Fake runes?

Recently, I submitted an application to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for a year’s sabbatical in 2019 to finish my work on a corpus edition of actual or claimed inscriptions with runes in North America. The following is an abbreviated version of that application.

Leif Eriksson statue in Boston

The Leif Eriksson statue in Boston. Sculptor: Anne Whitney (1821–1915). Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

That Europe is the home to thousands of runic inscriptions is commonly known. But the existence of runes also in America comes as a surprise to many. The Kensington runestone may be an exception as it has traveled quite extensively during its 120-year history and having been exhibited, for example, at the Smithsonian Institution and The Swedish History Museum.

The Kensington stone is not alone, however

In 1898 a Swedish-American farmer in Western Minnesota reported finding this monument. According to the text it was left by Swedes and Norwegians on an expedition from Vinland. The find stirred enormous attention and is intensely debated even today. Many consider the inscription to be authentically medieval, although almost no scientist would agree.

The Kensington stone is not alone, however. There is at least one hundred objects that bear or have been claimed to bear runes. Some are not very mysterious since they have been produced in modern time to commemorate a person or an event. Inscriptions have been carved or commissioned by people of Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon extraction. An example is the statue in Boston of Leif Eriksson, the first recorded European to set foot in North America. The base of the monument is ornamented with runes, as is the horn Leif carries in his hand.

Archaeological remains prove Viking presence in Newfoundland

Around the year 1000 Leif Eriksson arrived in the region that has become known as Vinland. According to Icelandic sagas, he and other groups from Greenland settled briefly in the new land, the location of which is hotly debated. Archaeological remains prove Viking presence in Newfoundland, and Scandinavians may well have reached further south, along the coast of the United States.

The presence of early Europeans in America

Many inscriptions, bearing actual runes or not, belong to the same category as the Kensington stone. And this is where things heat up. These objects have often been claimed to prove the presence of Europeans in America before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. Several scenarios have been proposed. One of these takes it point of departure from Leif Eriksson and his fellow explorers. A runestone on the Massachusetts island No Man’s Land bears the inscription liif iriksson MI ‘Leif Eriksson (AD) 1001’ and has been interpreted as a piece of evidence that he reached New England.

Another scenario evolves around the story on the Kensington stone. Even before the stone was found there was talk about a possible Norse expedition to Greenland under the leadership of Paul Knutsson in 1354. If this mission proceeded to America, the participants could have been involved in carving the stone. The inscription has given rise to a considerable culture connected with the possible visit of “Vikings” to Minnesota. For example, both Protestants and Catholics have claimed the Kensington party as Christian missionaries.

All use of runes in North America is interesting in its own right

The Mustang Mountains stone: Cave entrance. Photo: W. Sherwood 2013.

The third scenario has an Anglo-Saxon flavor. Norse immigrants to the United States were not always well regarded by the Anglo-Saxon colonizers. Vikings, however, were quite popular even in England, and hence WASP Americans, who wanted to share the ancestry with the heroic North did eventually accept Scandinavian as equals. Just as Hengest and Horsa had once invaded England, driving off the Romans and pushing aside the native Celts, President Jefferson wanted to use their example to legitimize European colonization of “The New World”. The Mustang Mountain stone (pdf) in Arizona is one monument that has been given an Anglo-Saxon origin, although it turns out to be carved 25 years ago in a made-up language by a local man.

A corpus edition of North American runes

All use of runes in North America is interesting in its own right. Every isolated object can be studied intensely and by “asking large questions in small places” much is to be learned, not least about the psychology and world view of the researcher. The approach is called Microhistory and a related method is Microarchaeology. In fact, even mere scratches on a stone surface have often been identified as runes and given fantastic interpretations that, if true, would change the history of the World.

In order for any qualitative research to be carried out there must be a dependable edition of runic and would-be runic inscriptions. There is none. Since the publication of a tentative bibliography many years ago by Hertha Marquardt there has been no attempt to create a proper overview of the material, much less a corpus edition. One of the reason for this deficiency is the non-existence of trained runologists in America. The proposed project would provide such a corpus edition, serving as the scientific basis for all serious research on American runic objects, but also as a stimulus to elicit information on previously unpublished inscriptions.

Thus nobody is likely to know much about American runes

The second objective of the project would be to offer a resource for museums, archives and universities in the United States (and elsewhere). As it is, each institution may hold or know about only one or a few runic objects. This is not very strange considering that the relatively few inscriptions are spread among half of the States and several Canadian provinces, from Nova Scotia to California. Thus nobody is likely to know much about American runes. These establishments are consequently incapable of giving information even about an inscription in their own possession, and they may even be unwilling to provide any intelligence because of the controversy and charged discourse connected with many of these items. A case in point is the runestone Nancy Millwood discovered in Saluda, North Carolina. She is claimed to have sent photographs of her find to ten institutions without ever hearing back from any of them.

There have been some creditable publications establishing the background of certain inscriptions. The problem here is that these articles are almost always published in either less-known scholarly journals or obscure pseudo-scientific periodicals. An added complication is that many publications on runes are written in Scandinavian languages and German or even French and Spanish, not easily accessible to English monoglots. Hence, a runic inscription safely shown to be modern can in the public mind and even to most academics be thought to be ancient. Such belief is not unreasonable if no other explanation is available.

Whole tribes, especially the Mandans, have been claimed to have Scandinavian ancestry

The Kensington runestone. Photo: Henrik Williams.

Most importantly, a corpus edition of runic objects in America is a prerequisite when countermanding the fake news of European presence in pre-Columbian America. Runic inscriptions are used as would-be evidence that “whites” were there very early or in some areas even first. Claims are made that these Europeans, often Vikings, consequently intermarried with Native Americans. A would-be benign rendering of this is the painting “Spirits of the Runestone” of Indians in front of the Heavener runestone in Oklahoma, casting shadows with horned helmets and Viking clothing on the monument. Other interpretations are more sinister. Whole tribes, especially the Mandans, have been claimed to have Scandinavian ancestry because of physical features and cultural achievements.

Although no American inscription has so far been proved to be medieval or older, they constitute a particularly valuable runological research material as test cases for determining what is authentic and what is not, and how to convey the scientific results to the general public. This has implications for all writing with ancient characters, particularly in stone. Bearing in mind that North America is also claimed to evidence inscriptions in Ogham, Hebrew, Chinese, Punic and other exotic scripts, the study of runes on this continent is highly relevant to other branches of scholarship.

The proposed edition will contain full descriptions of the runic objects and their inscriptions or other markings, references to publications and a discussion of rune forms, language and meaning (if any), as well as a pronouncement on probable dating. This will primarily be a book of facts, not a vehicle for dispute.

4 thoughts on “Fake runes?

  1. Henrik:

    Good luck on your application. I look forward to seeing you in the USA! Lykke til!

  2. Greetings – I attended your lecture in southern Arizona/US and have long studied epigraphy. I look forward with great anticipation to your publication. Also, oddly enough, I think we may have met once by chance around ten years ago in southwest Germany… I was looking for Mithraeum ruins in the area and was quite lost, asked you for directions.

    Excellent blog, great work. This is a haven for those of us that lay awake in contemplation of what is, and isn’t, empirical.

  3. Pingback: American runestones | The Rune Blog

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