The question of Viking exploration of North America has fascinated both historians and the wider public for well over a century.
Today, it’s widely accepted that Vikings did make it to North America. There is considerable evidence that Scandinavian explorers and settlers travelled as far as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland sometime around 1000 AD, and it may have served as a base for exploration deeper into North America. An iron smithy and over 800 objects have been excavated from the site including bone, stone and bronze artefacts.
Less clear cut however is the question of whether Vikings ventured further inland. The tale of the Kensington runestone suggests it’s possible – although improbable – they made the 4,000 km journey to Minnesota, and the New England Viking coin suggests there may have been Vikings in Maine.
If true, just how did these Viking explorers make the 1,850 km journey from the northern tip of Newfoundland to Penobscot Bay in Maine? And how did a tenth century Norwegian coin end up in New England?
Did the Vikings land in Maine? Is the Viking coin found in Maine real or fake, and where is the Maine Penny today? Read on to find out about one of the most perplexing numismatic mysteries in American history.
What is the Maine Penny and where was it found?
The Maine Penny is a Viking coin found in Maine, the northeasternmost American state, which has a population of around 1.4 million people. It’s a Norwegian silver coin dating to the reign of Olaf Haraldsson, known as Olaf the Peaceful. He was the King of Norway from 1067 until his death in 1093.
This rare New England Viking coin was unearthed in 1957 by an amateur archaeologist called Guy Mellgren at what was known as the Goddard Site, a Native American archaeological site at Naskeag Point on Penobscot Bay in Brooklin, Maine. To date, no other Viking or Norse artefacts have been found there.
Initially, Mellgren believed he had a twelfth century English coin which raised the initial question of ‘how did an English coin from the twelfth century get to Maine’? It also prompted a follow-up – did the English discover America?
It subsequently turned out that the coin – sometimes referred to as the Goddard Coin – was in fact of Norse origin, and 200 years older than Mellgren’s first guess. This of course begged further questions.
Is the Maine Penny real?
This is the first and most obvious question. Unlike the Kensington Runestone, which is shrouded in ambiguity, the authenticity of the Maine Penny isn’t in doubt.
Norwegian numismatist – or coin expert – Kolbjørn Skaare, a man with unimpeachable credentials, declared it to be genuine. He concluded it had been minted somewhere between 1065 and 1080 and was in use in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The active years of the Goddard Site – 1180 to 1235 – are well within that period of circulation.
It’s also worth noting that the Maine Penny had a perforation suggesting it was used as a pendant, though that small area of the coin had since disintegrated.
Were there Vikings in Maine?
This is the next most obvious question – did the Vikings land in Maine? That’s harder to answer. It’s widely accepted that Vikings landed in Newfoundland around 1000 AD and the fact that the coin ended up where it did raises a number of possibilities.
One possible explanation could be that the Vikings travelled much further south than previously thought, although there is no evidence to back this up.
Another option is built upon the fact that the Goddard site may have been a bustling hub within a Native American trading network. It could be that the coin was traded in Newfoundland and brought all the way to Maine either by one person or passing through many hands on the long journey.
It’s also possible however that – for reasons unknown – Guy Mellgren could have planted the coin there to be ‘found’. Except that he paid no particular attention to it for the best part of two decades and he didn’t seek financial compensation or court publicity as a result of having it.
Similar coins were available on the open market in the late 1950s, so Mellgren could have bought it. Yet if he did, his motive is not immediately apparent. It’s also possible that Mellgren himself was deceived by someone else planting the coin, but again the question comes back as to ‘why’? What possible motive could there have been?
The fact that there hasn’t been a single Norse or Viking artefact found in Maine before or since suggests that the answer to the question ‘were there Vikings in Maine’ is ‘highly unlikely.’
However, the Maine Penny remains the only proven genuine pre-Columbian Norse artefact ever found in the United States.
Where is the Maine Penny today?
One of America’s most famous coins, the Maine Penny now sits in the Maine State Museum in the state capital, Augusta. So we know what the Maine Penny is but we remain in the dark about how it ended up in New England, while debate still continues as to whether it was a genuine find at all, or some kind of elaborate hoax.