining runes, many of them were unknown to anyone in 1898; not just to the uneducated farmer, but to the most educated Scandinavian linguists in the world.

“Deathbed Confession”
Then there is the case of the so-called “deathbed confession.” While it has done much to prejudice the public against the stone’s authenticity, it is quickly revealed to be the only real hoax of the entire Kensington Runestone saga.

It seems that in the late 1800s there were some neighbors to the north of the Ohman farm by the name of the Gran family. In 1967, Theodore Blegen, one of the arch-nemeses of the stone, persuaded a nephew of Walter Gran to do an audiotaped interview which became known as the “Gran tape.” Gran was 4 years old when the stone was unearthed, so he didn’t remember much about those days. But he did manage to spin a tale, on the taped interview with his nephew, about how his father, John Gran, made a “deathbed confession” in 1927 (40 years before the interview). The “confession” allegedly concerned Ohman forging the Kensington Runestone.

The story was published in 1976, in a series of articles in Minnesota History by Russell Fridley, director of the Minnesota Historical Society. The BBC even got in on the act when it used the “confession” as part of a documentary about the Kensington Runestone “hoax.” The trouble is, the spectacular “deathbed confession” is neither.

John Gran was not on his deathbed when he allegedly uttered these things. Walter Gran said that John Gran’s deathbed confession happened in 1927, but John Gran did not actually die until 1933, six years later. Some deathbed!

There is not even a confession: Walter alleged on the tape that his father said, “Go ask Ohman,” and then when Walter did so, Ohman said essentially nothing.

The so-called “Gran tape” contains nothing of scientific value that bears upon the authenticity of the stone. Somehow the myth of it has grown to include a deathbed confession, when really there is only innuendo.

Compounding the issue, Walter Gran’s very truthfulness was not given glowing endorsements by his friends and neighbors in subsequent interviews with them. One of them said in a 1979 interview with Ted Stoa of Fargo, N.D., “I didn’t take too much stock in what Walter said at times.” This same sentiment was echoed by Iona and Einar Bakke in a 1995 interview conducted by Ove Pederson.

The Gran tape struck a particularly unscientific blow against the authenticity of the stone. As the story blossomed, the unfinished science of the stone became overshadowed with gossip.

The “unknown” runes, words, grammatical quirks, and numerical notations of the Kensington Runestone have all since turned up in medieval Scandinavian texts. What has been needed for some time, in order to settle the issue, is for someone to put it all in one place for the world to see. This has finally happened, and all of it has been extensively documented. Nielsen’s article seems to sound the death-knell on the case against Ohman and the Kensington Runestone.

Hanson also has played no small role in the authentication of the stone, complementing Nielsen’s linguistic work with some impressive scientific studies. Interestingly, of the scant few in the Kensington Runestone debate who have come down on the side of the stone’s authenticity, it was mostly those citing geological concerns. The geologists looked at the stone and said, in effect, “This thing’s ancient! There’s no way it could be a modern forgery!” The linguists never paid them any mind, and if they did it was to ostracize them and to minimize the geological evidence. Geological considerations have supported the stone’s great antiquity since N.H. Winchell, state geologist of Minnesota, and others (including the state geologist for Wisconsin) first examined the stone in the early 1900s.

Since that time, however, the linguists have dominated the debate and successfully marginalized the issue of the stone’s geological features. That is until Hanson came along and wondered: What has been discovered upon examining the stone with a microscope? To his amazement, he learned that no one had ever attempted it. For that matter, no one had ever so much as recommended that this basic piece of science be conducted.

Hanson realized that this represented a huge gap in the history of the Kensington Runestone controversy, and got to work. First, he published his recommendations for physical testing of the stone in the winter 2001 issue of the peer-reviewed history periodical Journal of the West. Then, having been granted exclusive authority by the owners of the stone to coordinate its scientific testing, Hanson contacted various people in the fields of geology, chemistry and geophysics. Work was initiated by Scott Wolter at American Petrographic Services in St. Paul and continued at the University of Minnesota Department of Geophysics, where an electron microprobe analysis was conducted on parts of the surface of the stone. American Petrographic Services oversaw the conducting of some scanning electron microscope work at Iowa State University on the same samples. The investigations are just beginning, but the initial results indicate that the original geological assessments of the Kensington Runestone by Newton Winchell in 1909 are correct. In other words, the stone is authentic, and it had been in the ground many decades before Olof Ohman moved onto his land near Kensington.

Skeptics Slow to React
Among longtime Kensington Runestone skeptics, the reaction to Nielsen’s May 2001 paper (and its supporting evidence from Hanson’s testing) has been slow in coming. There are rumors that some have started to turn, and a couple of them have dug in their heels, but for the most part, a great silence wafts over the critical landscape. What are we to make of this silence?

