This is part three of a three part series on the Viking relics of North America. It is not necessary to read all three parts to understand the story (but it can’t hurt). Part one, on the quest for Vinland in New England, can be found here. Part two, about Viking relics in Minnesota, can be found here.
Okay, so where did we leave off last time?
With the rediscovery of the lost Greenland settlements in the early 18th Century, historians started to realize that Icelandic explorers had reached the Americas several centuries before Christopher Columbus.
In the mid-19th Century, different movements latched on to this idea to further their own ends. In Europe, you had Scandinavians trying to embellish their sparse medieval histories with grandiose accomplishments. In New England, you had WASPs trying to reinforce their Northern European heritage in a way that really stuck it to recent immigrants from Southern Europe. In the upper Midwest, you had Scandinavian-Americans trying to create a deep tie between their homeland and their adopted country as a way of easing the transition from immigrant to American.
There was only one problem: a complete and utter lack of evidence that the Vikings had ever made it further south than the tippity-top of Newfoundland. To make up for that lack of evidence, these groups relied on the simple strategy of misinterpreting existing historical documents and artifacts, and in same cases, faking them.
Initially, everyone looking to prove the Viking conquest of America was at least nominally devoted to seeking out the truth, or at least, whatever snatches of the truth could be seen around the enormous blinders they had on. As time went on, though, these truth-seekers were replaced by true believers who could not be reasoned with, the delusional and deranged, and the unscrupulous individuals who preyed on both parties.
That’s where we pick up this week: with the cranks, crazies and charlatans.
Let’s start with someone we’ve already met before, Scott Wolter. Wolter is first a foremost a geologist who came to prominence in the late 1990s as a member of the Kensington Runestone Scientific Testing Team.
Wolter became even more famous 2001 by being one of several scientists who examined the recently discovered AVM Runestone and declared it to be a modern hoax… Though it should also be noted that Wolter only announced his conclusions after the hoaxers, a group of five former University of Minnesota graduate students, had already come forward.
So, is Wolter a crank, crazy or charlatan? A bit of all three, actually.
At first, he just seems to be a garden-variety crank. His chosen field of “archaeopetrography” is a pseudo-science with exactly one practitioner, Scott Wolter. The forensic techniques he uses to date rock inscriptions are dubious at best, as they have never been subjected to rigorous testing or peer review. He also frequently attempts to speak authoritatively on subjects far outside his area of expertise.
Of course, he also gets a bit crazy. Over the last twenty years his public persona has shifted from inquisitive scientist who is just asking questions to an avid conspiracy theorist spouting any old gibberish that comes to mind. His pet theory is that the Kensington Runestone and other artifacts were left behind in the 1300s by Norse explorer Paul Knutsson, who was ostensibly on a royal mission to relieve the beleaguered colonies in Greenland but was secretly an agent of the Knights Templar looking to hide the Holy Grail somewhere in the new world. (If you are playing along at home, I hope that last sentence helped you fill out one of the rows on your conspiracy theory bingo card.)
And then there’s the realization that makes me think he’s a charlatan: it feels like everything Wolter has done has been in service of his true goal, getting on television. If that’s true, he was successful, as his pseudo-archaeology show America Unearthed has been regularly featured on the History Channel and the Travel Channel. Think of it as a slightly more plausible version of Ancient Aliens, if only because it swaps out the aliens for Templars.
As the host of America Unearthed, Wolter has investigated many of the artifacts we’ve already discussed, like the Newport Tower, the Westford Knight, the Narragansett Runestone… Basically, any place he could cheaply film at and tie back to the Templars.
He also didn’t care that much about the quality of his work, as we’ll see form the following anecdote.
The endless quest for content eventually led Wolter to an inscription discovered by hikers in the Mustang Mountains of Arizona, where a series of runic characters were carved into a cave near Native American petroglyphs. Wolter sent a copy of the inscription off to one Mike Carr, identified as “someone who knows a lot about runes,” who declared them to be marking the burial site of one “Rough Hurech.” Wolter took that information, did some more research, and used some tortured logic to declare that “Rough Hurech” was Peter Hurech, a 13th Century Englishman from Staffordshire. This, of course, was used to prove that Vikings, Templars, and alchemists had been roving the American southwest in pre-Columbian times.
Wolter’s outlandish claims attracted the attention of a real linguist and runologist, Henrik Williams of Uppsala University. When Williams examined the inscription, he discovered that they were in Sudovian, a dead language once spoken in on the shores of the Baltic, which translated to “Hello! I Sudovian write runes. Pashka is my name.” He made this discovery through the mysterious and arcane technique known as “Googling,” which led him to web page about Sudovian runes written by one Joseph Pashka that featured nearly the same phrase. Turns out Pashka once lived in southern Arizona. He has denied carving the runes himself, but it sounds like a friend or student may have used his page as a guide to create the inscription.
Wolter should not have been surprised to discover that the inscription was of recent origin. Even he had to note that the runes showed no signs of weathering or erosion, a fact that he then completely ignored for the rest of the program. I suppose it’s hard to fill up an hour of basic cable with baseless speculation if you’ve debunked your subject before the first commercial break.
Vikings and Templars in Nova Scotia
Wolter isn’t the only one seeing Templars everywhere, mind you.
Joan Harris and her husband Ron moved to New Ross, Nova Scotia in 1972. Shortly afterwards, Joan was looking into an empty lot behind her house and thought she saw mounds and depressions that might indicate the foundations of a long-forgotten structure. The Harrises conduced an amateur archaeological dig and discovered several walls and a series of artifacts. Joan took these discoveries as proof of what she had always believed: that Nova Scotia had been home to the fabled Viking colony of Norumbega.
Now, we talked about Norumbega a bit in our first episode. The name appears to have been a mapmakers’ error that came to be associated with rumors of a fabulously wealthy Indian village. Later, Harvard professor Eben Norton Horsford made a faulty leap of logic and declared it had been a Viking city, which he then “discovered” near Weston, Massachusetts.
Norumbega never actually existed, so it certainly wasn’t what Harris had discovered. She didn’t stop there, though.
Above the ruins of Norumbega she claims to have found the remnants of a great stone castle built by the Knights Templar and the Stuart kings of Great Britain. Both groups had used the castle to gather and catalogue the treasures they had looted from the Holy Land and Europe, which they then buried in the fabled “money pit” on nearby Oak Island.
In recent years, treasure hunters and conspiracy theories have pointed to the Harrises’ finds as proof that something is buried in on Oak Island. Of course, to do that they have to ignore all the warning signs that Joan Harris is nuttier than a fruitcake.
You see, Harris has a theory that explains why the Vikings, Templars, and Stuarts were all drawn to the same site. It has to do with a conjunction of ley lines and all three groups being connected to an ancient phallocentric fertility cult. This eldritch nexus also weakens the walls of reality, which explains why Harris is constantly being bedeviled by ghosts, aliens, time travelers, and leprechauns who root through her trash like raccoons.
There is absolutely nothing secret or sinister about the supposed New Ross “castle.” Historical records show that a blacksmith shop stood on Harris’s property form 1817 to 1860, with a shape that corresponds exactly to the foundations she unearthed. That’s about 200 years too late to be a secret Stuart mansion, about 500 years too late to be an outpost of the Knights Templar, and about 800 years to late to be a Viking city that never existed in the first place.
Then again, time travel is involved. So you can’t be too careful.
While we’re in the vicinity…
In 2012 hikers along the shores of Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia discovered what appeared to be an extensive inscription on the boulders along the shore. It was an elaborate scene with horses, warriors, serpents, birds, and runes. They snapped a few pictures and slapped them up on the Internet to see if anyone had any idea what it was.
