- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone
An eminent scholar argues that its inscription is only a hoax.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
The stone itself meanwhile was sent by freight to Professor George O. Curme, Germanic philologist of Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. His inspection of the preliminary draft of the inscription had led him to entertain some hope of the stone’s genuineness; but a personal inspection of its language left him puzzled. Moreover, the carved crevices that formed the letters were lighter than the main surface of the stone, something not consistent with the date 1362. That a runic carving had survived more than five hundred Minnesota winters and still showed lines as true as those on a modern tombstone was something that cast further doubt on its authenticity.
One thing was nevertheless clear: whether modern hoaxer or fourteenth-century explorer-clerk, the carver possessed skill in using mallet and chisel. Curme, who was not a runologist, was not prepared to give a final judgment on the two-hundred-pound antiquity and its sensational insight into history. He urged those interested to have photographs of it made and sent to experts in runology at Scandinavian universities for their considered judgment. Copies of the inscription—probably in the form of newspaper clippings—were sent abroad, and in April of that same year, 1899, three professors of Christiania (Oslo) University cabled their verdict: The Kensington inscription was a clumsy forgery, its author a Swede with some scanty grasp of runic letters and of English. History might resume its normal course. The runic bubble had burst.
From Evanston, the late rune stone was returned to Kensington, Minnesota, where Olof Ohman, in disappointed silence—or was it relief?—claimed his property. We are informed that he flung it down beside his granary and proceeded to forget the entire business. Whatever hopes he may once have entertained for the authentication of his discovery had come to a more than rapid end.
Eight years later, however, an event occurred that was to change all this. For in the summer of 1907, Ohman was visited by a fellow Scandinavian from the neighboring state of Wisconsin. This was Norwegian-born Hjalmar Rued Holand, then 35 years of age, who was engaged in a search for materials suitable for inclusion in his projected history of Norwegian settlements. Hearing of the alleged rune stone dated 1362, Holand had come to inspect it for himself.
Obviously, his verdict as to its potentialities was favorable, for although what passed between the two men may never be known, Holand, after inspecting Ohman’s few books, left Kensington with the stone in his possession. Within a year it received a place of honor in Holand’s published book. In 1911 Holand took the Kensington stone on a European tour after an unsuccessful attempt to sell it to the Minnesota Historical Society for $5,000 (he later raised the price to $6,000), which amount, as he wrote to the society’s Dr. N.H. Winchell, was “not so much a price upon the stone itself as a compensation for my contribution to American history.” In 1910, however, $6,000 was a lot of money for any document, let alone one of contested origin, and despite the fact that the society presently published a 66-page report formally endorsing the stone as genuine, the purchase sum was never raised.
Before publishing their report, the five gentlemen who comprised the investigative committee of the society had called on numerous European and American specialists in Scandinavian philology in an attempt to gain support for their own conviction that the Kensington stone bore a genuine record of medieval exploration. The philologists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dismissed the inscription as a preposterous hoax. Professor Gisle Bothne of the University of Minnesota politely declined to take part in the proceedings. Professor George T. Flom of the University of Illinois published a detailed analysis of the language and “runes” of the inscription, finding both to be essentially modern. Professor Chester N. Gould of the University of Chicago suggested modern Scandinavian books as the undoubted origin of the inscription. The Philological Society of the University of Illinois condemned the stone as spurious, as did a meeting of linguists in Chicago. Uniformly rebuffed by the men whose opinions should have weighed most heavily in the scales, the Minnesota Historical Society committee nevertheless proceeded to publish a favorable report. [Neither the society as a whole nor its executive council, however, endorsed the committee’s report; they reserved their conclusions “until more agreement of opinions for or against the rune inscription may be attained.”]
No one on the committee had the slightest familiarity with Scandinavian linguistics, let alone runological problems, yet their printed report deals with precisely these topics in very considerable detail.