The Kensington Runestone is a controversial stone slab found in 19th century Minnesota. To some, it is a vital piece of US history; a first hand account of Vikings travelling deep into North America over a century before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World. To others it is a hoax.
So, is it real or a forgery? Does this famous American runestone really prove that Norse explorers made it all the way to the Midwest? If it is real, how did they make the 2,500-mile journey from Newfoundland to Kensington, Minnesota? This is the basis of the Kensington stone mystery.
In this article, we’ll attempt to uncover the answers to these questions, and find out whether the Minnesota runestone is a fantastic find or a fabulous fake.
Discovery of the Kensington Runestone
The Kensington Runestone is said to have been found in 1898 in the small rural township of Solem, Minnesota, seven miles from its namesake of Kensington. There, a Swedish-American called Olof Öhman was clearing some land when his son Edward noticed a stone with strange markings tangled in the roots of a young poplar tree.
Similar in size to a headstone and weighing almost 200 pounds, it was a type of sandstone known as greywacke. It was carved with what some have interpreted as Scandinavian runic symbols, with the inclusion of the three Latin letters, AVM. So, what did it say?
The Scandinavian and Latin Runestone Translation
The mixed Scandinavian and Latin runestone translation reads:
“[We are] eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland to (or through) the west. We had camp by a lake with two skerries [small rocky islands, too tiny for habitation] one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out to fish one day. After we came home we found 10 men red of blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgo Maria, or Hail, Mary) save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, fourteen days’ journey (or travel) from this island. [In the] year 1362.”
This compelling story captured imaginations, not just in the US, but around the world. And thus the Kensington stone mystery was born. Debate as to the authenticity of the Minnesota runestone began almost immediately and in earnest, with experts on both sides presenting their arguments in newspaper articles and books. Academics examined everything from the geology, inscription and the weathering of the rock, to the background of its finder. What’s more, controversy still persists today. So, what are the arguments on each side?
The Kensington Stone: The Case For Authenticity
Those who believe the American runestone is real can point to the exceptional evidence that the Vikings had travelled to North America. Indeed there are remains of a Viking settlement dating back to around 1000 AD at the Newfoundland site of L’Anse aux Meadows. However, this is more than 2,500 miles east of where the Minnesota runestone was discovered. Did they make it so far inland?
The answer is, possibly.
In fact, possible Viking campsites and Norse-looking tools have been found along the 750-mile route between Saskatchewan in Canada and Sauk Centre in Minnesota.
Another point in favour of the runestone’s authenticity is the lack of proof of a forgery. Its finder, Olof Öhman, was relatively uneducated and was unlikely to have had the requisite geological skills to have carved such intricately-worded and accurate markings. What’s more, he didn’t ask for money, try to sell it or court fame. And there is no suggestion of anyone else producing it.
The Case Against Authenticity
The general consensus today is that the Kensington Runestone was a fake. The evidence for this includes the following factors:
The State of the Stone
The Kensington Runestone was in excellent condition. The rock was supposedly lying face-down in cold, damp earth for 536 years yet it showed very little sign of weathering. In 2016, geologist Harold Edwards commented that ‘the inscription is about as sharp as the day it was carved’.
At the time the stone was found, there was a great deal of interest in the early Scandinavians’ foray onto the North American continent. In 1893 a full-sized replica of a Viking ship sailed from Norway to the US, stealing the show at the World’s Columbian Expo to prove the journey was possible.
Much doubt has been cast on the bona fides of the man who found the stone, Olof Öhman. That a Norse American runestone should happen to be found by a Swedish-American has been approached with much scepticism. Especially as Öhman did own a book on runes.
The language of the runes has come under attack as much closer to 19th than 14th century Swedish. This has led academics, including some of the 20th century’s most renowned Scandinavian linguists and historians, to dismiss it as a forgery ‘of recent date’.
Is the Kensington Mystery Solved?
Most regard the mystery of the Kensington stone solved; that it is not a Viking runestone. However, even from this perspective, there is no satisfactory answer as to who made it and why. The received orthodoxy is that it was Olof Öhman, but his motivations have never been explained.
Meanwhile, there are those who maintain that the Minnesota runestone is the real deal, as well as those with alternative theories. Whatever the answer, the Kensington stone mystery continues to compel. And, as for the stone itself, it can be viewed at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota.