Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes


In 1961 three rockhounds found an unusual nodule near Olancha, California. It contained ceramic, copper, and iron components and seemed obviously man-made. Although ( California is the home of some of the world’s finest universities, the discoverers took the artifact to the Charles Ford Society, reportedly “an organization specializing in examining extraordinary things.” The results were predictably extraordinary. Rene Noorbergen, an author of books on psychics and other bizarre phenomena, assures us that the artifact is at least a half million years old and therefore must predate the biblical flood. To him, the nodule is an “oopart” (out-of-place-artifact) that demands explanation, the more fanciful the better, Noorbergen has also searched for proof of Noah’s elusive ark on Mount Ararat and has studied yards of lie-detector graphs that testify to the honesty of an old Armenian who claims to have seen the ark as a boy.

In New England, old but clearly historic root cellars, lime kilns, and other stone structures have been breathlessly proclaimed pre-Columbian Celtic monuments. Thus encouraged, five men spent a year (1976–77) sailing a leather hulled Irish curragh from Ireland to Newfoundland. The trip proved conclusively that five twentieth-century men who know exactly where they are going can, given enough time, sail a leather boat from Ireland to Newfoundland. The proof, unfortunately, is as irrelevant to the root cellars of Vermont as the misused honesty of an elderly Armenian shepherd is to the biblical myth of Noah’s ark.

In the 1960’s, divers off Bimini Island in the Bahamas found what appeared to be extensive pavements of huge limestone blocks and fallen pillars that looked to them like the ruins of a sunken city. To explain it all, the Atlantis myth was dusted off and revived, delighting the followers of the late Edgar Cayce, whose mystical popularization of that supposedly lost continent has transcended mere commercial success to become a cult. Alas, the pavements turned out to be nothing but natural limestone beachrock, fractured and eroded with time, and the pillars are the remains of barrels of hardened cement that were discarded in the harbor in recent times.

In 1837 the Scandinavian historian Carl Rafn published a large work on the Norse Vinland sagas; in it, he asked for information on Norse remains in North America. The request touched off a widespread hunt for Norse inscriptions, architecture, and artifacts. Predictably, many were found, forged, or simply imagined. American Indians, buried with copper ornaments, were transformed into Vikings in full armor, old survey markers became runestones, and colonial structures turned into Norse ruins. Today only a site in Newfoundland and a single trade coin from coastal Maine survive as authentic Norse remains, and neither was on the long lists sent to Rafn. The rest is an inventory of forgeries, credulous misinterpretations, and honest mistakes.

These examples seem disparate at first glance, but they are part of a single phenomenon. In the realm of popular archaeology, the hardest-nosed skeptics can turn gullible, and sober rationality can be discarded for inebriated speculation at the drop of an oopart. Some of the most profound mysteries of North American archaeology arise not from the prehistoric record itself but from the popular imagination of the transplanted European culture from which the discipline of archaeology springs. One of these is the usually unspoken assumption that Native Americans were intellectually unequipped to create the artifacts they left behind without benefit of some sort of outside assistance. This notion was especially useful in the nineteenth century, when a rationale for the dispossession of Indians was a practical need, but it stays with us today as a subtle form of racism.

Another mystery of popular archaeology is its cyclical nature. One can trace several such cycles in libraries that have been in business long enough. Claims for visits by Phoenicians, Egyptians, Celts, Welsh, Norse, Portuguese, Israelites, and others surface repeatedly. Papers and books appear as interest in one or another of these is sparked, and normally rational people get caught up in the excitement. When the fad disintegrates, some learn from the experience, others go on to new enthusiasms, and a few stick to their empty guns.


The Viking cycle unwittingly begun by Carl Rafn has gone through several permutations and has at last settled into respectability. The litter of nonevidence generated by Rafn’s initial inquiries was augmented spectacularly by the alleged discovery of the Kensington Runestone near Alexandria, Minnesota, in 1898. The stone, on which was inscribed a clear message in runic script, was taken seriously by scholars for a while. As these things often do, it attracted a credulous advocate, Hjalmar Holand, who led a small crusade on behalf of Viking explorers during the first half of this century. As usually happens in these cases, professionals who called the stone a fake were challenged to disprove its authenticity, a demand that reverses rational scientific procedure by shifting the burden of proof away from the proposed hypothesis and onto the shoulders of the skeptic. Nonetheless, it is now clear that the stone was carved around 1885 by a prankish local farmer whose knowledge of runes and geography was limited.