Periodically popular culture returns to the theme of our ancient roots and we get all romantic about where we come from, or else, we turn dystopian about how benighted the olden days were and how enlightened we are by contrast.
In the 18th century, we liked vampires, Italians and depraved ecclesiastics. In the 19th century, we liked ghosts and a lot of Arthuriana. Little Gothic revivals haunted the 20th century as things like Hobbits, Dungeons & Dragons, and Led Zeppelin... And we still do it.
Sometimes, our stories are about fear of historical backsliding. Other times we need to invent a past that we’d rather be in then we do things like suddenly discover manuscripts and ruins among us that prove our connection with that past.
Which is to say, we manufacture them ourselves or we interpret what’s already there to suit us but for those of us with Nordic inclinations, this is old hat. There are lots of fakes and mistakes about Vikings, and they’re especially common in North America.
Icelanders did poke around the eastern seaboard by about the year 1000. The so-called Vinland Sagas are not fanciful about that, though their narrative is muddled. The Vinland Sagas refer mostly to the Groenlandinga saga (“The Saga of the Greenlanders”) and Eiríks saga rauða (“The Saga of Eric the Red”).
Tradition has these written in Iceland around 1200, and they come to us in a complicated series of later medieval installments and redactions. They’re a hopeless conflation of oral tradition so they don’t work reliably as historical sources but archaeology does now confirm their basic assertion that there were Nordic people in Greenland and what is now Canada for a while.
They made numerous landings, later ones with women and cattle, and some short-lived attempts at colonizing. They met the natives, the skrælingar, and came to blows with them when they left. Greenland Vikings continued for a while to harvest lumber from ‘Markland’, which was probably on coastal Newfoundland. The region lives on in legend as a source of other New World treasures, like grapevines – hence, “Vinland”.
Early in the 19th century, folkish scholars and amateurs immersed in the Sagas (the Germans were doing the same with the Siegfried lore) started finding traces of the people within them, or so they imagined. Weathered rocks and Native American pictographs suddenly looked Viking.
One of them is the Dighton Rock at Berkley, Massachusetts. This is a collection of petroglyphs on a 40-ton boulder on the Taunton River. They’ve been known about since the 1690s, and attributed to indigenous Americans, ancient Phoenicians, Portuguese traders, the Chinese, and Norsemen.
Nobody has ever translated them. More accurately, nobody has ever shown that their translations are real translations. 19th-century satirists made fun of how variable and how self-serving they all were.
There were also ancient structures like the tower in Newport, Rhode Island, popularized by Longfellow’s “Skeleton in Armor.” This was proposed to be of Viking construction in the 1830s, partly on the shaky evidence of the Dighton Rock inscriptions. Carbon dating of the mortar and systematic archaeology have since shown that the tower was actually a 17th-century windmill and not a very remarkable one at that.
“The Skeleton in Armor” is great reading anyway. There had been such a one discovered in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1832, and this got Longfellow singing about Vikings (“Skoal! To the Northland! Skoal!”) as only Longfellow can do. He had his imaginary warrior build the Newport tower for his princess-wife, daughter of old Hildebrand (a character from the Nibelungenlied). Pour some mead sometime and read it out loud. It’s pretty rockin’!.
Nordic enthusiasts haven’t just found traces of the Vikings, they’ve manufactured them. One of them, and it stands to reason that someone would try this is known as the ‘Vinland Map’. It’s a crude, medieval-ish graphic of the world, discovered (as it were) in the 1950s in Europe, by Lawrence Witten, a New Haven antiquarian.
It was on parchment with lots of Latin. Yale University Press published its contents suggesting that there might be the earliest representation of European settlement in North America. The text talks about names we know like the twelfth-century bishop Eiríkr Gnúpsson, who went looking for Vinland, and the probable founders of Vinland, Bjarni Herjólfsson and (of course) Leifr Eiríksson.
