The Kensington Runestone.
December 12, 2000 3:31 AM   Subscribe

The Kensington Runestone. In 1898 a farmer in Minnesota named Olaf Ohmann, dug up from his property a stone covered in runes (viking enscriptions). When it was deciphered it read:

8 Goths (Swedes) and 22 Norwegians on a voyage of discovery from Vinland (of) the West...

Read more inside.
posted by lagado (22 comments total)

Ah dang! I was expectring some sort of punchline!
posted by black8 at 3:35 AM on December 12, 2000

The inscription went on to say:

We had a camp by 2 skerries one day journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgin Mary) save (us) from evil.

On the side of the stone it read:

(We) have 10 men of (ours) by the sea to look after our ships 14 day journeys north from this island. Year 1362

The Kensington Runestone has been often dismissed as a hoax. If genuine, however, it would open a completely new chapter in our understanding of medieval history. It would mean that not only did the Norse explore far wider areas of the North American continent than was previously supposed, but that the Norse era of exploration lasted centuries longer than historians have believed (i.e. at least as recently as a 130 years before Columbus).

A recent scientific test of the stone now suggests that it is, in fact, authentic.
posted by lagado at 3:37 AM on December 12, 2000

beat me to the punch, black8
posted by lagado at 3:38 AM on December 12, 2000

I'm still skeptical, but not because I have any entrenched beliefs about the stone. The experts they've hired have pretty tenuous credentials, and they appear to have been hired specifically to prove the stone is genuine. Impartial experts (with one exception*) have always agreed the stone is a hoax. Until I see someone with real standing argue in a peer-reviewed publication, I'm not convinced.

Lagado, thanks as always for the good links.

(*Exception: Robert A. Hall, The Kensington Rune Stone is Genuine.)
posted by rodii at 6:44 AM on December 12, 2000

Yes, the article does read a bit like a press release.
posted by lagado at 7:12 AM on December 12, 2000

The Kensington Stone is mentioned in a chapter of poet and novelist Evan S. Connell's excellent book of essays, The White Lantern. Linguistic experts think it's a fraud because the runes aren't right -- it invents a runic "j" and uses an anachronistic "Ø." Further, it seems to have been carved with a one-inch steel chisel. The article didn't address either of these points, so I'm still inclined to come down on the side of the skeptics.
posted by snarkout at 8:07 AM on December 12, 2000

I read a fair amount of an interesting book called Atlantis In America that offers up some challenging viewpoints on the subject of ancient maritime travels, and they don't even involve UFO's.

One point that the authors of this book made was the idea that ancient sailors travelled by raft, as opposed to the bulky Galleons sent over from Spain and the like. In fact, someone sailed a raft TWICE across the ocean to prove the point, only to have his feat dismissed as "junk science". I wish I could refer directly to the book as it's been awhile since I laid eyes on it.
posted by ethmar at 9:26 AM on December 12, 2000

Thor Heyerdol's Kon Tiki voyages are a fun read if anyone is looking for a good book about travelling by raft....

but ancient maritime exploits aside, i don't think that is the issue really? We know that vikings hit north america, and some even think chinese ships made it to the west coast. Could be. Doesn't mean the Rune stone is genuine...if it had been in the field of someone who wasn't obviously of Viking decent--Olaf?--i might be more inclined to believe it. The 19th century was notorious for archaelogical fraud. Stones, manuscripts, golden metal plates, skeletons, fossils, giants....
posted by th3ph17 at 9:51 AM on December 12, 2000

I'm part Swede, and I'm a skeptic. Mainly because, as an historian, I would like to see more context for a discovery of this purported magnitude.

At the same time, I'm all for a more expansive history of discovery. It's clear there was exploration and trade. European fisherman reached the Grand Banks long before anyone came over here to colonize. I'm even open to newer theories of how North America was populated. That doesn't mean that a massive expedition traveled up the Great Lakes or overland from Hudson Bay (why?).

There's a guy out there with a theory that the Eskimo language is derived from Basque and Norwegian, or some such. That's clear nonsense. But I'm willing to believe they made landfall at various times, even if only by mistake.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 AM on December 12, 2000

Regarding the raft: a group tried and failed twice to cross the Atlantic from Africa by raft, both times to have the raft fall apart. Each time they used traditional methods of preserving food and storing water; the only modern things they carried were compasses, LORAN receivers, decent charts, and radios with which to call for help if they needed it.

