11 February 2021

The Kensington Runestone is fake


The Kensington Runestone is viewed by reputable scholars as a modern fake artifact.
The Kensington Runestone is a 202-pound (92 kg) slab of greywacke stone covered in runes reportedly discovered in central Minnesota in 1898. Olof Öhman, a Swedish immigrant, reported that he unearthed it from a field in the largely rural township of Solem in Douglas County. It was later named after the nearest settlement, Kensington.

The inscription purports to be a record left behind by Scandinavian explorers in the 14th century (internally dated to the year 1362). There has been a drawn-out debate on the stone's authenticity, but the scholarly consensus has classified it as a 19th-century hoax since the time it was first examined in 1910, with some critics directly charging the purported discoverer Öhman with fabricating the inscription. Nevertheless there remains a community convinced of the stone's authenticity.
I have a personal bias in favor of "diffusionism" - the concept that ancient peoples spread their ideas, skills, languages, and genes more widely and successfully than is generally appreciated.  Because of that bias (and my Norwegian ancestry), I have always wanted to believe in the runestone as valid.  But the arguments against it from the academic community have been persistent and emphatic.  One of the authoritative texts in that regard is Theodore Blegen's "The Kensington Rune Stone: New Light on an Old Riddle," published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1968.  Blegen was a professor of history at Hamline and the University of Minnesota and the dean of its graduate school.  His book explored in detail the circumstances of the stone's discovery and the people involved, and his conclusions that the stone is fake were based on runology, without any analysis of petrology or geology.
"The circumstances that envelop the Kensington story begin with the striking fact, hitherto little appreciated, that among the Scandinavian pioneers in Minnesota in the 1890s and earlier there were not a few persons, incluidng laymen, who well understood runes."

"... authoritative runologists, with no dissenting voices, have pronounced
the inscription modern
..."

"... a second circumstance... is that the Kensington stone was dug up on the land of a Swedish-American farmer in a Scandinavian community, in a state with a large Scandinavian population.  These facts defy easy explanation."

"... Turner's suggestion that the "stone could have been placed under the tree so that the roots could in a few years have clasped" the stone.  Ohman spoke of the stunted appearance of the tree.  One wonders what made it stunted."

"The inscription is a fake.  The evidence points to a hoax, with Olof Ohman as the principal originator."
The all-encompassing objection to the runestone's validity lies in the argument that "it doesn't make sense that 14th-century Scandinavians would travel to the middle of North America," and therefore the stone and its inscription are a priori fake.

Travel to North America by Vikings is a well-documented fact; extensive studies have been conducted at L'Anse aux Meadows on the shore of Newfoundland:


That site was occupied three hundred years before the date of the Kensington runestone's inscription.  Could Vikings have explored up the St. Lawrence River and through the Great Lakes?  Could they have entered Hudson Bay and then ventured southward to Lake Winnipeg and further?

Kensington is not located on a river.  But it is located almost equidistant from three major watersheds:  the Red River draining north to Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes draining east to the Atlantic, and the Mississippi draining south to the Gulf of Mexico.  As such, laying claim to territory in this region would give a trader a major advantage in transporting goods to and from various cultures, and the Vikings of the 1300s were world-famous traders, not just warriors.  It is neither impossible nor unreasonable for explorers to have reached central Minnesota in the 1300s.  There are bills of lading for beaver furs in London for the period 1380-1420.  These furs arrived in Basque ships baled in the Canadian fashion (as opposed to being packed in barrels as Russian beaver pelts were). Whether the runestone is evidence of visitors to the mid-continent or not must be based on the stone itself.

That is the purpose of the book illustrated at the top.  The Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence was published in 2006 to bring together all available evidence about the stone and its runes.  I found it to be a fascinating read.

Consider the inscribed runes.  There have been objections since day one that there is evidence of recent scratching in some of the grooves.  That is not disputed.  The family who unearthed the stone said at the time that they had used nails to scrape dirt out of some grooves so they could try to read the runes; these scratches are not evidence of fakery.  What is new since the publication of Blegen's book are the results of scanning electron microscopy of the stone (Blegen specifically ignored petrological and geological findings re the stone in the 1940s).  The images (reproduced in the Nielsen/Wolter book) show that the biotite mica grains on the surface of the native stone and in the unscratched grooves of the runes show similar weathering, indicating that the unscratched grooves are at least 200 years old (similar to the weathering of mica in 200-year-old gravestones in colonial New England cemeteries), so nobody living in the late 19th century could have been involved in a hoax re carving the runes. This weathering is not present on a known fake runestone (the "AVM stone") which was carved at about this same time.  [This doesn't eliminate the possibility of the runes on the stone having been carved by explorers (fur traders, soldiers etc.) centuries ago, pre-statehood.]