Hanson is arguably in the best position to understand the skeptical reaction, since his book, The Trial of Olof Ohman, examines every skeptical word ever written about the stone. As Hanson sees it, part of the problem in getting a quick reaction out of the 10 or so most prominent Kensington Runestone skeptics is that Nielsen’s paper went further in tracking down dozens of medieval source documents than any scholars had ever done before. These documents include diplomas, letters, law codes, and various legal and official documents. Hanson explains, “No one, living or dead, has ever studied or even is aware of, in most cases, these critical documents. Without them one has no basis to comment on the KRS language.” And therefore, it seems, no one is.

There is also the matter of the peer-review process, which has taken the Kensington Runestone controversy to a new level. Much of the controversy has played out over the years in popular books and magazine articles, where assertions do not have to be rigorously double-checked and scrutinized. By publishing in the peer-reviewed Scandinavian language journal Scandinavian Studies, Nielsen now has the high ground. Reviewed by, among others, Prof. Michael Barnes of University College (one of Europe’s foremost experts in Medieval Scandinavian and runology and Secretary of the Viking Society to boot), Nielsen’s paper essentially has the blessing of some of the establishment. Before Nielsen’s paper, it may have been a little easier to take potshots at the stone and its defenders. But the playing field has changed, and the skeptics must now find it necessary to go through a more rigorous process in order to properly attempt an answer to Nielsen’s evidence. No wonder the skeptical reaction has been muted. Scandinavian Studies has put the paper on its Web site to elicit discussion.

The Kensington Runestone, ghettoized for so long, is officially playing with the big boys.

The Tip of the Iceberg
What are the implications of an authenticated Kensington Runestone? What new avenues of discovery have been blown open by this scientific blockbuster?

Whoever the carver was, he was part of an “acquisition expedition” of eight Goths and 22 Northmen from the year 1362, smack dab in the middle of the North American continent. The Goths would have been from what is now western Sweden, and the Northmen could have been from anywhere else in Scandinavia.

In his article in the Journal of the West, Hanson, building upon previous work by Nielsen, speculates that the origin of the expedition may actually be related to the strange disappearance of a settlement in Greenland over 600 years ago: “It is known that the Western settlement in Greenland had a bad series of winters starting in 1308 … In 1341, the settlement was discovered gone by Ivar Bardson, the bishop at Gardar in the Eastern settlement. There was no sign of violence or devastation; there were even some stray cattle roaming around. Some 1,500 people simply left in their boats, with many of their possessions. No one knows where they went, but it is suspected that these same people regularly visited the Ungava Bay area for wood, caribou and fish. They also probably were familiar with the Hudson Bay area, because there is evidence that they were at the Chesterfield inlet for iron and other parts of the Bay for polar bears and eider down. Based upon the types of fur they are known to have, it is strongly suspected that these Greenlanders traded with the natives of the region. … Travel up the Hayes or Nelson rivers would be quite possible for the ‘Greenlanders.’”

When asked to speculate further about the people who carved the stone, Hanson explained that his guess is that “they were from mainland Europe but associated somehow with the Greenlanders that had migrated from the abandoned Western colony. … There most likely was an existing population of (the Greenlanders) in the area of the stone. Other artifacts including two boat hulls have been reported in this area, at approximately the 1,370-foot elevation. … 1,370 feet is the same elevation as remnant shore erosion features at KRS hill (water levels used to be higher in the area and KRS hill used to be an island). I think they took their time doing the stone. The KRS hill maybe was the ‘home base.’” Hanson thinks that other artifacts will be found in the vicinity of Kensington Runestone hill and possibly to the east a few miles.

Is there any other existing evidence to support this new view of early European penetration into North America? In addition to the reports of actual ancient boat hulls mentioned above, there is a plethora of hitherto unacknowledged artifacts that may soon be getting a second look in the wake of the stunning resolution to the Kensington Runestone controversy.

For instance, there are the triangular holes of the Whetstone Valley in South Dakota and many more in western Minnesota. These consist of hundreds of unexplained triangular holes, 5 to 7 inches deep, in large rocks all across western Minnesota and northeast South Dakota. They do not appear to be blasting holes made by pioneers. Could they be mooring holes?

There are also the so-called Chippewa Valley axes, periodically plowed up out of virgin soil. Mostly in the hands of private collectors, these ax-heads could represent medieval-era, hand-forged, precrucible steel, and have no known counterparts in any mainstream American museum. At any rate, they have never been properly identified or studied.

There are also what appear to be habitation sites, discovered two or three feet underground via the remote sensing emitted infrared technology developed by Marion Dahm of Chokio, Minn.

And lastly, of course, there are about half a dozen other runestones. They are all smaller and less well-known than the Kensington Runestone. But after what happened to Olof Ohman, is it any wonder that the discoverers of these other stones might have chosen silence, instead of scrutiny?

Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson are the brother team behind the RipSaw’s weekly “Gonzo Science” column. Jim lives in Duluth and Allen in Albuquerque, N.M. Their e-mail address is gonzoscience@ hotmail.com. Richard Nielsen’s paper, Response to Dr. James Knirk’s Essay on the Kensington Runestone, is the first comprehensive treatment of the language of the stone to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. It may be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat Reader file from www.byu.edu/sasslink/pdf/krs.pdf.

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