- 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
In the midst of this controversy, on April 30, 1893, an exact replica of the ancient Viking ship of Gokstad (excavated in 1880) sailed out to the New World from a harbor near Bergen, Norway. Riding like a swan on the water, it arrived at Newfoundland on May 27, and in due time it reached Chicago, where it went on exhibit at the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, as impressive confirmation of the hotly disputed claim that such a navigational exploit must have been well within the capacities of Norse sailors a thousand years earlier.
Finally, in 1897, the Norwegian newspaper Skandinaven of Chicago began to publish modern Norwegian translations of the Old Icelandic Vinland Sagas. Not infrequently, throughout this and other disputes, an air of condescension toward immigrants was worn by the upper classes of Scandinavia, creating its share of resentment in return. Everything considered, is it surprising that, somewhere within the American stronghold of Scandinavian immigrants, a wag with steel chisel at hand, a little inspiration from printed books, and the assistance of a friend or two, should come up with a rune stone that mentioned Vinland and a voyage of discovery?
The Kensington stone was found in 1898. A full ten years elapsed before anyone attempted to claim that it was genuine. Certainly, Olof Ohman made no such claim, and the friend—Hedberg—whom he selected as a sort of publicity agent for the stone affected to believe that the inscription was “old Greek.” Professor Winchell observed in print that Ohman did not even bother to divert suspicion from himself. Ohman was an upright man. At no time did he attempt to earn money through exploiting the epigraphical curiosity.
Was Ohman the hoaxer? We may never know. Nor is it in any sense necessary to know more than that the Kensington inscription was a late product of the American frontier. It is not merely the tangible record of a delightful hoax, but the nucleus of what a journalist recently has termed “a curious subplot in American history.” The Kensington stone deserves to be kept on exhibit at Alexandria as a permanent memorial of Scandinavian pioneers in the state of Minnesota. It is only that the date is a little early—536 years early.