Day 46 - Ohman Farm
About 15 miles west of Alexandria, just south of State Highway 27, lies the Ohman Farm. Today the place is known as Runestone Park and there is a plaque that identifies the actual site where the Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman in 1898 found the controversial Kensington Runestone.
Olof Ohman and his two oldest sons, Olof Jr. who was 12 years old and Edward who was almost 10, were clearing trees in the extreme far east end of their roughly 100 acre parcel of property. They were working on clearing a particularly stubborn poplar tree. Olof Sr. said that he cut off the roots around the base of the stump in the ground and then the tree was tipped over. When the stump pulled up out of the ground, tightly wrapped in the roots that were still attached to the tree, was this 203 pound stone. It was the youngest son, Edward who noticed the inscription on the stone. They called over their neighbour Nils Flaaten who was a Norwegian immigrant. So those were the first four people who saw the runestone.
Inscribed on the stone in runes is an account of the journey of a party of Norse explorers who camped nearby in 1362. Archaeological and philological disputes have been waged over the authenticity of the stone for over 100 years. Most scholars argue that the stone is a hoax, i.e., that it is of more recent origin than the 14th century though some accept it with the corroborative archaeological evidence. The controversy centers mainly on the interpretation of the inscription. Translated it reads: (We are) 8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on (an) exploration-journey from Vinland over the West. We had camp by 2 skerries, one days journey north from this stone. We were (out) and fished one day. After we come home (we) found 10 (of our) men red with blood and dead. AV(e) M(aria) Save us from evil. (We) have 10 of our party by the sea to look after our ship(s?) 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362.
The stone created a sensation. It was exhibited at a local bank in Alexandria and eventually made it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and to the Historical Museum in Stockholm. Most experts has deemed the stone a modern fake, likely perpetrated by Olof Ohman himself. You can see it for yourself in Alexandria (Day 47) and make up your own mind. But let's be the Devil's Advocate and listen to the forensic investigator Scott Wolter who was interviewed in the Scandinavian Press in 2008. He is the co-author of "The Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence" and is sure that the stone is genuine. As he says "It is either a late 19th century hoax or it is not. And if it is not, it must be genuine. The inscription is written in old Swedish and in a dialect of Gotland." Here is his argument:
"Olof Ohman was a carpenter and this is well documented. He was not a stonemason as has sometimes been erroneously stated. Olof Ohman immigrated in 1879. That was 19 years before he found the rune stone. So the age of the tree itself exonerates him. What I find very troubling is that people who have taken a position that this is a fake inscription just ignore this very powerful evidence. It all boils down to logic exercise. Ohman was an intelligent guy. We know this from all the letters he has written that the family has brought forth. After the stone had been displayed in Kensington and came back to the farm, Ohman tried to figure out what was in the inscription. Some of his neighbours gave him some books of Swedish grammar so he could do this. We now know that by using those books you could not even come close to carving this inscription. But Ohman made a copy on a piece of paper of the inscription. His neighbour Jan Hedberg then wrote a letter in English asking for help to figure out the inscription. That letter was sent to Swan Turnblad who was the publisher of the Swedish paper in Minneapolis. Turnblad went over to the university and he gave the copy to the professor of Scandinavian languages. He looked at the copy and said he saw some English words and some modern Swedish words and declared this as a hoax. That copy was then published in Swan Turnblad’s newspaper and that copy made it over to Scandinavia where three more experts looked at that copy and dismissed it. One of the most powerful pieces of evidence against the stone was the word “har”. What is important is that the second letter in the word “har” in the copy is an “a” and “har” is a modern Swedish word. But in the stone there are two dots above the “a” rune and här is an old Swedish word. One powerful evidence against the stone linguistically in fact becomes a powerful evidence that it is medieval. Now if Ohman was the forger why did he not put the two dots that are clearly there on the stone. The reason is he did not see them because he did not know they were there because he did not make it.
