in which America asks the question: whither Vinland?
This is part one 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 two, on the purported Viking exploration of Minnesota, can be found here. Part three, on the even less plausible Viking occupation of Oklahoma, can be found here.
Who discovered America?
Well, that’s an interesting question. For years consensus held that the ancestors of modern Native Americans were the Clovis people, who crossed from Asia into America as polar ice sheets receded at the beginning of the Holocene epoch, some 12,000 years ago. Recently, improvements in radiocarbon dating and the discovery of archaeological sites that don’t fit that narrative have led anthropologists to contemplate the possibility of simultaneous migrations from multiple directions, or even multiple waves starting earlier during the late Pleistocene… Hmm, what’s that?
Oh, I see.
You meant, “Who was the first white person to discover America?”
That’s disappointing. And a little racist.
Well, for years the answer to that question was simple: Christopher Columbus.
Columbus’s claim was disputed from the start, of course. Over the years scholars have held up other groups as the true discoverers of the New World. Ancient Phoenicians. The Lost Tribes of Israel. Welsh princes. Irish monks. Basque fisherman. Chinese treasure fleets. These rival claims all had one thing in common: a complete lack of reliable physical or documentary evidence.
In fact, there was only one group that had anything resembling a serious claim: the Vikings. That’s because they did something smart: they actually wrote down the stories of their New World voyages in saga format, long before Columbus was born.
The Saga of the Greenlanders
Here’s a quick recap of what the sagas and history tell us.
In the late 10th Century Erik the Red, exiled from Iceland, sailed to the west and encountered the island of Greenland. In 986 AD, Erik returned to Greenland and stablished a series of settlements along the western shore of the island.
Some time around 1,000 AD the Greenlanders became aware of a large landmass to the southwest. It was initially sighted by Bjarne Herjulfson when he overshot Greenland, and then later deliberately explored by Leif Eriksson. Leif documented three distinct areas: cold and rocky Hellulaland; forested Markland; and beautiful and verdant Vinland.
Several attempts to settle Vinland were made, first by merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni, and later by Leif’s siblings Thorvald and Freydis. They quickly discovered that the land was already inhabited, and that the inhabitants were not super friendly. A series of tragic misunderstandings escalated into full-blown violent conflict, and the Vinland colonies were quickly abandoned.
After that, Vinland vanishes from the historical record. When it is mentioned, it is usually in connection with some brave or pious explorer who sailed west to find it and never returned.
At their peak, the Greenland settlements never supported more than a few hundred people. At some point in the late 14th Century they were abandoned due to a terrifying combination of climate change, famine, plague, economic disruption, and armed skirmishes with the Thule peoples. It’s unclear where the departing settlers went.
The disappearance of the Greenlanders was hardly noted by the rest of Europe. The Catholic Church kept appointing bishops of Greenland and Vinland, though none of them ever bothered to report to their see. Danish authorities mistakenly believed that the settlements were still out there, right up to the middle of the 17th Century.
There was no proof that the Vikings had ever been to Greenland except for two sagas that were suspiciously devoid of detail. As far as the rest of Europe was concerned, without physical evidence the voyages of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson were just as legendary as those of Saint Brendan or Prince Madoc.
Then, in 1723, Lutheran missionaries discovered the long-lost Greenland settlements, proving that the sagas were true. Or at least, that the parts about Greenland were. Which raised the question: where was Vinland?
Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864)
Enter Carl Christian Rafn, Danish historian, linguist, and antiquarian.
Rafn was obsessed with the sagas, and pored over them searching for clues to Vinland’s true location. He soon realized the problem with this approach: the sagas give vague and contradictory directions. If you sit down and try to reconcile them, you wind up with something like this:
- Start somewhere in Greenland.
- Sail (to the south for two days). You will arrive in Hellulaland.
- Sail (to the south-southeast for two days). You will arrive at Markland.
- Sail to the south (or possibly to the southwest) for two days. You will arrive a cape (which may or may not have an island to the north).
- Sail west around the cape for an indeterminate amount of time. (You might want to keep the mainland on your starboard side, or then again, you might not.) You will come to a big river.
- Sail up the river into a lake.
- You have arrived at your destination.
