Discovery

Olof Ohman and family in the 1890s

Olof Ohman and his family in the 1890s

In 1898, Olof Ohman ((Öhman) 1854-1935, né Olsson and born in Forsa, Hälsingland, Sweden) was clearing away trees from a hillock on his farm in Solem (about 3 km north-north-east of Kensington, Minnesota, USA), when he discovered a stone entangled in the roots of a poplar (sometimes known as aspen or cottonwood) at a depth of around 15 cm (6 inches); the precise day of discovery is not known: according to some accounts, it was in August, while others give the date as 8 November. Nearby trees said to be of the same size as the felled example were examined in 1910 and found to be thirty to forty years old, based on a count of their growth rings, suggesting that the stone had been in the ground since before about 1880. The stone is carved from greywacke, is 79 cm long, 41 cm wide and 14 cm thick (31×16×5½ inches: these are maximum dimensions, as the stone is not perfectly rectangular) and weighs around 104 kg (230 lb). One face bears an inscription consisting of nine lines of runes (with the end of line 8 consisting of three Latin letters, AVM), while one side (to the left if one is looking at the inscribed face) has three more lines of runes; allegedly, it was Olof’s ten-year-old son Carl Edward (1888-1950) who first spotted the inscription, as it had been lying face down in the ground. The stone has broken along natural lines of cleavage and none of the faces was dressed in preparation for the inscription; Ohman cleaned the letters of the inscription on the side with the point of a nail, but is not said to have cleaned the main inscription in this way.

The Kensington Runestone

The Runestone displayed in the Runestone Museum

Because Ohman’s family was of Scandinavian origin (as were many settlers in the area), the symbols were soon recognised as runes, although Ohman claimed that he first thought it was an ancient “Indian almanac”. This is curious, as Ohman owned books with accounts of runes and they were still used by Scandinavians in folk texts. Runes were an ancient north European writing system that probably first developed in the second century CE under Roman influence and which were regularly taught to Scandinavian schoolchildren in the nineteenth century. On 1 January 1899, the mayor of Kensington, John P Hedberg (1853-after 1933), sent a copy of the inscription was to his friend Swan Johan Turnblad (1860-1933, né Sven Johan Olofsson), owner of Svenska Amerikanska Posten (an American Swedish language newspaper). The newspaper published translations on 14 and 28 March 1899, although it had been pre-empted by the Minneapolis Journal, which had already published one on 24 February. The stone itself was put on display in a bank (although one account available on the web describes it incorrectly as a “drugstore”). In view of the subsequent controversy over the authenticity of the stone, it is worth noting that Ohman never sought to make money from his discovery.

Over the years, a number of transcriptions and translations have been made of the runes on the stone, of which the best known is that of Hjalmar Holand, first published in 1908. They have varied only in minor details. The most recent, by Richard Nielsen, published in The Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence, coauthored with Scott Wolter and published in 2005, has introduced some minor changes, with Nielsen arguing that the thau-rune, Þ, may have an additional value, /t/. His new transcription thus reads:

8 g:öter: ok : 22 : norrmen : po :
…o: opþagelsefardþ : fro :
vinlanþ : of : vest : vi :
hafþe : läger : veþ : 2 : skŁar : en :
þags : rise : norr : fro : þeno : sten :
vi : var : ok : fiske : en : þagh : äptir :
vi : kom : hem: fan : 10 : man : röþe :
af : bloþ : og : þeþ : AVM
fräelse : af : illu

här : 10 : mans : ve : havet : at : se :
äptir : vore : skip : 14 : þagh : rise :
from : þeno : öh : ahr : 1362

Nielsen translates:

8 Götalanders and 22 Northmen on
this reclaiming/plundering journey far
to the west from Vinland. We
had a camp by 2 shelters one
day’s journey north from this stone.
We were fishing one day. After
we came home we found 10 men red
from blood and death. Ave Maria,
Save from evil.

There are 10 men by the sea
to look after our ships 14 days’ journey
from this island. Year 1362.

If genuine, this is clearly a document of huge importance for the history of the European exploration of North America. It claims that a part of eight Goths (Swedes) and twenty-two Northmen (Norwegians) had reached the mid West of the USA, setting out from Vinland, far to the east; ten of the party had been killed at a camp by a lake one day’s journey to the north (Kensington lies to the south of an area of numerous lakes). Ten other men had been left to guard their ships at a location fourteen days’ journey from the site, which is described as an “island”, although at the time of discovery, it was a hillock.