As news of the stone’s discovery began to spread, conspiracy theorists and pseudo-archaeologists took notice because of its proximity to Oak Island, which is in Mahone Bay. They speculated about a possible relationship to Oak Island, the Knights Templar, the New Ross Castle, the two Yarmouth runestones, and Norumbega.
That speculation was shut down pretty quickly. Curators from the Nova Scotia Museum indicated it was made with metal tools. Others pointed out it showed no signs of weathering. A Yale historian pointed out that it was an incomplete copy of the most famous runic carving in the world, the Ramsund Monument in Sweden, which depicts events from the life of the legendary hero Sigurd.
Eventually someone thought to check in with the residents of nearby Lunenberg to see if they knew anything about the stone. It turns out the locals knew everything about the stone. Namely, that had been carved in 1984 by the nephew of a visiting artist to pass the time.
The original posters were just happy to learn about the carving’s origins and posted the whole tale on their website. The sad fact, though, is that explanation has exponentially fewer views than their original post and the baseless speculation that followed.
In this regard, the Mahone Bay stone is far from alone. Idiots on the Internet have practically made a career of mistaking any number of modern carvings as authentic Viking era runes, from rune-carved headstones in cemeteries to runic carvings on public monuments and even a rather spectacular piece of public art in Vancouver’s Vanier Park.
Not just carvings! I’ve seriously seen posts suggesting that every unexplained cairn in America is actually a monument to some fallen Viking warrior and using their distribution to place Vinland in British Columbia. Surely, only white men from Europe could have invented the the concept of piling rocks on top of each other. It certainly wasn’t any of the numerous Native American groups that inhabited those areas.
Part of me wants to say that the Internet has made us more credulous, but no, we’ve always been that way.
Take the viking longboat that emerged from a sandstone quarry in Weimanalo, Hawaii in 1936. The article that announced the discovery is quite convincing, and even includes a photograph of the longboat emerging from the excavation site. Since its discovery, the longboat has been repeatedly held up by crazies as a sign that Vikings reached the Pacific Ocean.
The crazies are ignoring several clear warning signs. Most importantly, this momentous discovery was announced to the world in the April 1st, 1936 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. And just in case readers may have been a bit slow on the update, a mysterious inscription on the longboat is translated as “APRIL FOOL” in the article’s final paragraph.
The article was not was not intended to deceive… or at least, not for longer than the few minutes it takes to read it. It was the work of Howard Case, a long-time reporter for the Star-Bulletin, who wrote the story and even enlisted some friends in the newsroom to build a scale model of Viking longship to which human figures were added via photographic trickery.
The prank proved so popular that the longboat’s erstwhile discoverer, Dr. Thorkel Gellison of the Royal Lirpa Loof Academy in Oslo, graced the pages of the Star-Bulletin every April 1st from 1936 to 1954. (With an occasional out-of-season appearance when there was a slow news day.)
Over the years, Dr. Gellison achieving astounding accomplishments such as catching the largest fish in the world (which he insisted it wasn’t that big); discovering a living species of dinosaur called Gigantica fibicus and taming it with peppermint candies; inventing a machine that turned chewing gum into Vulcanized rubber; explaining a mysterious iceberg that appeared off of Waikiki Beach; and even proving the existence of extraterrestrial life by digging up a fully functional flying saucer.
Case’s April Fools’ articles are part of a long tradition of newspapers hoaxing their readers. Today this sort of prank is generally restricted to April Fools’ Day or in the op-ed or feature sections. In the past, though, reporters and editors had no such scruples. It wasn’t unusual to see outlandish fake stories on the front page whenever a paper had to to drive up circulation, fill a few extra column inches, or even just for the hell of it. Notable newspaper hoaxes of yesteryear include the announcement of a solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic; the mysterious escape of all the animals in the Central Park Zoo and their subsequent bloody rampage; and the discovery of life on the Moon.
And, of course, the Great Viking Hoax.