Those are some pretty vague directions that could be practically anywhere.
Fortunately, the sagas drop a few more hints by mentioning that the rivers were teeming with salmon (which rarely occur south of the Hudson River) and the hills were lush with wild grapes (which don’t grow north of the St. Lawrence River). That helps narrow things down to a thousand-mile stretch of coastline from Long Island to Cape Breton Island. Still a lot of territory to search, but more manageable.
That is assuming, of course, that the sagas have correctly identified and named the fish and fruits of the New World. Or that the ranges of salmon and wild grapes haven’t changed drastically in the previous millennium. Not that those thoughts would have ever occurred to Carl Christian Rafn. He was working in the 1820s and 1830s, and like most educated men believed that the world had not changed much since God created it about six thousand years previously.
Rafn pored over his maps trying to find a location that matched the descriptions in the sagas, and eventually found what he thought was a perfect match. The cape? Why, Cape Cod. The island? Martha’s Vineyard. The river? An outlet from Narragansett Bay. And Vinland itself? On the shores of Mt. Hope Bay, smack dab on the border of Masachusetts and Rhode Island.
It was Mount Hope Bay that sealed the deal for Rafn. As a linguist he was delighted to discover it was named after a nearby hill, or, in the Algonquian languages, montaup. Surely this could only have been derived from Thorfinn Karlsefni’s landing spot, which he named Haup, or “tidal lake!” How the name had changed migrated from the lake to the hill was someone else’s problem.
If Bristol, Rhode Island sounds like an unlikely location for the first European settlement in the Americas, you’re not alone. For starters, the Vikings would have had to travel more than two thousand miles to get there, far more than the six days of sailing referenced in the sagas. Along the way, they would have passed up dozens of viable locations for colonies in Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. There’s also the slight problem that the area had been crawling with Englishmen and Americans for centuries (and with Native Americans for millennia) and none of them had ever seen anything even vaguely resembling a Viking ruin.
None of that mattered to Carl Christian Rafn because he wasn’t just a historian, he was a man on a mission. He wasn’t looking for Vinland out of mere scientific curiosity, but to establish the historical significance of the Danish people and bring glory to the Kingdom of Denmark. For maximum impact he needed Vinland to be not just in the New World, but to be in the very cradle of American democracy.
He found surprising allies in the historians and antiquarians of New England. Now, they didn’t give a toss about the glory of the Danes, but they did like the idea of having a European settlement in their own backyard that predated Jamestown. That would give them a leg up on Virginia in the history books. And they really liked the idea that America had been discovered by a proper white Northern European and not some garlicky Italian or Spaniard. That would let the region’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite put more recent Southern European immigrants in their proper place: back on the bottom of the pile.
Rafn and his New England allies scoured New England looking for anything that could be traced to a Viking origin. Over the course of nearly a decade they deliberately misinterpreted dozens of documents and artifacts in ways that supported Rafn’s theory. In 1837 he felt they’d gathered enough and published his evidence in the length Antiquitates Americanae.
With that lengthy prologue finally of the way, we can get to the subject of this episode: we’re going to go through all the flimsy “evidence” people have used to find Vinland over the years, and we’re going to rip it to shreds.
Starting with Carl Christian Rafn.
The Newport Tower
Newport, Rhode Island sits on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay. Near the center of town, on a bit of a rise, there’s a strange old tower made of mortared stone. It’s about 22′ in diameter and 28′ high, and the upper floors are supported by eight stone columns that form the base of eight open archways. It’s a very unusual building.
To Carl Christian Rafn the Newport Tower was an old Norse-style church, modeled on ones in the Orkney Islands, and therefore the first Christian church in the New World.
There’s only one problem, which is that we know exactly who built the Newport Tower: Benedict Arnold. Not the notorious traitor, mind you, but his great-grandfather, the first Governor of Rhode Island. Governor Arnold ordered a stone windmill to be built on his property sometime around 1675 and then later referenced it in his will. There are no references to the tower before that date.
