A New North American Fantasy

By: Bryce Little

Originally Published in 1987

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Archaeological misidentifications and outright frauds have been relatively common within North America during the past 100 years. The story of the Kensington Rune Stone is typical. This large slab carved with odd writing was found in 1898 near the town of Alexandria, Minnesota. A Swedish immigrant farmer named Olof Ohman was removing a tree, and “discovered” the stone beneath its roots; a story quickly circulated that the writing was in Norse runes, the ancient script of Scandinavia.

Both American and Scandinavian scholars examined the “text” at this time, and every one of them pronounced it a crude fake. Yet instead of disappearing, the Rune Stone was “rediscovered” by Norwegian-American writer Hjalmar Holand, who became its owner and lifetime publicist. Holand, despite a constant rejection of the text by runic scholars, won a major victory in 1912, when the Minnesota Historical Society accepted the stone as genuine. He and his supporters “translated” the inscription as the record of a voyage made by Norse seafarers to Minnesota via Lake Superior in the year A.D. 1362.

After World War II, the Kensington stone gained scholarly supporters. The mighty Smithsonian put it on exhibit in 1948-49, and published a translation of a monograph by a Danish scholar who accepted the stone as genuine. A gigantic reproduction was soon unveiled in a Minnesota park. Yet the inscription had been repeatedly shown to include very bizarre spellings and at least one word not otherwise known from the 14th century. In 1958, a careful study of all the evidence was made by Erik Wahlgren, who concluded that the stone was a deliberate fraud: “Everything necessary to the fabrication [of the stone] existed in the immediate vicinity: an ample supply of stone…; an atmosphere conducive to the hoax;…a local population of Scandinavian immigrants; and textual materials which can account for the more puzzling features…” (1958:29).

In 1974 a confession made by one John Gran to his children revealed the stone’s forgery. “The purpose of the hoax, Gran had said, was to be ‘a hell of a good joke’ and `the biggest haha’ ” (McKusick and Wahlgren, quoted in Carlson 1980:6).

Cite This Article

Little, Bryce. "A New North American Fantasy." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 2 (July, 1987): -. Accessed February 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-new-north-american-fantasy/

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