Another suggestion that the stone could have been inscribed in medieval times comes from a rune called "the dotted R."  There are two of them on the stone.  The "dotted R" rune was not known to science in 1898, when the Kensington Stone was unearthed.  Many of the early efforts to debunk the stone (cited in the Blegen book) emphasize that there are runes on the stone which "do not exist" and must have been made in error by this Minnesota farmer.  No runologist or other Scandinavian scholar had ever seen a "dotted R" and it was not in any books, so it could not have been copied.  This "dotted R" ("palatal R" pronunciation) was in use on Gotland during the last half of the 1300s.

Additional evidence against Olof Ohman (the discoverer) having forged the runes is that he wrote his personal correspondence using the Swedish "A dialect" with words ending in "a" ("dissa" for "this") while the runes are written in the "E dialect" ("fiske" rather than "fiska.")  In one of his personal books he has written the words "dod" for "death" and "resor" for "travel," while on the stone are the words "ded" for "death" and "rise" for "travel."
"In 1935 the dotted R first came to the attention of runologists on an inscription (Sm 145) in the Ukna church in Smaland, Sweden [dated about 1300]... Another inscription with two dotted Rs was found in the 1938 excavation of a medieval site in Lund, Sweden from the elder Middle Danish perios, circa 1200... The first dotted R to be noticed on the Kensington Rune Stone was sighted by Erik Wahlgren in 1958 in the word norr (north)..."
So, here's a rune that was in use in Sweden (and Gotland) in the 13th and 14th century but was not known to anyone until 40 years after the Kensington Stone was unearthed.  If any readers have newer information on this subject, please chime in in the comments.

One aspect of the Kensington runestone that troubles me is my feeling that a group of explorers/traders of the 14th century would not have been so upset by a slaughter of some comrades that they would have carved the event in runes; more likely IMHO they would have said "too bad about Sven and Ole.  Let's move on."  

The Nielsen/Wolter book has extensive details on the mineralogy of the rock and on runology and ancient and modern Swedish dialects.  The book unfortunately fails in not having had a proper proofreading re English spelling and grammar ("slight of hand," "aggitatedly," "whomever carved the stone," "emmigrates," etc) but those are cosmetic rather than substantive faults.  And the efforts to tie some of the runes to Templars and Teutonic knights seems contrived and unnecessary.

I would be delighted to hear informed commentary from readers of this blog who may have expertise or information relevant to this topic.

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to reader Fester, for locating this video (by a professor of Norse language) that effectively demolishes the idea that the runestone dates to the 14th century.  The language depicted on the stone is consistent with a 19th-century creation.  

20 comments:

  1. Not familiar with this, but plan to look at it. Sounds intriguing.

    Copy editor in me: Fourth paragraph from the end, last sentence, "never" should be "newer?"

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  2. I did find the article cited below. Seems to be a balanced and well researched piece. The "R" with the dot is mentioned and they cite an issue with one of the words which the authors assert was not extant in medieval times. Anyway, interesting reading.

    "Nevertheless, we return to the word opdagelse, which first made an appearance among members of the American Scandinavian community in 1889. This ought to give us a terminus post quem (earliest possible date) for the writing of the inscription."

    http://www.badarchaeology.com/out-of-place-artefacts/petroglyphs-inscriptions-and-reliefs/the-kensington-runestone/

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    1. Thank you for posting that link. Not only is it a lengthy discussion, but there are also about 150 comments, many of which are informed by knowledgeable persons. The suggestion that maybe the "1362" carved on the runestone was meant to be "1862" is interesting.

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  3. the north eastern coast of north america was regularly visited by europeans starting at least four to five hundred years before 'columbus sailed the ocean blue'. they came to fish and to exploit the natural resources of that land. staying for the summer was fine; wintering over was not worth the effort. note the word 'europeans'. 'vikings' (scandinavians / greenlanders / icelanders) were not the only ones who sailed over.

    I-)

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  4. another notion to get rid of is that 'ancient' peoples were sedentary. they traveled around quite a bit. maybe not everyone, but there were individuals and small groups who did. it may have taken them a year or two to go 'there' and back, but it was done. trading took place across hundreds if not thousands of miles. 'vikings' had trade routes to the middle east through russia and ukraine.

    I-)



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  5. My objection would be that there haven't been any (at least according to my clicky-click on Wikipedia) other verifiable runestones between L'Anse aux Meadows and Kensington. Imagine Swedish/Viking/European travelers as a swarm of boats randomly bouncing around the coastline; you would expect a lot more artifacts to be found close to L'Anse aux Meadows, still a lot upstream (e.g. around Quebec), and some still around the lakes than way far away in land locked Kensington.