On July 8th, 1867 the Washington Evening Union published an extraordinary announcement that an actual Viking grave had been discovered outside of Washington, DC below the Great Falls of the Potomac. In 1863 archaeologist Philip Marsh unearthed a Latin translation of a previously unknown saga in Skaholt. When translated, it told the tale of Viking explorers who traveled along the eastern coast of North America and sailed up a river until they were stopped by a series of waterfalls they called Ilvidserk, or “White Shirt.” There Suasu, the illegitimate daughter of Snorri Thorfinsonn, was struck by a spear and buried on the spot where she fell. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Thomas C. Raffinson of the Danish Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries explored the banks of the Potomac searching for Suasu’s grave. Eventually, at the well-known “Arrow-Head” rock below the Falls, he discovered a grave marked with a runic inscription which he translated thus:
Here rests Suasu, the fair-haired, a person from the east of Iceland, the widow of Kjoldr, and sister of Thogr, children of the same father… twenty-five years of age. May God make glad her soul. 1051.
Washington, DC went mad with Viking fever. Copies of the Evening Union flew off the shelves and tourists flocked to the Great Falls of the Potomac to search for Suasu’s grave.
It was all a hoax. Suasu Snorrisdottir does not exist. The Skaholt Saga does not exist. Philip Marsh does not exist. Thomas C. Raffinson does not exist. The Danish Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries doesn’t exit. But it all sounds just believable enough, especially if you’re only casually interested in history and archaeology.
That’s because it was put together by a huge Vikings fan: Frank Cowan, lawyer, doctor, and personal secretary to president Andrew Johnson. Cowan was obsessed with Vikings. He lived on a palatial Viking-themed estate in Greensburg, Pennsylvania called “Mt. Odin.” and had plans to be buried in a Viking fire ship.
When his friend, Evening Union publisher Thomas Birch Florence, needed a boost in circulation Cowan used his obsession to craft an astounding and plausible sounding story. It worked. The outbreak of Viking fever died out shortly afterward but Florence had the infusion of cash he needed.
Cowan finished his turn in civil service and returned to Greensburg to live a life of leisure and write. When he died in 1905, is next-of-kin decided to forgo the fire ship and give him a regular Christian burial.
Not much remains of his former estate, but you can still visit if you can scrape up the green fees. It’s now the Mt. Odin Golf Course in Greensburg.
The Vinland Map
Now, if Case’s April Fools’ hoaxes were done in the spirit of fun, Cowan’s hoax was done for equal parts fun and profit. But there are plenty of other hoaxes done purely for profit.
In the late 1950s, rumors of a rare manuscript began circulating among European museums. It was a copy of a The Tartar Relation, a record of a 13th Century Papal legate’s visit to the Mongol Empire. However, this copy of The Tartar Relation had an unusual feature: it was bound with a map of the known world that showed Iceland, Greenland… and Vinland, which appeared to consist of portions of Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Vinland. There was just one problem: the dealer trying to sell the manuscript, Enzo Ferrioli, would not reveal the provenance of the map indicating that it was likely shady AF.
In spite of that, Ferrioli eventually found a buyer, American scholar Laurence Whitten. Whitten spent several years trying to authenticate the Vinland map and The Tartar Relation with any number of pre-scientific methods: tracing the watermark of the paper it was written, lining up wormholes on the pages, comparing it to other versions of the same manuscript, and so forth. Eventually, he convinced scholars at Yale University of the book’s authenticity, and they convinced millionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon to purchase it and donate it to the university.
Yale also spent several years authenticating the map, and then, on the eve of Columbus Day 1965, they held an elaborate party to announce the existence of the Vinland map to the world.
It was not well-received. Local Italian-Americans, in particular, thought the announcement and its timing were just the latest sortie in a 150 year long campaign by New England WASPS to erase Columbus from history. But actual scholars were also not convinced. They were worried about the book’s lack of provenance, the secrecy with which Whitten and Yale’s investigations had been conducted, the absence of the map in other copies of The Tartar Relation, the surprising accuracy of certain parts of the map and the relative crudeness of others, and the fact that Vikings were not known to make maps.
