The Kensington Runestone

>> Saturday, May 11, 2013

I first heard of The Kensington Runestone at a family reunion in 2008. Sitting at a table for lunch, someone brought it up as a hoax and then someone else said it's not a hoax, a good book had just been written about it.

What? Scandinavians in Minnesota prior to 1492?

My interest was piqued.

My distant relative noted that the Scandinavians really got around since they made it to Istanbul/Constantinople and Baghdad, something that I had heard about.

I noted this book in my book list, and finally got around to reading it recently, almost 5 years later.

I don't believe the stone to be a hoax because as the author noted, "The Runestone doesn't look obviously fake to us, and unlike most offerings of fakes, no one tried to make money from it.” I also have a hard time believing that a Swedish immigrant with less than a high school education would suddenly just come up with the idea to plant a runestone. Seems like a complete stretch to discredit the stone.

The best arguments in favor of the stone are:
  • known Norse settlement (Vinland) in New Foundland (L'Anse aux Meadows)
  • some other archaeological evidence for Norse and English in Arctic Canada
  • geologic tests performed on the stone
  • an increase in tuberculosis around A.D. 1000, which was endemic within Scandinavia
  • the Norse fur trade, which Scandinavians went to great lengths to trade furs even in Europe
As Alice Beck Kehoe notes at the end:
It is a real paradigm shift to believe that the Americas have never been truly isolated. In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, a German geographer created the first globe showing the earth as the planet we know. Also in 1492, Topa Inca Yupanqui was nearing the end of this glorious reign over Tawantinsuyu, "the Land of the Four Quarters," stretching from Ecuador into Chile. His merchants sailed the length of the Pacific coast of South America, trading as far north as Mexico. There, the armies of the Lord of the Mexica, Ahuizotl, extended his power over many nations of Mesoamerica, causing tons of tribute to be delivered annually to the magnificent capital, Tenochtitlan, on its web of green canals. Overland trade routes stretched thousands of miles northwestward, through Paquime on the border of what is now the American Southwest and on through Nevada to San Francisco Bay. The trans-Mexican trade met the great North Pacific Rim trade system touching Alaska, the Aleutians, Kamchatka, Manchuria, Japan, Korea, and on to China, where it merged with the South Pacific system. In eastern North America, the twelfth-century state with its imposing capital at Cahokia had given way to many small kingdoms from the St. Lawrence Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly all these regions were flourishing, gaining population, and improving techniques of mass production and shipping of goods.

A world perspective, rather than the usual Eurocentric perspective, shows that in the fifteenth century there was already a world trading system in the northern hemisphere, carried in commercial sailing ships. From northeastern Canada to Greenland and Iceland to Norway, commerce followed the Atlantic coast of Europe, where in Portugal it could branch off to continue along the Atlantic coast of Africa and by 1487 around Africa, or follow the long-established route from Mediterranean ports, especially Venice and Genoa, across that sea to Egypt, through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and via Malaysia and Indonesia to the South China Sea, then through the North Pacific Rim system to British Columbia. There was also the Scandinavians' route, in smaller boats, across northern Russia to Turkey, linking into overland Asian trade routes. The principal American trade system covered South and Middle America into California on the west, where the Pacific coastal trade linked British Columbia and California with inland North America via the Gulf of Mexico. Yet another system, that of the South Pacific, like the native American system linked tenuously into the Asian segment of the principal world system. What changed in the late fifteenth century was understanding and increasing use of planetary wind patterns, for very good reason usually termed the trade winds, to power trade across, not just around, the Atlantic and Pacific.

This more anthropological perspective accommodates and extended westward journey inland by Norse whose countrymen had been utilizing the entire North Atlantic for centuries. The Kensington Runestone is in the pattern of runestones erected for fallen comrades by Scandinavians in long-distance fur procurement. It is, in this perspective, not an anomaly. Nor is it anomalous that neither American archaeology nor European history documents this privately funded enterprise that could not compete with traditional Scandinavian exploitation of Russian furs. A few centuries later, the Hudson's Bay Company preferred to hire men from Orkney, islands off northern Scotland that had belonged to Norway. Orkneymen managed well in Canada's forests and waterways. The Kensington Runestone party would have lived in the same cultural tradition, familiar with boats, hunting, hard work, and life apart from families. From the perspective of Scandinavian history, we should expect at least one entrepreneurial effort to explore west from Vinland.


Stan Wagon,  17 May, 2013 21:08  

I agree with your points. It is disappointing how the "hoax" view has taken hold. I too read Kehoe's book and liked it -- and a couple years ago I went up to Alexandria to see the stone.

In a couple weeks I have to go to Newfoundland and will make the side trip to L'Anse aux Meadows to see the 11th c. documented Viking site.

One cool consequence of the hoax view is that the stone sits in this quirky little museum in a small town as opposed to being in, say, the Smithsonian.

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