    I don't buy the dotted R excuse. Just because the dotted R wasn't documented in the rune literature until later doesn't mean Mr. Olaf didn't see one earlier. The dotted Rs did exist 1000 years ago. Who knows what he saw or learned back home in Sweden.

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    1. I don't understand your second paragraph. If no dotted Rs had been found before 1898, where would Mr. Ohman have seen one? If they were known in Sweden they would have been in the Swedish rune literature.

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    2. Just because the earliest document search for dotted-Rs (done in 1958) found something in 1935 doesn't exhaustively prove that dotted-Rs were not known before 1935. Searches are not exhaustive, and paper documents get lost in fires.

      It's more probable that he either saw a dotted R somewhere in Sweden (on some church for example), talked to a rune historian, or he used artistic license to put a dot in the R (and got lucky), than he found a very unlikely runestone in Minnesota.

      Here are some interesting historical photos of runes, with them being defaced by well meaning historians:

      https://mashable.com/2017/01/07/runestones-of-sweden/

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  6. I'd like to strongly recommend the "Bad Archaeology" website's take on this for those of you who want to dig deeper. The evidence that this is a fraud is very, very solid, including many evidentiary and cultural issues beyond those discussed here. Here's the link:

    http://www.badarchaeology.com/out-of-place-artefacts/petroglyphs-inscriptions-and-reliefs/the-kensington-runestone/

    Personally, as a scanda-hoovian with UP roots, I'd love to believe in Vikings roaming around Lake Superior in the 1300's. But I'm someone whose teenage fascination with UFO's, bigfoot, Kirlian auras, psychics, Chariots of the Gods, etc. led me to a career in science (I'm a professor at a major university). I was sorely disappointed to find so few of these things had any real data supporting them.

    You know what's worse? I quickly learned how very committed humans are to making their fantasies into reality; fraud, plain and simple. The nicest people you'd ever meet can be utterly committed to things they want badly to be real even when there's no evidence at all to support their beliefs.

    Here's how I characterize the problem; we're so very willing to accept chains of logic where each step seems "mostly right" that we forget these errors compound. You known what happens if you bet your life on a machine where there are 10 connected parts that are each 95% reliable? you bet wrong 40% of the time.

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    1. Even better at debunking the stone is this video -

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWvRtlyTaUc

      that Fester located. It effectively proves that the runes were carved in recent times.

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  7. Got 42 minutes to hear from an expert?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWvRtlyTaUc

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    1. Thank you, Fester. That's exactly what I was hoping someone could provide. I've added a link to that video at the end of the body of the post.

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  8. Thomas Reiersgord’s The Kensington Rune Stone- Its Place in History is the only book I’ve read that attempts to give a cultural and historical background to the stone. The linguistic experts efforts are impressive and conclusive but can't negate the fact that there were Europeans in North America in the 1300s (and earlier). It;s a great story, true or not.

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  9. There is a similar story supposedly from a similar time about a Knight Templar rock in Westford MA.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westford_Knight

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  10. I first learned of the KRS years ago in an article in the old American Heritage. I was as mildly interested as a 10-year old could be.
    Decades later, after a PhD in Anthropology, I got wrapped up in it again on the old Usenet group Sci-Archeo, with a bunch of not just Diffusionists, but Hyper-Diffusionists (q.v.).
    A couple of years ago, I had cause to be in Minnesota [picking up a nice little travel trailer], and stopped by Kensington to take a look. Very nicely done. Nice straight lines, which seemed to me then, and I have not seen anything to refute it, too neat, almost like a written book. Very different from other runestones.

    I now live in the next town over from Westford, and drive past the "Knight" at least once a month, if not more often. The best I can say is that it is proof that people who can see dragons in clouds can see knights in stones. [The thing is right next to the road, and is so badly weathered that the owners have put up a sign showing what one is supposed to see.]

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  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Str%C3%A4ngn%C3%A4s_stone appeared in the front page of Wikipedia this morning. Similar debates about authenticity of a runic fragment in Sweden

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  12. My family is from that area. My grandfather was a Swedish dairy farmer in Pope County. Something that none of the theories take into account is the bizarre sense of humor a lot of these people possess. The idea of carving a bunch of runes into a stone and fooling all those city folk and their book learning would have been enormously entertaining. But part of the joke would be to never admit that it was a joke.

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    Replies
    1. My grandparents were Norwegian dairy farmers down in Rice and Goodhue Counties, and I would definitely agree with you.

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