To quiet these voices of dissent, Yale submitted the Vinland Map to microscopic and spectroscopic examinations in the 1970s. These ultimately revealed that while the map drawn on an authentic medieval parchment, it was drawn not in period-accurate iron gall ink but in one made with gelatin and titanium dioxide, which suggested a modern origin.
Yale refused to accept these findings. There was too much at stake — not only the reputation of the University and its professors, but also the goodwill of Paul Mellon, who had spent a small fortune to acquire the map. They conducted more tests, which proved to be inconclusive, and then used those to muddy the waters.
And that was basically the pattern for decades. New tests would confirm the original findings, Yale would produce its own tests with inconclusive results, lather, rinse, repeat. No one outside of Yale believed the map was real, and eventually even Yale had to cave… though it took then until September 2021.
(Yes, that’s right, last month.)
In the end, the Vinland Map appears to be an attempt by Enzo Ferrioli to sell an authentic medieval manuscript with sketchy provenance at for more than the price it would normally command. The inclusion of the Vinland Map was done to appeal to the preconceptions of American scholars, who responded by shutting off their critical faculties and catching a bad case of Viking fever.
Grave Creek Stone
Of course, you don’t have to go to Italy to find fake Viking artifacts. There are plenty of home-grown frauds.
As we mentioned in episode one, in the 18th and 19th Century scholars came up with the idea that Native Americans were “primitive peoples” little better than animals, because that would provide a handy moral justification for the horrific genocide being carried out by European settlers. To explain away the signs of Native American art and culture that they discovered, they declared that they were the remnants of a white European culture who had settled the continent before Native Americans but which had subsequently died out.
These cultural artifacts included thousands of earthen mounds erected by Native American cultures throughout the midwestern United States. Some of these were intended to be burial mounds, others were used for ritual purposes. Most 19th Century Americans really didn’t care what they had been used for. They just considered them to be nuisances and leveled them to get them out of the way, or built on them when that wasn’t possible.
In what is now Moundsville, West Virginia the locals had a better plan. Their local tumulus, the Grave Creek Mound, was one of the largest known. And they offered treasure hunters a crack at its hidden riches for a reasonable fee. Unfortunately for would-be treasure hunters, early excavations of the Grave Creek Mound proved to be somewhat underwhelming. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they turned up plenty of interesting artifacts: potsherds, copper bracelets, shells and beads, but none of what they were really looking for, which was gold.
Then, in 1838 diggers in the mound unearthed a strange artifact: a flat, polished stone with a runic inscription on one face. Everyone knew what this meant. Since Native Americans did not have a written language or art, the strange rune-carved stone was evidence that white men had once roamed the wilds of Virginia.
Many scholars have tried to translate the runes but have been stymied because they weren’t in any recognizable alphabet or language. Even so, various translations have been offered over the years, including:
- “Thy only orders are laws, thou shines in thy impetuous clan, and rapid as the chamois.”
- “The grave of one who was murdered here; to revenge him may God strike his murderer, suddenly taking away his existence.”
- “The chief of emigration who reached this island, has fixed these decrees forever.”
In 1948, runologist Olaf Strandwold assumed they were some sort of Viking runes and made a heroic effort to translate them. He came up with: “I knelt on the island. On Yule’s site on meadow island. Now the island is a sanctuary where holy things are hoarded.” Strandwold is not the most rigorous of scholars, though. We encountered him back in part one offering a translation of the transparently fraudulent Thorvald’s Rock in Hampton, NH. In any case, Strandwold’s translation of the Grave Creek stone was tortured at best. To get anything even close to a legible text he had to duplicate several characters, rotate others, ignore even more, and make some of them runes do double duty.
