The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone

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The inscription does not have to be translated into modern Swedish in order to be understood perfectly by anyone who understands, or even reads, that language. For it is modern Swedish! Not the formal Swedish of literary documents, but the simple, colloquial speech of ordinary nineteenth-century conversation. Not perfect Swedish, to be sure, for the inscription includes at least one Norwegian element (opdagelse , “discovery,” “exploration”). Nor is it consistent Swedish, which is to say that it is not easily identified as belonging to any one particular dialect. Basically, it is the kind of Swedish that one can hear today among elderly Minnesotans. Professor Flom reported, for example, that Olof Ohman spoke a Swedish that was contaminated with Norwegian; the present writer noted the same phenomenon in that area more than forty years later. The inconsistencies in the inscription are seen in several of its spellings, which are manifest attempts to give the whole thing an ancient cast. The source of these “archaic” features was surmised years ago, and independently, by at least two American professors, C.N. Gould of Chicago, already referred to, and Andrew Fossum of Northfield, Minnesota. Their verdict was that the inscription had its source in modern books.

Late research has confirmed this. The source of much of the Kensington message was, it seems clear, several well-thumbed pages of a popular reference work, The Well-Informed Schoolmaster, by Carl Rosander. A number of editions of this work appeared in Sweden in the second half of the last century, and a Swedish newspaper printed one at Chicago in 1893 and distributed it as a premium to subscribers throughout the Midwest. The earlier copy owned by Ohman is signed by him at Kensington, March 2, 1891.

Very weird are the runic characters that adorn the Kensington tablet. Some are very ancient specimens, types that had died out in Scandinavia many centuries before 1362. Others are very late, parallel with eighteenth and nineteenth century runes still in limited use among farmers in northern Sweden during the emigration period. Some are probably humorous adaptations of Phoenician and archaic Greek alphabets—“old Greek,” wrote Ohman’s friend Hedberg —printed in the last century’s Bible commentaries.

Ohman owned at least two books that showed basic runic alphabets. One was the aforementioned volume by Rosander, and the other was a history of Sweden by Professor Oskar Montelius. First printed in 1877, it was printed again at Minneapolis by Swan J. Turnblad and distributed, between November, 1897, and February, 1898, as a supplement to his Swedish newspaper. Ohman’s copy of this work, dated and signed at Kensington in 1898, also bears J.P. Hedberg’s name. A runic alphabet is contained in yet a third book to which Ohman had access because it was owned by another of his friends, an itinerant schoolmaster and one-time Swedish clergyman, Sven Fogelblad. The book in question was a grammar of Swedish in an edition of 1840 by the famous Swedish writer, C.J.L. Almquist. Also owned by Ohman was a scrapbook containing items apparently related to the Kensington inscription. Indications are that the scrapbook was shared in some way with Fogelblad and Hedberg. By his own account, Hjalmar R. Holand examined Ohman’s few books before taking away the rune stone in 1907. How much scholarly energy would have been saved in the world if he had seen fit to report adequately on these matters by, say, 1910.

The language and the runic letters are not the only odd features of the carving, for its numerals are the most remarkable feature of all. Though disguised as runes, they are essentially modern and Arabic; that is, they employ the so-called Hindu-Arabic system of notation with “place value” for the digits, whereby in the date, 1362, 1 stands for 1,000, 3 for 300, and 6 for 60. The Arabic system can no more coalesce with the runic than with the Roman, in which the symbols I-III-VI-II would be laughed out of court if seriously offered as a representation of the number MCCCLXII.

On no possible score, then, can the Minnesota rune stone be accepted as ancient. And if it is not ancient, it is modern and thus a hoax, along with the Cardiff Giant and the Piltdown skull. [This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that evidence of early Norse exploration of Minnesota exists. In 1738, for example, a French explorer, the Sieur de la Vérendrye, discovered an inscribed stone west of Lake Superior which he took to Montreal. The Jesuits there thought the writing was “Tataric”—which looks much like runic. The stone was sent to France, and has since disappeared.]

Why was the hoax perpetrated? One may venture a guess. To begin with, ever since 1888, Scandinavian-Americans had been bitterly contesting an assertion by the Norwegian historian, Dr. Gustav Storm, that men of the Viking Age had never touched on what is now United States territory. The words opdagelse , “discovery,” and opdagelsesrejse , “voyage of discovery,” appeared over and over again in Storm’s monograph, and the words were repeated over and over again in the Scandinavian-language papers of this country. A flood of books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles took up the debate, some of this material authored by Professor Rasmus B. Anderson of Wisconsin, who in a sense had launched the debate in 1874 through the publication at Chicago of his America not Discovered by Columbus.