Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes

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Interest in Vikings was revived with the publication of The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation by the Yale University Press on Columbus Day, 1965, a date calculated both to take full advantage of the newspaper tradition of discussing pre-Columbian discoveries of America on that day and to outrage Italian-Americans. It, too, was declared a fake, its ink having flunked a chemical test in 1974. In the meantime, still another series of forged runestones turned up. Three cobbles with supposed runic inscriptions surfaced at Spirit Pond, Maine. The stones have been thoroughly discredited by Harvard University’s Einar Haugen, but they have also been provided with a fantastic “translation” by O. G. Landsverk, whose assessments of fake runestones are imaginative at best. Landsverk and others have milked the gibberish found on clumsy fakes and plow-scarred boulders by declaring them to be cryptographic, a device that permits the stones to say virtually anything. The rush to find stones and provide them with decipherments has extended as far west as Heavener, Oklahoma, where rocks promoted by one Gloria Farley have provided the Chamber of Commerce with a tourist attraction. But the interest in Vikings has had some more sanguine results. In 1960 the Scandinavian archaeologist Helge Ingstad discovered the site of L’Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has indeed produced evidence of three Norse houses and five smaller structures, one of them probably an iron smithy, that date to around A.D. 1000, and has also yielded about twenty-four hundred artifacts, several clearly of Norse origin. Although a few archaeologists still grumble about the validity of specific finds, the site is bearing up well under skeptical professional scrutiny.

Southward, near Blue Hill, Maine, two amateur archaeologists named Guy Mellgren and Edward Runge in 1958 found a Norse coin in a site they had excavated for several years. There were no other Norse artifacts in their twenty-thousand-piece-collection, and the excavators assumed incorrectly that it was a twelfth-century English penny introduced by visitors after the time of Columbus. Mellgren died in 1978, never knowing that the coin was a Norwegian penny minted during the eleventh-century reign of King Olaf Kyrre. A hole had been cut into the penny so that it could be hung as an ornament, leading scholars to believe that the coin had probably reached the site indirectly as a trade item rather than as a result of direct Norse contact. Yet there can be little doubt of its authenticity. It is ironic that neither this nor the site at L’Anse aux Meadows has generated the sort of popular enthusiasm that attended all the earlier discredited Norse finds. Perhaps the fad has simply run its course; nevertheless, the Vikings have turned legitimate at last.

ROMAN COINS AND OTHER LOOSE CHANGE

The Norse coin from Maine is unique among the many pre-Columbian coins that have turned up in the Americas in that its arrival really appears to date from pre-Columbian times. Coin collecting has been big business in the United States for decades, and until a few years ago, Roman and other early coins were abundantly available at low prices. Many were sold as novelty items in coin shops. I can remember buying them for less than a dollar as a boy. Not surprisingly, many have been lost or discarded over the years, later to be found and enthusiastically promoted as evidence of early visits from the Old World. Some were planted as hoaxes in legitimate archaeological sites, but most simply turned up in yards and fields. They attract little attention when they turn up in cities—a Roman coin was once found in a Los Angeles parking meter, but no one suggested that a chariot had been parked there. Credulity increases, however, when they turn up in the country, even though they are usually isolated from any other archaeological remains. This lack of context does little to dampen enthusiastic speculation.