Strandwold should have listened to Carl Christian Rafn, who examined a copy of the inscription and dismissed it out of hand, because the runes were not Norse. They were, in fact, Iberian. Over a century and a half later researcher David Oestreicher found the exact same marks in an obscure 1752 Spanish history text, An Essay on the Alphabeets of the Unknown Letters That Are Found in the Most Ancient Coins and Monuments of Spain. This explains why no one has been able to make an intelligible translation: the message isn’t meant to be intelligible. It’s a sampler.
In retrospect, the stone was an obvious hoax. The timing of its discovery, just when interest in the excavations was starting to ebb, suggests that the likely perpetrators were landowner Jesse Tomlinson and local doctor James W. Clemens, who was helping hem exploit the mound.
Spirit Pond Runestones
The Grave Creek stone may have been America’s first fake runestone, but it’s hardly the last. New ones seem to keep surfacing every decade or so, which implies that we’re overdue.
In 1971, while wandering the banks of Spirit Pond in Maine, amateur archaeologist Walter E. Elliot discovered several boulders carved with runic inscriptions and what appeared to be a crude map of the area. Experts were called in, and offered the following translation of the inscriptions:
Hop. Vinland 1011. T(o) Ca(nada) two days. Ja(c)k. Bountiful land ( = Vinland the Good). Declare I that this unwe(ary) leader saw 17 dead warlike/tailed [?] m(en) in dugouts year 1010. Uiulisa suitlk 12 [22?] (days’) journey, west 12, north 10. Sagam(an) young S. K. Eichelman/Engelman/Eagleman/Eagle Scout [?]. Haakon found the hart-nixie towards west on ice-floe. Sail kirsch-drinking m(en) in dugouts year 1011. Skraelings let loose sea-serpent against that sailing-ship. Female friend in kayak take hold of m(an’s) p(-), work (= wind) ship towards land. 17 red chopped/77 redmen chop. Choose can I doomed/slain [?] heroic/tailed [?] m(en) in dugouts. Year M11. Norse folk’s Ja(c)k
And yeah, of course it’s fake.
First the message is almost pure gibberish. Parts of it make sense in isolation but together they don’t mean anything. It’s full of spelling and grammatical errors that seem to indicate that the message was originally written in modern Swedish and then mangled into Icelandic by someone who was not fully fluent in either language. The runic forms also appear to have been copied right from a book about the Kensington Runestone written by Hjalmar Holand — and badly copied at that, since half of them are illegible or mangled.
Then there are the anachronisms. There’s the usual mixture of Roman and Arabic numerals with runic forms, which would be highly unusual for an 11th Century Viking explorer. There are passages that seem to be from Icelandic sagas that weren’t written until years later. And there’s also a reference to Canada, which wouldn’t be named by Jacques Cartier until 1535.
And finally, there’s a map. As we mentioned above, the Vikings didn’t make maps. If the Spirit Pond map is real it would be the only Viking map in the entire world. Of course, it isn’t real. The map shows the current shape of Spirit Pond, but the area that has been dammed, drained, and developed over the last several hundred years. A map of how Spirit Pond looked in the 11th Century should look very different.
These days most scholars consider the Spirit Pond runestones to be obvious fakes, most likely carved by Walter Elliot himself. They do have their supporters, though. Namely, the enthusiastic amateurs of the New England Antiquities Research Association, who have a tendency to see Vikings under every stone. Including the stones of a nearby Colonial-era retaining wall, which they were convinced was the remnants of a Viking longhouse.
Don’t get me wrong, the energy and enthusiasm of amateurs can be invigorating. But amateurs also have a bad habit of keeping bad ideas alive far past their expiration date.
In March 1923, Carl Kemmerer, a schoolteacher in Heavener, Oklahoma wrote to the Smithsonian institution about a strange inscription he’d spotted on nearby Poteau Mountain years earlier and included a copy of the inscription with his letter. The Smithsonian wrote back that the writing appeared to be Elder Futhark runes, which were used in Scandinavia from 200-800 AD. The inscription appears to be meaningless though several translations have been offered over the years:
- The most common translation is GNOMEDAL, which could mean either Valley of the Gnomes or Sundial Valley, though, if DAL is supposed to be “valley” then the inscription is missing a character.