Then they tried something else. There's a way of making ships out of reeds which is well developed by South American natives who use them for fishing vessels on lakes in Peru; the resulting ship looks quite interesting, for it has a prow and a stern, but rather than being hollow, it's solid reeds. Its main component is two long tapered bundles of reeds, with other structures built on top, along with a mast and a square sail. All of it is built out of material which would have been readily available to the Egyptians.

This same group brought some South American natives over to Africa and got them to build one of these vessels for them. And then the group succeeded in sailing it across to South America.

Now these were people trying to prove a link between the Egyptians and the Maya, just as Thor Heyerdahl was trying to prove that the Polynesians could have started in South America.

Unfortunately, despite the success of both efforts to show that it could be done, archeological and linguistic evidence tends strongly to suggest that neither actually happened. Now they've started using genetic tests, as well, and the best guess is the Polynesians began in Australia, and the Maya were native and part of the same Amer-Indian population spread all over the entire double continent.

"A beautiful theory destroyed by an ugly little fact."

In the mean time, there is now solid and unambiguous evidence that the Vikings did establish actual villages in the Maritimes; they've actually excavated a couple. It's not really implausible; it's really not much further from Greenland to Nova Scotia than it is from Iceland to Greenland, or from Norway to Iceland. It was easily within the reach of Viking sea-going technology of the era.

A different and more interesting thing: European fishermen may have discovered and have been exploiting the George's Banks long before the Columbus voyage. For those not familiar with it, it's an area very fertile with fish (or at least it used to be, before it was overharvested) somewhat south of Greenland and to the west in what is now considered international waters; such fishermen might actually have found the Maritimes and landed there to replenish supplies of fresh water. No direct records exist, however, only hints; it would have been considered what we now think of as an "industrial secret" and not communicated because it was so valuable. For Portugese fishermen, it would have been a longer voyage than the one Columbus took.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:00 AM on December 12, 2000

Basque is interesting because it's the only major European language which is not part of the Indo-European group. Also, the Basque have a far higher proportion of type-B blood than any other group on earth. (Some think that's where the original mutation took place, and that everyone who is type B gets it indirectly from them.)

It's conjectured that the Basque are what remain of whoever were living in Europe before the invasion of the people who spoke Indo-European languages, and were eventually squeezed into a small part of the continent down in Spain and France.

In fact, Basque doesn't appear to be closely related to any other known language.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:04 AM on December 12, 2000

Uhhh, aren't you forgetting Finnish? (The various Sami dialects probably don't count as major European languages, but they're also Finno-Ugric; Maltese, a Semitic language, is spoken by almost no one, but it's Semetic.) And I can't remember whether Magyar is Finno-Ugric or Turkic, but it's not Indo-European either, and I'd assume that Magyar-speaking Hungarians outnumber Basque speakers.

That said, Basque is still frigging weird.

On the subject of Viking visits to the New World, are there any scholars who doubted that there were Vikings here pre-Columbus? Or is/was the dispute over the time and geographic range of Viking visits? And if so, what's the consensus? (Not a leading question -- I only know what Connell mentioned, although he did cite a few lonely pieces of physical evidence, namely anthracite coal, that seem to indicate that Europeans ranged as far south as Rhode Island.)
posted by snarkout at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2000

where's that rodii fellow when you need him? ;-j

steven: You're right that the linguistic evidence blows away any popular hypothesis about the Polynesians starting out in South America. For the record, the Polynesians started out in China and not Australia. Their language is part of a group called Austronesian just to be confusing.

snarkout: The Hungarians and other non-Indoeuropeans in most cases arrived in europe much later. Basque appears to be the only remaining aboriginal language. Malta is really peripheral to "europe". After all entire southern and eastern mediterranean speak Semitic languages (except for the Turks who arrived last of all).

Most scholars accept that the Vikings actually did arrive in North America pre-Columbus. There has been evidence unearthed of the remains of Viking settlement. The Icelandic Sagas mention the settlement in the land of Vinland which is generally taken to be a part of North America. They did after all colonize Greenland for a while so its not all that hard to imagine.

posted by lagado at 3:23 PM on December 12, 2000

Oh, sure -- Finnish and Magyar are the result of incursions of the dreaded Hun. (Side note: To be consistant, I should say Finnish and Hungarian, as I can't remember what the Finnish word for "Finnish" is.) I just wanted to point out that although Basque is uniquely weird, it's a misstatement to say that it's the only non-Indo-European language in common use in Europe. (I believe a small minority of folk claim that Basque bears certain similarities to other language groups, but most people think that it's an orphan language.)

