- Historic Sites
The Enigma Of Dighton Rock
For nearly three centuries men have speculated on its mysterious inscription
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
The most influential ol the theories clustering about the rock was one published in 1837 by a Danish scholar, Carl Christian RaIn. Rain had spent many years poring over the Icelandic manuscripts that told of early Viking voyages to the West. It was he who unearthed the now familiar story ol Leif the Lucky and his voyage in the year A.D. 1000 to three North American regions called Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. And Rafn also came upon the saga of Thorfinn Karlselne, who seven years later sailed even farther southward along the North American coast to a place called Hop. Thorfinn was accompanied by his wile Gudrida; at Hop, according to the saga, a baby boy named Snorro was born to them.
But where was Hop? In an effort to find out, the Danish scholar sent letters of inquiry to various American historical societies. Had the Vikings, perchance, IeIt any traces along the American coast?
One of Rafn’s letters aroused the Rhode Island Historical Society to action. Was it possible, the learned members asked themselves, that Dighton Rock bore a Viking message?
A special committee was formed to co-operate with Rafn; several expeditions were sent to the rock, and a drawing of the inscription, scrupulously prepared and checked, was forwarded to Denmark. On it, Rafn and his associate Finn Magnusen, like many others before and since, found just what they had been seeking [see illustrations on page 91]. They reported indubitable proof that Hop lay on the Taunton River.
Dighton Rock, they announced, portrayed in pictures precisely the episode described in the Norse sagas—“the famous ship of Thorfinn Karlsefne as it first set out for Vinland and came to this shore, with a windvane attached to the mast. His wife Gudrida, seated on the shore, holds in her hand the key of the conjugal dwelling.… Beside her stands their three year old son, Snorro, born in America.… A cock announces by his crowing domestic peace, as do also the shield at rest and the inverted helmet. Then suddenly approaching war is indicated. Thorfinn, leader of the colonists … seizes his shield and endeavors to protect himself against the approaching Skrellings, who violently assail the Scandinavians, armed with clubs or branches, with bow and arrows, and furthermore with a military machine, unknown to us, which in Thorfinn’s history is called a ballista.…”
To support this interpretation, Rafn and Magnusen even deciphered runic characters on the drawing which spelled out the words NAM THORFINS and the Roman numerals CXXXI. This they interpreted to mean “Thorfinn and his 151 companions took possession of this land.” The CXXXI was the clincher; for did not the sagas themselves report that Thorfinn’s party numbered 151? True, the Roman numerals CXXXI ordinarily stand for 131, but Rafn pointed out that the “C” might stand for the Norse “great hundred”—ten dozen, or 120. In that case the inscription and the saga would jibe.
Rafn’s researches excited international enthusiasm, and from 1837 on tne theory of pre-Columbian explorations of North America by the Vikings was almost universally accepted. Dighton Rock formed the last link in a long chain of evidence; for if it marked the site of Hop, then Helluland, Markland, and Vinland were surely Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and either Cape Cod or Nantucket.
Alas, the Viking theory of the rock was completely demolished in 1916 by the late Professor Edmund B. Delabarre of Brown University. Dehtbarre, a psychologist as well as a literary detective, bought a summer home within a mile of the rock in 1912 and for the next 33 years devoted much of his scholarly energies to a study of its fabulous history. Most current knowledge of the rock is based squarely on his researches. In studying Rafn’s interpretation of the message, Delabarre procured photographs of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s original drawings from the Royal Library of Denmark in Copenhagen—and was amazed to find gross discrepancies between the society’s actual drawings and the doctored-up copies reproduced in Rafn’s book. Rafn had added many lines to support his theory. “On the drawing as he presented it,” Delabarre noted, “Rafn attempted to distinguish his own additions by drawing them with shaded lines. Unfortunately, the shadings are not very distinct, and are easily overlooked.” With Rafn’s doctoring eliminated, the whole Viking interpretation of the Dighton Rock inscription collapsed.