Those who support a Viking origin for the tower point to a 1632 petition from Sir Edmund Plowden to King Charles I that mentions a “rownd stone towre” as an indication that Arnold did not build from scratch, but converted an existing structure into windmill. While it’s true that Plowden’s petition mentions a stone tower, there’s nothing that ties it to this stone tower. In fact, the petition is in reference to a land grant on the Delmarva Peninsula, far to the south.
There are also claims that the cylindrical structure is unlike that of other Colonial windmills and English windmills in general. It’s true that cylindrical windmills were rare in England, but they were hardly unknown. The plan of the tower is almost identical to a cylindrical windmill built in Chesterton, England in the 1630s which would have been known to Arnold and many other Rhode Islanders. And even if you concede that a circular windmill is pretty unusual, you also have to concede this: cylindrical churches are also pretty unusual. There are none west of the Orkney Islands, and most churches in Iceland and Greenland are built in a traditional cross shape.
In 1948, a team of Harvard archaeologists investigated the the Newport Tower. They dug a trench from the outside right through two of the arches, to a depth of several feet. They found all sorts of Colonial-era detritus, ranging from smoking pipes to broken glass and rusty nails, but nothing Norse. Others made counter-claims that the artifacts must have been deposited during the tower’s conversion into a windmill, without bothering to explain why the workmen would have felt a need to dig several feet beneath the tower’s base.
In the 1990s, Danish researchers used a new radiocarbon dating technique on the mortar that holds the tower together. They made sure to get samples from deep inside the structure, to ensure they were testing the original mortar and not later additions had been applied during subsequent touch-ups. These tests showed that the tower was built some time in the mid-17th century. This should have been the final nail in the Newport Tower’s coffin, but once again counter-claims were made the researchers had not been testing the original mortar.
At this point, the arguments about the Newport Tower’s origins degenerate into mind-numbing minutia about alternative forms of measurement, pagan numerology, astrological alignments, and other idiocy. No amount of historical fact or scientific evidence seems capable of changing the minds of those who believe the tower is of Viking origin.
Fall River Skeleton
In 1831 a team of diggers excavating a hillside in Fall River, Massachusetts unearthed a skeleton buried in a very unusual style. It was in a seated posture, wrapped in shroud made of tree bark, and most curiously, accompanied by a number of artifacts made from brass. There was a small breastplate, a belt made of tubes, and a handful of arrowheads. The good people of Fall River concluded that the skeleton was most likely the remains of a Native American chief.
Rafn and his researchers were very intrigued by the discovery for several reasons. First, Fall River sits on the Taunton River, on the east side of Mount Hope Bay — very close to the proposed location of Rafn’s Vinland. Second, there was the presence of brass, which Native Americans did not produce. Surely the presence of so much brass on a single skeleton was evidence of an extensive trade network between Native Americans and Vinlanders. Additionally, they felt the engraved ornamentation on the artifacts showed clear influence from Norse pagan designs.
Word of the discovery made its way to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Inspired by Rafn, Longfellow penned “The Skeleton in Armor,” a fanciful poem that ties together the Fall River skeleton and the Newport Tower as the remnants of an ancient Viking’s doomed romance.
I was a Viking old!
My deeds, though manifold,
No Skald in song has told,
No Saga taught thee!
Take heed, that in thy verse
Thou dost the tale rehearse,
Else dread a dead man’s curse;
For this I sought thee.
Longfellow’s poem was extremely popular. Many who read “The Skeleton in Armor” became convinced that the skeleton and tower were genuine Viking relics. One later writer, Bjorn Rasmus Anderson, even declared that the skeleton was that of the late Thorvald Erikson.
Unfortunately, the skeleton in armor wasn’t all that ancient. Though this detail was left out of many reports, when the skeleton was unearthed it was still partially enfleshed, which meant it was maybe a century old at most. That effectively precluded any sort of pre-Columbian origin for the brass artifacts. Those artifacts, by the way, were hardly in pristine condition. Their tenure in the damp hillside had left them so severely corroded that it was hard to tell whether they had even had engraving on them in the first place, much less whether they were engraved with Norse pagan designs.
And finally, there was no need to create a pre-Columbian origin for the artifacts. It was well known that Colonists would trade old brass teapots to the Native Americans, who would cut them out to make arrowheads and other ornamentation.