Linguistic mysteries are fun! Anyone want to tackle Rapanui, the now-deceased written language of the Easter Islanders?

Re: Vikings, has any consensus emerged since Connell wrote his book in the '80s about where precisely Vinland was? And whether it's Vinland or Vínland (that is, "Vineland" or "Meadowland," which determines how far you place the settlement)?
posted by snarkout at 3:50 PM on December 12, 2000

Koff. Excuse me; I meant "Rongorongo, the now-deceased written language of Rapanui [Easter Island]." My linguistic mystery credibility has been shot to pieces!
posted by snarkout at 3:53 PM on December 12, 2000

Re: the Vikings. The PBS site associated with the NOVA that aired earlier this year is really informative. The impact of the Vikings appear to have had a much more lasting impact in Russia, where they established the Rus dynasty, which led to the modern Russian state. They established trading routes that went as far as the Caliphate of Baghdad. It's also cool to note they raided Constantinople not once but four times.
posted by norm at 5:38 PM on December 12, 2000

Yes, the Russians don't often talk about the germanic origins of the Russian nation.
posted by lagado at 6:50 PM on December 12, 2000

If you want the real deal about lingustic origins, go no futher than Edo Nyland's homepage.
posted by Jart at 7:48 PM on December 12, 2000

Well, I hoped that Edo Nyland would be useful until I read the bottom of this page and realized he's a nut. "All highly developed languages on earth (except possibly Chinese) can be shown to have been developed from the original Saharan language..."

In a pig's eye.

He seems to have forgotten all about such "advanced languages" as Navajo, which is extremely sophisticated and not even remotely related to any old-world tongues.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:34 PM on December 12, 2000

Right, Steven. And that's why most linguists are reluctant to get into these discussions--there are SO many nuts out there. Every other "retired professor of geo-physics" has can show how Proto-World is really Albanian and for God's sake if only you people would just listen! After a while, it just makes you tired.

Warning: incredibly long post to follow. Please forgive me.

Some theories are perhaps wrong but not crackpot. One of these is the one mentioned above that links Basque and (not Inuit but) the Na-Dene languages of North America (e.g., Navajo, Apache, Slave and Dogrib). This is probably a reference to the Russian linguists Aron Dolgopolsky (now in Israel) and Sergei Starostin. They are working out a theory that groups many languages into three gynormous cross-Pacific families:

A southern one that links the purported Nostratic family (Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian) with some others in Asia (I think Austronesian is one) and much of the purported and controversial Amerinidian, which includes all languages of the Americas except for the Na-Dene and Inuit families.

A middle stripe with links Basque, Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dene. (This is the wildest and farthest out hypothesis of all; it's based partly on the fact that Basque and Caucasian seem to be the last vestiges of what were once much more widespread families--maybe the same family)

A "northern stripe" consisting of Paleo-Siberian languages (Chukchi, Gilyak, Nivkh and some others, I think), Aleut and Inuit (Eskimo).

Dolgopolsky claims to have real comparative linguistic evidence for all these claims. Most linguists are skeptical but Starostin in particular has a lot of credibility (he's probably the world's preeminent expert on Caucasian languages), so... we'll see. One of my teachers, crazy man Vitaly Shevoroshkin, is convinced. I'm not a historical linguist (tho I used to play one in the classroom) so I dunno.

Don't get me started on Thor Heyherdahl ("It could have happened, so it must have happened!") or the million-and-one other crank theories: Mayans, Egyptians, Lamanites, Welsh, Mandans, Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, Zuni, Japanese, Tamil, Barsoomian, Macchu Picchu, spacemen of the Andes, Hy-Brasil, Dr. Dolittle, Noachian, Aquaman last king of Atlantis, Mohenjo-Daro, lost continent of Mu, blah blah blah. . .

I could go on (you mean I haven't?).
posted by rodii at 9:25 PM on December 12, 2000

Yes, he sure looks like a crank to me.

For some context here are a couple of interesting articles by Mark Rosenfelder debunking this kind of approach:

Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home. Including the English/Chinese Pseudo-Cognate List!

How likely are chance resemblances between languages? - Quite likely, really. A statistical investigation.

posted by lagado at 9:46 PM on December 12, 2000

also on the comparative method:

How do linguists decide that languages are related?
posted by lagado at 9:53 PM on December 12, 2000

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