- Or maybe that N is actually an L and it reads GLOMEDAL, or Glome’s Valley, whoever Glome happens to be.
- Or it could be a proper name, G. NOMEDAL.
- Or maybe it says GAOMEDAT, which is just gibberish.
No one was sure how long the inscription had been there. It wasn’t likely to be a Viking relic — Elder Futhark runes had stopped being used several hundred years before the settlement of Greenland. The leading suggestions were that it had been carved by a Boy Scout troop in the 1910s, or by some homesick Scandinavian farmer in the 1800s. For a brief period the inscription was a local curiosity, but it was quickly forgotten.
It would have remained forgotten if it weren’t for Gloria Stewart.
In 1928, the 12-year-old Stewart trekked up to see the inscription with her friend, Rosemary Kemmerer. It was a fond childhood memory that remained with Stewart even after she married Reverend Ray Farley and moved away to Ohio. In 1950, the Farleys moved back to Heavener and Gloria was pleased to discover that the runes were still there.
But the Gloria Farley of 1950 was not the same person as the Gloria Stewart of 1928. She had spent the intervening two decades reading every book about runes she could get her hands on. Since she was a housewife, all she could get access to were the popular works Hjalmar Holand, William Brownell Goodwin, and Frederick J. Pohl. She read them all and came away convinced that Vikings had once roamed the American heartland. And that for one brief moment they stopped in a small town just west of the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
She would spend the next fifty years trying to convince the world that what she called the “Heavener Runestone” was a genuine Viking artifact.
She started out small, just gathering statements from local residents and trying to track the history of the stone. She was able to prove that it hadn’t been carved by Boy Scouts, and had in fact been known to locals since 1898 when it had been covered with moss.
One local Choctaw man, Henry Hontubby, even claimed that the carvings had been up on the mountain when his people had been forcibly resettled to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Of course, Hontubby also claimed that, “When our braves came with the report of such carvings we were afraid for we knew none of our people could do such a thing.” Which sounds a lot like he’s telling Farley what she wants to hear… or maybe even pulling her leg.
As Farley began to promote the Heavener Runestone throughout the 1950s, an astounding thing happened: even more local runestones started to come to light. The first to emerge were a series of what the locals had been calling “turkey track stones.”
Now, you’ve seen these, they’re rocks carved with a symbol that looks like a Y with an extended vertical stem, which looks like a turkey track. It is one of the symbols that commonly appears in runic alphabets, since it is one of the easiest shapes you can make when your letters consist solely of straight and angled lines. None of the existing property owners could explain the origins of these stones, which to Farley indicated that these “turkey tracks” were clearly runic inscriptions left by Viking explorers.
Of course, the turkey track symbol also occurs in Native America petroglyphs throughout the South and Southwest. They’re also popular decorative pieces. I could probably go out into the subdivision behind my apartment and find two or three houses with a similar rock at the end of their driveway. Farley was essentially making the same mistake made by Eben Norton Horsford in his search for Norumebga, assuming that anything whose origin she could not personally discern had to be an artifact of unimaginable antiquity.
In the 1960s, she came under the sway of Dr. Ole G. Landsverk and Alf Monge. These were highly intelligent men — Dr. Landsverk had worked on the Manhattan Project, and Monte was a former cryptoanalyst for the U.S. Army — but they too had fallen down too far down their respective rabbit holes.
Landsverk had become convinced that Scandinavians had settled North America and latched on to every flimsy piece of evidence he thought he could use. Among his “accomplishments” was spending several years insisting that a pig iron furnace in Ross County, Ohio was evidence of medieval Viking industry instead of the fairly obvious Colonial-era structure it actually was.
Landsverk’s primary role was to serve as the money man for Alf Monge, who had spent so long looking for codes that he began to see them everywhere. In particular, he became convinced that all runic inscriptions were also a Baconian cipher, where the presentation of a text conceals a hidden message. In the case of runes, variations in the thickness and angle of individual lines would reveal the date the inscription was made.