Further up the Taunton River from Fall River lies the peninsula of Assonet Neck. There, in the river, near the town of Dighton, sat a boulder covered with rock carvings and pictograms that were only fully visible at law tide.
The people of Massachusetts first became aware of Dighton Rock around 1677 or so, and they had no doubts who had made the carvings: the Native Americans, probably the Wampanoag. However, since they had just finished the process of ethnically cleansing the entire area, there weren’t any Wampanoag around to tell them what it all meant. Over the years, other tribes have offered their interpretations: that it was a place of worship for the great underwater panther, Michipeshu; that it was a record of a great hunt; or even that it represented a conflict with men who traveled in a “wooden house.”
Then, as time went on, the United States tried to erase Native Americans from our history. We knew what we had done to them was wrong, but had a compulsive need to morally justify our actions. So writers began to portray Native Americans as savages little better than animals, incapable of art, writing, or industry.
Unfortunately, America was still full of cultural sites and artifacts like Dighton Rock that showed these assertions to be self-serving lies. So these artifacts were re-interpreted instead as relics of civilizations that pre-dated the Native Americans — civilizations that the Native Americans had destroyed, when then justified our own terrible actions. Serious scholars attributed Native American artifacts to groups as diverse as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, ancient Phoenicians, even refugees from Atlantis.
By the time Carl Christian Rafn discovered Dighton Rock it had been stripped of all its previous cultural context, and he was able to recast it as a record of Viking exploration. He quickly identified a combination of runic and Latin inscriptions, and with the aid of eminent runologist, Finnur Magnússon, translated them to read, “Thorfinn and his 151 companions took possession of this land.”
Here’s the problem with runes: identifying them is an art, not a science. There are lots of things that look like runes that aren’t necessarily runes. In one famous case in Runamo, Sweden Magnússon claimed to have translated a mysterious inscription only to be utterly embarrassed a few years later when equally eminent chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius conclusively proved that the so-called “runes” were just naturally occurring cracks in the rocks.
To be fair to Rafn and Magnússon, there are many markings on Dighton Rock which resemble Norse runes and Latin text. It’s impossible to say which of these markings are natural, intentional, or original. Studying drawings and photographs of the carvings reveals that the inscriptions have changed drastically over the centuries, implying that travelers and tourists have been unable to resist leaving their own mark on its surface.
Then again, Rafn and Magnússon also made their translation not off of first-hand observation but out of a composite of several different drawings of the rock, which they then further altered to support their own interpretation.
Their hard work was later debunked in the 1840s by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who was trying (and failing) to combat Native American erasure. He rightly pointed out that the rock was similar to petroglyphs found throughout the country and that many of the inscriptions were later additions.
Schoolcraft’s rebuttals fell on deaf ears. Eventually Dighton Rock was purchased by local Scandinavians, who purchased the land the rock was on and deeded it over to the King of Denmark. Plans to ship the rock across the Atlantic to Copenhagen fell through, thankfully, and the Danes eventually relinquished their claim to the stone.
In the end, Rafn’s claims to the rock’s Viking origins were systematically destroyed in the early 1900s by Edmund Burke Delabarre. Delabarre didn’t believe Dighton Rock was a Viking artifact, because it was clearly a Portuguese artifact — proof that the lost expedition of explorer Miguel Corte-Real had reached America.
Today Dighton Rock has been moved from its original location into a small enclosure at a nearby state park. The accompanying exhibit briefly discusses the numerous interpretations of its meaning, while strongly implying (if not stating outright) that it is proof that the Portuguese reached the area before the English.
Eben Norton Horsford (1818-1893)
Based on the above examples, it’s no wonder that Carl Christian Rafn’s theories were rejected by scientists and historians. Well, sort of. Scientists and historians rejected Rafn’s flimsy evidence and the specific idea that Vinland was in Rhode Island. They were more than happy to adopt the general idea that Vinland was somewhere in New England. And why wouldn’t they? If you’ve already made room in your national myth for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and Atlantis, there’s plenty of room for Vikings.
For the next several decades, scholars were happy to parrot Rafn’s ideas, but no one was building on them. At least, not until the arrival of Eben Norton Horsford.