First analyses

Olaus Breda

Olaus Breda

Olaus Jensen Breda (1853-1916), Professor of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Minnesota, was the first scholar to examine a copy of the inscription, in January 1899; some accounts claim that he never saw the original stone, while Hjalmar Holand’s account states that he was sent it. It appears that he was sent a hand-written copy of the text by J P Hedberg; it is not clear how Holand got this detail wrong. Breda was dismissive of its authenticity, believing it to be a poor attempt at forging an eleventh-century text and an illiterate mixture of Norwegian, Swedish and English (exactly as would be expected from a forgery concocted by a nineteenth-century Scandinavian settler in Minnesota), an opinion shared by scholars in Scandinavia to whom he forwarded copies. Nevertheless, he published a translation on 22 February 1899, the first apparently to do so.

In February 1899, the stone was sent to George Oliver Curme (1860-1948), a linguist at Northwestern University, who arranged for it to be photographed by John Fletcher Steward (1841-1915?), an amateur geologist. Curme was sceptical of the inscription’s medieval origin and noted that although the stone appeared weathered, the inscription was lighter in colour, as if more recent in date. He asked for an excavation to be conducted around the discovery site, but there does not appear to be any evidence that one was carried out or, if it had been, whether anything further was discovered.

Hjalmar Holand

Hjalmar Holand

After the stone was returned to Ohman in March 1899 as being of no interest to scholarship, he is said to have used it as a stepping stone near a granary; it seems to have been placed face down. The historian Hjalmar Rued Holand (1872-1963) obtained it from Ohman in August 1907, during an investigation of the history of Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, and brought it to the attention of the Minnesota Historical Society, to whom he attempted to sell it for $5000 in 1910, a ridiculously over-inflated sum at the time. Ohman refused to allow Holand to sell it, as he was still the owner; it was entrusted to the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and was finally purchased by a group of ten local businessmen on 9 October 1951 for $2500. Holand published an account of the stone in Journal of American History 4 (1910), 165-84, referring to it as the “Oldest Native Document in America”.

The Minnesota Historical Society began its own investigation into the stone, under the direction of State Geologist Newton Horace Winchell (1839-1914). In 1909, Winchell obtained affidavits from Olof Ohman, Carl Edward Ohman, Nils Olof Flaten, Roald Benson and Samuel Olson about the discovery of the stone, which is perhaps how confusion about the date of discovery and who was present at the time arose, as the statements were made ten years after the stone was found. Winchell spent some time interviewing locals and apparently conducted investigations on the site and his report was published as part of a summary endorsed by the Society’s committee in Minnesota Historical Collections 15 (1915), 221-86. The Society also consulted further experts in Scandinavian languages, as its committee seems to have been unwilling to accept the sole testimony of Holand, who was not a linguist. The first approached Gisle Christian Johnson Bothne (1860-1934), Olaus Breda’s successor at the University of Minnesota, who also declared it a fraud. A second linguist, John A Holvik, was consulted. He also thought the inscription a hoax.

Both Holand and Winchell were convinced of the authenticity of the stone. They based this on the discovery that the stone contains a date, which Holand transcribed as 1362: this instantly removed Breda’s objection to an eleventh-century date for the inscription and Holand was convinced that the language of the stone was later medieval. Holand described the numerals as being the same as those used on primstav, a runic calendrical system based on wooden staves, the oldest surviving example dating from 1457. However, while the numerals are of quite different form from those used on primstave, a fact that Holand uses to show that they cannot have been copied from them, their precise nature is a problem for an ancient date for the stone, as we will see.

In 1911, Holand brought the stone to Europe, to have its inscription assessed by runologists. They were unimpressed and most though it fraudulent; Holand’s accounts gloss over this lack of support by those most familiar with European runic texts, which suggests that his belief in the stone’s authenticity dulled his critical faculties as an historian. If runologists were unhappy with the text, Holand ought to have been more robust in his defence. That he was not is worrying. It should be noted that many of those who still support the stone accuse the early twentieth-century experts of incompetence, a technique often encountered among those promoting objects rejected by conventional scholarship: those who disagree are jealous, closed-minded and part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth, while the few who lend their support are true visionaries, mavericks who deserve praise and the only people who deserve to be called “experts”.