I do material forensics for a living. When you are doing a forensic investigation about whatever it is, there are not two sides to the story. What I mean by that is that there can only be one right answer. In the case of the rune stone I knew early on when the geology told me that it was old that it had to be genuine. Logic told me that if the weathering of the inscription was old it had to be genuine. I don’t think past investigators approached this as a logic exercise. In this particular case what we did was to my knowledge never done before. We were not trying to date the age of the rock. The rock is very old of course. What we are trying to do is to date the age of the inscription and I started off by determining the composition of the rock. This rock is made up of a lot of different kinds of minerals and some of those minerals weather very quickly and some weather very slowly and some like quartz won’t weather at all chemically. The fact that the rock had a lot of minerals was very helpful to us as I was able to check a couple of minerals that weather very quickly relatively speaking geologically and I focused on a couple of these minerals and I compared the weathering of the inscription and the weathering of tombstones that are comprised of the same minerals, the same mineral grain size and from an area that has essentially the same climate as the rune stone. On the tombstones inscriptions were beginning to come off at about 200 years. That led to the conclusion that the rune stone inscription must have been 200 years older than that. And that is from the date it was pulled out from the ground because the rune stone has not been in a weathering environment since that time. So really the clock starts at 1898 because it had been weathering up to that point. That does not put it to 1362 but the question is that it is either a late 19th century hoax meaning around the time it was found or it is not. And if it is not, it must be genuine. This is hard science.
Many of the stories surrounding the Kensington rune stone are myths. The simple fact is that at this present time all of the words, all of the dialect features, the grammar in the runes have been found to be medieval. That in itself is an important point because many of the experts for 100 years said that some of these words were modern, some were English and there were various features within the inscription itself that they thought were modern but we now know that is not the case. The other thing that is important is all of these features, thanks primarily to my co-worker in the book Dick Nielsen’s research, point to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. The inscription is written in old Swedish and in a dialect of Gotland. The last place that the Scandinavian scholars studied the runic inscriptions of Scandinavia was in Gotland. In fact they are still studying them and Gotland turns out to be a treasure trove of medieval runic inscriptions. And to me that’s the explanation why the Kensington inscription was not figured out before. There is one very important change in the understanding of the inscription that Dick Nielsen’s research has made. It changes the context. After the eight gutter and 22 North men comes a long word. This word was deciphered as journey of discovery but that’s not what it means. After being in Gotland Dick discovered that this word actually should be deciphered as journey of acquisition or taking up land. That is a very important difference. For a long time the reference to fishing in the inscription bothered me because I wondered why they would talk about fishing. But knowing that the carvers were Cistercians I believe they were fishing for souls, that is preaching and most likely to the Native Americans.
When you are talking about an inscription like this you are talking about someone who was obviously educated. Back in those days the only people who had the education were the clergy and the monks. In 1362 on Gotland all you had were Cistercians so the carver clearly has to be a Cistercian monk. The Cistercians were a sophisticated group, a very successful group of monastic monks that were affiliated with the Catholic church. By the mid-14th century they had 750 abbeys across Europe into Scandinavia including Gotland and into the Middle East. The military order called the Knights Templar were created by the Cistercians in 1128. What I think happened is that in 1307 when the Templars were struck down by the King of France and the Catholic church, you also saw the decline in the Cistercian order. Then you had wars going on and you had famine and then you had the plague that kicked around 1348 which in some places in Scandinavia decimated almost two-thirds of the population. The Knights Templar order was under religious persecution and things were not going well for them and the Cistercians who were affiliated with them. But the true reason for them to seek out a new place to exist was due to a different ideology. And it was the ideology that drove them to come over to the new world in the 14th century. I believe the rune stone is a land claim. These people were not Vikings. Christianity had gone through Scandinavia by this time. These people were Christians. These trips were done secretly because of the persecution and that’s why there is very little if any record of these trips. For people who do not believe this, I would say show me your evidence that this did not happen. There is a runic inscription that was found in Greenland which is dated 1314 and clearly exhibits many of the same language features and dating features and that was probably carved by a Cistercian monk as well.
But why Kensington, Minnesota? You have to get into the mind of a medieval person to answer this question. First there are practical reasons. In the 14th century the beaver was the prize fur in Europe. Furs had been depleted throughout Scandinavia so the Cistercians who were business people were looking for another source for beavers, a purely financial thing. The best beaver pelts in North America are right in this area. Another reason is strategic. The area of Kensington just happens to be the head waters to three major waterways, the Great Lakes watershed, the Red River Hudson Bay watershed and the Mississippi Missouri River watershed down into the Gulf. When you control the waterways you control travel. And back in those days those were the super highways. There is also a religious reason. Kensington is a geographic centre of North America and there is some evidence in literature that they were trying to establish what they called the New Jerusalem. I also make a strong case for the three Spirit Pond rune stones that were found at the mouth of the Kennebec River at the Atlantic Ocean in the state of Maine. I think Newport Tower in Rhode Island has some strong links and there is a lot of evidence there for a roughly 1400 construction date. The so-called mooring holes linked with the Vikings are not mooring holes, they are stone holes and I believe some of these were carved by these same people and I think they were used as breadcrumb trails to help people coming back to find their way, or they were used as survey lines, property lines, boundaries, marking territory and as locator stones."