Witten was secretive about where he’d gotten the map. The map is mentioned in no hand lists of medieval manuscripts anywhere. The text alludes to later iterations of the Vinland Sagas for which no evidence has ever been found. The map’s representation of the rest of the world does not jive with that of any other coeval cartography.
Chemists at Yale’s Beineke Rare Book Library found titanium dioxide in the ink, a compound not invented until 1917 through its abundance seemed less clear after more testing at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratories at the University of California, Davis.
The most famous manufacture that your author even remembers hearing about in school, is the “Kensington rune stone,” presented to the world in 1898 by a farmer in Douglas County, Minnesota, where there are a lot of families with Scandinavian last names. “Runes” are the letters used by various Germanic peoples in the early middle ages, before the general adoption of Latin orthography.
The Minnesota runes are flatly not authentic. The stone has become the center of a cult in spite of that, a cult really about local ethnicity and tempers have flared many times in pop-literature over this. The history of the arguments and conspiracy theories around the Kensington store is as entertaining as anything about Rosslyn Chapel or the Knights Templar, and the arguments themselves are just as ingenious.
It is true that there is no consensus on where the stone actually did come from. But the scholarly verdict among professionals is that the inscriptions are modern, not medieval. Grammar and orthography do vary in semi-literate societies, but here they really don’t make sense in what’s known of the medieval literary landscape. Nor do the archeological clues substantiate medieval provenance.
The Kensington stone is a lesson in vaguely nationalist antiquarianism, really. There’s also the Spirit Pond group of stone inscriptions found in the ‘seventies in Popham Beach, Maine. They’re supposed to be centuries older than the ones in Minnesota and to allude to the Vinland sagas.
They get the language all wrong and they mess up the numeral characters that refer to dates.There's a fanciful map and lots of animal pictures. It’s pretty bonkers. What it may really be is a playful joke, a lampoon of the Kensington stone. If so, it’s a good one.
Theories about the inscriptions concern Knights Templar (naturally), biological descendants of Jesus, and migration to the New World carrying along the Holy Grail. Great fun, if also bonkers, but anyway not medieval. In Ontario, there are the Beardmore Finds as they’re called, a supposed cache of artifacts.
These are Viking, yes, but they are known to have been purchased and planted for discovery in the 1930s. They actually arrived in North America, from Norway, in the 1920s. The son of the discoverer fessed up, confirming the suspicions of the scholarly community. They’re on museum display in Ontario. Their pseudo-history notwithstanding, they are still Viking.
There is a genuine twelfth-century coin, of Norwegian origin, associated with indigenous populations in coastal Maine. It’s spoken of as the ‘Goddard’ coin. It’s from a burial site of the ancestors of the Penobscots. No one knows how it got there. It’s the only one of its kind in the region. Did it come to us from the skrælingar? Was it planted by a twentieth-century “discoverer”? We don’t know. The coin is real, on numismatic evidence. Its back-story may be a hoax.
There was a drinking horn found in Waukegan, Illinois, in the 1950s, with carvings on it, too. Turns out, they were put there by Hjálmar Lárusson, an Icelandic poet. He did this in the 20th century.
We know because his daughter told us. He did a lot of these for tourists. This particular one, found on a roadside by a delivery driver made enough of a splash in the Illinois Scandinavian community that it was sent to the University of Arizona for carbon-dating. (They were the same group who had dated the Shroud of Turin.)
There’s a lot of pseudo-history out there and we can be sure to expect more of it. The stories we like to tell about our antique origins are, in a way, just as interesting as the real historical origins are. They’re just as important, too, though their subject is us not Vikings.
If you’re into the idea of Vikings as much as you’re into actual Vikings, there’s probably no reason not to listen and enjoy. It’s a voyage of self-discovery, and that’s legitimate.
Remember, Vikings themselves were famous storytellers. They’d love all of this. They’d want to hear about themselves invading Minnesota and Waukegan. They’d probably embellish on it. They’d love the fake runes, and they’d probably plant some themselves. They’d probably like Dungeons & Dragons, too! And you can bet they’d dig Led Zeppelin.