Now, if that seems like an awful lot of work to encode a message that would be better off out in the open, you’re thinking right. Farley was not thinking right. Applying Monge’s techniques to the Heavener Runestone, she was overjoyed to discover that it did, in fact, produce a date: November 11, 1012. Admittedly, she had to change the inscription to the nonsensical GAOMEDAT in order to make the system work, though that didn’t bother her in the least.
Around this time, too, even more runestones starting coming to light.
The first one was discovered near Tulsa by Jim Shipley and his sons in 1965. That seemed to be untranslatable but Monge’s technique produced the date December 2, 1022.
A second runestone was found in September 1967 on nearby Tery Hill in nearby Poteau by two local boys, in an area that had recently been bulldozed. It had an inscription that read GLOEIA or GLOIEALLW, which possibly translates to “Gloi’s Magic Ale,” and Monge’s technique dated it to November 11, 1017.
A third runestone was discovered in August 1969 by four boys hunting snakes in a dry creek bed. It had suspiciously fresh-looking carvings, which the boys claimed was the result of cleaning dirt out of the inscription with a frog gig. The inscription read MLDOK or MIDOK or MEKOK, which Farley assumed meant it had been carved by the Welsh Prince Madoc. It, too, produced a date, November 24, 1024.
These new runestones were all tremendously problematic. They contained short, meaningless messages that no one had any reason to carve. They were discovered in areas where they should have been discovered long before. And they all emerged after periods where Farley and the Heavener Runestone appeared in the news. It feels less like Farley was making amazing discoveries and more that some local pranksters were trying to see how far astray they could lead her.
Because let’s be honest, if these inscriptions were all genuine then a small town in Oklahoma had more runestones than some entire Scandinavian countries.
And what’s this about Madoc? Well, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s Farley also fell under the sway of Barry Fell. Fell, a zoologist by training, had an amateur interest in linguistics and epigraphy. He also had a monstrous ego and became convinced he was smarter than every other expert in the field. Fell had also studied out-of-date history books positing that North America had been settled by white “mound builders” and believed that they were true. Not any particular theory, mind you, all of them at once. He believed the country had been not only visited but settled by ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans; the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; the Welsh Prince Madoc; and the Irish under Saint Brendan. In Fell’s vision America was so thickly settled with Old World transplants that there hardly seemed to be any room in the New World for Native Americans.
Farley believed in Fell’s vision. As she studied his work she realized inscriptions in dozens of languages could be found all around Heavener. It turns out Oklahoma wasn’t some backwater but some sort of major nexus of the ancient world. She eventually became one of Fell’s most important acolytes.
Her tireless efforts on behalf of the Heavener Runestone were eventually rewarded, too. The area around the carving was turned into Heavener Runestone State Park in 1970. (Though it later reverted to control of the city thanks to budget cuts.) When Farley died in 2006 she was a revered local legend.
Gloria Farley is a fascinating figure. She basically recapitulates the entire history of Viking fever in a single person, making all of the mistakes her predecessors made in almost the exact same order.
What makes her story relatable, at least, is that her motives were personal rather than societal. She wasn’t looking to rewrite the history books or erase Native Americans from history or stick it to immigrants or even to make a quick buck. She just wanted herself to be special, her hometown to be special. I think that’s a motive we can understand and sympathize with.
Even while conceding that she was wrong about almost everything.
This is the second episode which briefly features a member of the Mellon family. Paul Mellon’s father, Andrew W. Mellon, had his car stolen on Christmas Eve by the notorious Flathead Gang. We talked about the Flathead Gang’s exploits in the Series 6 episode “The Terror of Gillikin Country.”
If you would prefer to read about the time Scandinavians actually tried to colonize the New World, check out Series 10’s “Nya Sverige” about the ill-fated colony of New Sweden.
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