If the inscription is genuine…

The Skálholt Map

A 1690 copy of the map by Sigurdur Stefánsson attempting to locate the places mentioned in the Vinland Sagas

If, as Holand was convinced, the inscription is a genuine record of a Scandinavian expedition in fourteenth-century Minnesota, there ought to be an historical context for it. Holand worked hard to find one and to construct a plausible scenario. He believed that the mixed group of Goths and Northmen would have been impossible before the union of the kingdoms of Sweden and Norway in 1319, so the date given by the stone was therefore possible.

Holand’s biggest problem was that the fourteenth century was the dying days of Norse settlement in Greenland, while the known voyages to Vinland took place in the eleventh century. Nevertheless, he pointed out that a fourteenth century date made sense of some of the linguistic difficulties of the inscription: while its language was impossible for Old Norse, this was a period in which many of its features were undergoing change and the mixed dialect could then be explained by the composition of the group.

What, though, of the difference between the purported date of the stone and the much earlier date of the voyages to Vinland? He pointed out that there appeared to be records of a voyage west from Norway in 1355, in search of the colonists in Greenland, who had been out of contact for some years (indeed, there was a report in 1348 that the colonists had vanished). In the autumn of 1354, King Magnus Eriksson (1316-1374; King Magnus IV of Sweden 1319-1364 and King Magnus VII of Norway 1319-1343), commissioned Pål Knutsson, a government officer from Bergen, to sail to Greenland to assess conditions there. Knutsson’s expedition would thus have been led by a Norwegion, under the direction of a Swedish king. Holand believed that, finding the Greenland colony deserted, Knutsson spent many years searching for the lost colonists, evidently reaching Minnesota in 1362, where he and his companions may have perished.

Next, Holand needed to work out how Knutsson’s party had reached Minnesota. The Scandinavians were maritime explorers, not accustomed to crossing continental landmasses. Holand discounted the most obvious route from Vinland into the heart of North America, via the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, as this was blocked by Niagara Falls. Instead, he suggested that the voyagers had sailed around the north of Labrador, entered Hudson Bay and travelled along the Nelson River, leaving ten men at its mouth. The reached Lake Winnipeg and entered the Red River; the details of the last part of the journey into the area around Kensington are more difficult to work out. Holand hypothesised that native guides had taught the explorers methods of portage, so that they could move their ships across watersheds; it was while they were in the lakes of Minnesota that ten of the party were killed by locals. The stone was then set up by the surviving members of the expedition who were themselves killed. The ten left at the mouth of the Nelson River may have returned to Norway or may themselves have been killed.

Map of Holand's proposed route to Kensington

Map showing two routes to Kensington: the yellow is that preferred by Holand, the pale green is the “obvious” route he discounted

Holand examined his hypothetical route from Hudson Bay to central Minnesota in the hope of finding physical traces of the expedition. Along the Nelson River and Red River, he found stones with drilled holes that he believed had been used by the explorers to tie their boats while moored. The case appeared to be strong and gained many supporters, although it never won mainstream acceptance. Why?

Problems and controversies

There are inevitably problems with the discovery, interpretation and significance of the stone. Firstly, none of the finders could agree on when it was found. As already noted, the date is given variously as August or as 8 November (I wonder if this is a confusion over the meaning of 8/11 or 11/8 in a note); some accounts place its discovery as after lunch, others as early evening (although, as Tom Sontag notes in his comment below, “lunch” in Minnesota dialect can refer tothe evening meal). While confusion about precise details is not damning, it could be said that people had not got their stories straight. However, the accounts of discovery were collected ten years after the event and human memory is fallible.

More serious is the objection of context. There is no evidence that Pål Knutsson’s expedition was ever assembled or set out. Although there were occasional contacts with Greenland in the later fourteenth century, its economic importance had declined as there was no longer a market for narwhal and walrus ivory. A merchantman, Bauta Hluti, was fitted out for the voyage in 1366 and was known as the Grœnlands Knörr; after it was lost at sea in 1369, it was not replaced. The last contact seems to have been in 1385, when the Olafssudinn, a ship from Greenland arrived in Norway; it had spent two years in Iceland before travelling to Scandinavia. The passengers reported the death of Álfur, Bishop of Garðar (the cathedral city in Greenland’s Eastern Settlement), in 1379; although successors continued to be appointed until the Reformation, none ever visited their diocese. By this date, even visits to Iceland were uncommon. There were sporadic trips between Iceland and Greenland into the early fifteenth century, but the Western Settlement had long been abandoned. If Pål Knutsson had reached Greenland, he would have encountered Scandinavian settlers living in reduced circumstances from their heyday a century before, but there would have been no need to spend the next nine years looking for others. The reason for journeying into the heart of the North American continent vanishes.

