The Kensington Rune Stone
Ronald O. Hietala
About the Lecture
In 1898 a farmer clearing land dug a stone out of the ground in western Minnesota. His son found artificial marks on the stone which were later discovered to be Norse runes, characters of the medieval Norse alphabet. The touching message on the stone indicated an ill-fated expedition of Swedes and Norwegians from Vinland (!) reached that point in 1362! The stone presented, and presents, an awful problem and a wonderful mystery. After being walked on by cattle and rejected by the Smithsonian Institution, the stone still exists. It lies in a small museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, hard evidence of a tremendous archeological discovery or a hoax of enormous dimension. Early scholars quickly dismissed the stone as a hoax. Although the circumstances of the discovery of the stone make the hoax theory difficult to believe, most scholars since then have accepted it. Discoveries made in the hundred years since, however, make it appear far more likely that the stone is genuine.
About the Speaker
Ronald O. Hietala is an organizational psychologist who provides consulting services in training, managerial skills, and organizational development. He lives and works in the Washington area. He has been a member of the Philosophical Society of Washington for more than 20 years and served as president of the Society in 1989. He has an abiding interest in scientific and historical mysteries, and has sporadically followed the Kensington rune stone controversy for 40 years.
President-Elect McDiarmid called the 2117th meeting to order at 8:15 p.m. on April 14, 2000. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2116th meeting and they were approved.
The speaker for the 2117th meeting was Former President of the Society, Ronald O. Hietala. The title of his presentation was “The Kensington Rune Stone”.
Mr. Hietala said that for almost 50 years his favorite Norse saga has been one that began in August 1898 on a farm outside Kensington, in western Minnesota. Olaf Ohman, a Swedish immigrant farmer, was “grubbing out” a tree at least 30 to 50 year old in a field he was clearing. He claimed he discovered a large stone entangled in the roots of the tree. The stone was cut 91 centimeters by 41 centimeters wide by 14 centimeter, and weighed 104 kilograms. His son cleaned the stone and found writing on it later identified as medieval Norse runes. The stone was sent to be translated by scholars at Northwestern University.
The dramatic story in the runes told of an ill-fated journey of exploration by 8 Goths (Swedes) and 22 Norwegians far to the West from the Vinland settlement in 1362. They had left their ships, presumably on Hudson Bay and after a 14 day's journey inland made camp by two rocky islands one day's journey north of the stone. Part of the group had gone fishing and when they returned to the camp they found “ten men red with blood and dead” presumably killed by native Indians.
After a translation of the runes appeared, opinion was split on whether or not the stone was a hoax. At that time the site of the Vinland colony was not known and the saga of its founding was not generally believed. The stone was returned to Olaf and he used it as a stepping stone in his cattle yard. Years later Mr. Ohman offered the stone to the Smithsonian Institution. After they rejected it, he gave it to a Wisconsin historian and it now lies in a small museum in Alexandria, Minnesota.
The stone presents an awful problem. Some scholars believe that the language on the stone has features that are not consistent with language of the 1300's, and since Ohman owned a book about runes, many experts believe the stone could be a forgery. Others argue that the message could only have been written by someone with great knowledge of the Norse language of the 1300's. Further, it appears that some of the runes on the lower left are encrusted in limestone that could only have been deposited during partial submersion in water over a long period of time, making forgery by Mr. Ohman highly unlikely.
The Vinland saga says that Leif Ericson founded Vinland, a land west of Greenland, in about 1000. Viking boats were fast, single rigged with oars, and had a shallow draft making them suitable for river navigation. In 1961 the archaeological remains of a Viking settlement were found at L'Anse aux Meadows, near St. Lunaire, Newfoundland. It had been inhabited for at least ten years, but historians believe that the Vikings had to abandon it soon after that because they could not defend it against hostile Indians. Although the discovery of a possible Vinland site makes the story on Kensington stone more believable, the apparently brief duration of this colony makes it unlikely that this was the Vinland of the saga, which was represented as a permanent colony. The real Vinland may yet be discovered.
Mr. Hietala kindly answered questions from the floor. President-Elect McDiarmid thanked Mr. Hietala for the Society. The President-Elect then announced the next meeting, the 69th Joseph Henry Lecture, made the usual parking announcement and adjourned the 2117th meeting to the social hour at 9:37 p.m.
John S. Garavelli