Gustav Storm

Gustav Storm, populariser of the neologism opdagelse, meaning “voyage of discovery”

The language of the stone has always caused problems. Although early sceptics criticised the rune forms, it has been found that many of them are attested in the medieval period. Rather, it is the words and their grammatical forms that have caused most linguists to reject the inscription. Instead of regular fourteenth-century Norse or Swedish, the inscription is a mixture of the two languages. No matter, say the believers: the party was composed of both Goths and Northmen, so a mixing of languages could be a result of the dictation of the the text by a Swede and its carving by a Norwegian. However, there are further problems. The grammar makes more sense in a nineteenth-century Swedish context than a late medieval. There is also a word – opþagelsefardþ that is unattested during the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was an obscure word that was popularised by the Norwegian historian Gustav Storm (1845-1903) in his 1888 work on Vinland, Studier over Vinlandsreiserne, Vinlands Geografi og Etnografi, parts of which had been serialised in an American Swedish language newspaper in 1889. The very word opdagelse did not enter the Scandinavian languages until the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and borrows from Dutch opdagen and German aufdecken, both deriving from the French décovrir, “discover’, itself a spelling not attested before the sixteenth century.

Recently, claims have been made that a scientific analysis by Scott F Wolter proves conclusively that the Kensington Runestone has been shown to be of medieval date. One of Wolter’s claims is that there are four R runes with an internal dot; a photograph reproduced on this believer’s site shows that, far from being a deliberately punched dot, the mark is irregular and not as crisply incised as the letter. Wolter’s comparison of the inscription with local tombstones carved in greywacke suggests that the weathering on the Runestone is comparable with inscriptions several centuries old; taking the history of the stone, which was discovered buried, into account might then be used as evidence that the inscription was protected from similar weathering and is thus older. This ignores any damage that might have been caused by cleaning the inscription with a nail (which supporters have used as a reason not to use the weathering (or lack thereof) as evidence for age), although it appears that only the runes on the side of the stone were cleaned in this way. Dating inscriptions by weathering is never an exact science and further work needs to be done to assess whether or not similar weathering could have occurred on a stone carved in, say, 1890, and examined in the early twentieth century; it also needs to be established that no artificial ageing of the inscription has taken place, whether by design or in the course of misguided cleaning (such as scrubbing with a wire brush or soaking in vinegar).

The sword of the Westford Knight

The alleged sword pommel of the Westford Knight

To make matters even more complex, Wolter associates the inscription with a group of Knights Templar, whom he hypothesises fled Europe following the suppression of their order in 1312. This takes us away from Holand’s hypothesis of Scandinavian explorers into conspiracy theory. Fugitive Knights Templar have been blamed for a wide variety of supposed “mysteries”, so it was only a matter of time before they were hauled into the controversy of the Kensington Runestone! Wolter’s evidence is based on cryptograms, which are rarely a good starting point for historical hypotheses. If the stone had been erected by a group of Templars, what else can be attributed to them in the New World? A variety of sites are thrown into the mix, including the Newport Tower and the Westford Knight. The first is a colonial era windmill, the second fanciful over-interpretation of glacial scratches.

Richard Nielsen has produced a comprehensive rebuttal of Wolter’s geological analysis and the hypothesis of a Knights Templar connection, although he continues to support a medieval date for the inscription (albeit cautiously: in a letter to the Runestone Museum, he states that he has “seen no unambiguous evidence that proves the K[ensington] R[une]S[tone] is modern”, which is a curiously lukewarm endorsement). The linguistic aspects of the stone are clearly the most contentious, although Nielsen is in a minority of linguists in supporting its authenticity.

Was Olof Ohman the fraudster?

The balance of probability is that stone is fraudulent. Henrik Williams, Professor of Norse Languages at the University of Uppsala, who examined the stone when it was exhibited at the Historiska Museet (Museum of National Antiquities) in Stockholm in 2003-4, believes it fraudulent. He issued a joint statement with Richard Nielsen in which they point out that its language is appropriate for neither the fourteenth or nineteenth centuries and that it “requires further study before a secure conclusion can be reached”.

The numbers of the pentimal system are the most worrying aspect of the inscription, although Holand saw it as the best confirmatory evidence. The system is not ancient and the earliest attestation of its use is from 1885, in the notes of an eighteen-year-old Swedish journeyman tailor, Edward Larsson. Medieval runes use a different system, based on alphabetic runes with an additional three symbols to give nineteen individual numerals. The numbers on the runestone were clearly a system in common use during the nineteenth century but not earlier, strong evidence that the Kensignton runestone is a nineteenth-century fraud.

Olof Ohman and the RUnestone

An innocent man: Olof Ohman and the Kensington Runestone

Sceptics have tended to lay the blame for the fraud on Olof Ohman. They point to the discovery of a version of the inscription sent by John P Hedberg to Svenska Amerikanska Posten that differs in fifteen places from what is what is written on the stone. The runologist Erik Moltke (1901-1984), a vocal critic of the stone, suggested that this was a preliminary draft of the inscription on the grounds that the supposed errors of transcription, carried out by someone who professed to believe it was in Greek, are actually genuine runes, although forms more difficult to carve. Anyone unfamiliar with runes, as Hedberg and Ohman were supposed to be, would not have supplied symbols that made sense if they were making copying errors. Moltke reasoned that the text that had come into Hedberg’s possession “was made by a person completely familiar with these ‘runes’ and that the carver had simplified difficult shapes.

Some accounts make a great deal of a supposed “deathbed confession”, recorded by Walter Cran in 1973. In it, he claimed that his father, John, had also made a deathbed confession, in which he claimed to have assisted Olof Ohman in carving the stone; Walter had subsequently asked John Ohman, Olof’s son, on his deathbed if this was true, which he admitted. Three deathbed confessions are stretching credibility to the limit, and I think that it is safe to reject this version of events.

Many of the Runestone’s supporters have suggested that Olof Ohman was poorly educated, referring to him as a simple farmer. However, this is clearly an attempt to divert suspicion away from him. He had an ordinary schooling in Sweden (where, significantly, he would have been taught about runes and where they were still in use among country folk) and was plainly literate: he is known to have enjoyed reading, especially about the history of Sweden. There were books in his possession, including one that contained a chapter on the development of the Swedish language and a quotation from a fourteenth-century prayer ending fräelse af illu, exactly as on the stone. Moreover, friend Sven Fogelblad, had a college degree and a library of scholarly books: if Ohman had wished to forge the inscription, he certainly had the information and contacts to enable him to come up with a plausible text.

Interestingly, there is another possible context for the massacre of ten Norwegians in Minnesota, not in 1362 but in 1862. On 20 August of the latter year, a group of Native Americans dressed in war clothes attacked a community of recent Norwegian settlers at Norway Lake. It is a curious coincidence, if nothing else. However, it may have been an inspiration for whoever concocted the inscription.

It has been pointed out that Ohman arrived in the USA in 1879, just in time to have planted the tree in whose roots the Runestone was found almost twenty years later; however, he did not buy the farm until 1890, too late to have planted it, if the assessment of the age of the tree was correct. This alone ought to rule him out as the hoaxer and instead cast him in the position of the hoaxer’s dupe. His behaviour after the discovery of the stone appears to corroborate this: he made no attempt to profit from his discovery and even seems to have abandoned the stone when it was first pronounced a fake, only a few months after finding it. These are not the actions of a hoaxer; some have claimed that the discovery ruined the rest of Olof Ohman’s life, which may be something of an exaggeration, as the runestone was widely accepted as genuine from 1910 to after his death.

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 for the writing of the inscription. This means that the stone ought to have been in the ground for no more than ten years when it was discovered and that, for nine of those years, the land had belonged to Olof Ohman. He therefore had the opportunity to plant it; it also means that, if someone wanted to target Ohman as the dupe, they also had nine years in which to plant it. Theodore Blegen found Newton Winchell’s original field notebook in 1968. It contains the geologist’s observations of the roots from which the stone had been removed, suggesting that it had been hidden among them recently; in other words, the age of the tree ceased to be an issue, since it had not grown over a stone already in the ground. Winchell had also noted in 1909 that the chisel marks were fresh and unweathered; it is also apparent today that the H incised by Holand around 1910 and the runes have a similar amount of patina, which makes Wolter’s claims that their age can be established geologically rather dubious.

In my opinion, Olof Ohman was not a hoaxer. He seems to have been genuinely puzzled by his discovery and to have disregarded it when it became apparent that scholars believed it to be fraudulent. It was only when Hjalmar Holand took up the cause on his own behalf that the case of the Kensington Runestone began to take off. Ohman was left without the stone and with a tarnished reputation, which may be what the fraudster had intended from the outset.