Horsford is a fascinating character. He was professor of chemistry at Harvard and had made a small fortune for himself by perfecting the industrial production of baking powder and condensed milk. At one point he even tried to get us Americans to switch from bread to corn tortillas, which he argued were more shelf-stable, nutritious, and easy to manufacture. He had amazing sideburns and could totall rock a fur coat. And in the 1880s he became obsessed with discovering the location of the lost Viking colony of Norumbega.
Now, I know you’re thinking, “Norumbega? I thought we were talking about Vinland.” Hold on. I’m getting there.
The name “Norumbega” sporadically appeared on European maps of the New World throughout the 16th and 17th century. Though it was consistently in the northeastern portion of North America, its exact location varied widely and the name was applied to any number of geographical features — rivers, islands, capes, and more. It appears to have been a mapmaker’s error, propagated for centuries thanks to rampant plagiarism.
It would have remained a mapmaker’s error if it weren’t for Sir John Hawkins. A noted privateer, Hawkins had been raiding the Spanish Main but in 1568 his fleet was destroyed in the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa. Afterwards, some 120 of his men were set ashore near Tampico, Mexico. Most of them were captured and imprisoned by the Spaniards, but David Ingram, Robert Brown, and John Twine managed to escape. The three men somehow tramped their way across the content until they reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they flagged down a French ship, the Gargoyle, and hitched a ride back to England.
Ingram had some strange stories to tell about his travels. He claimed, near the end of his continent-long trek, to have visited the Native American city of Norumbega, over a mile and a half long, ringed by numerous towers. Its inhabitants were so fabulously wealthy they carried around buckets of pearls, and their houses were held up by pillars of crystal and silver.
There’s only one problem: it’s not clear exactly what Ingram said. Written accounts of his testimony appear to condense his entire journey into a single encounter, and his claims about Norumbega and its pearls appear to be copied wholesale from earlier Spanish fantasies about the untapped wealth of the New World. Fantasies that seized hold of key members of Queen Elizabeth’s court, including John Dee and Sir Francis Walsingham.
Over the years Sir Humphrey Gilbert, John Smith, and Samuel de Champlain would quest in vain for the fabled Norumbega. It soon became that the city had never existed and in the late 17th century it was quietly erased from most maps and forgotten.
Except by Eben Norton Horsford.
Horsford somehow became convinced that the name Norumbega was derived from an Old Norse phrase meaning “new north colonies.” Clearly, rather than planting a few abortive settlements and then retreating to Greenland, the Vikings had established a thriving colony that had lasted for more than five hundred years and outlasted its parent.
Horsford did not care that this did not match the sagas at all. Horsford did not care that this did not match the tales of Ingram’s travels at all. Horsford did not care that somehow this thriving colony vanished in less than two decades, leaving not a single trace of its existence.
All that mattered was that he, Eben Norton Horsford, had thought of it. And since he, Eben Norton Horsford, was a rich white American, it therefore had to be correct.
Horsford spent a few years compiling evidence before announcing that he had discovered the true location of Vinland and Norumbega. Leif Eriksson had first made landfall on the banks of the Charles River near Gerry’s Landing, which was coincidentally about a ten minute walk from the Harvard Campus where Horsford worked. Later colonists had established the city of Norumbega near modern-day Weston, Massachusetts, also coincidentally, not too far from where Horsford lived.
To back up his claims, Horsford produced some less-than-convincing evidence. There are the highly inaccurate and inconsistent 16th-century maps we mentioned above. There are some highly imaginative and entirely fanciful etymologies of Algonquian words that try to tie them back to Icelandic origins. There’s a lot of deep reading of the sagas, trying to interpret relatively straightforward passages in a way that implies the Vinland colonies were bustling modern cities rather than simple agricultural settlements.
More than anything, Horsford relied on his own personal observations. He essentially spent his days walking up and down the banks of the Charles River looking for remnants of Norumbega. Every dam or mill pond or retaining wall whose construction Horsford could not personally account for was interpreted as an unimaginably ancient structure created by our Viking forbears. He even interpreted burls on old trees as the scars of Norumbegan industry rather than the results of fungal infections.
Frankly, Horsford’s evidence is so flimsy that it feels like a waste to even bother debunking them. Yet somehow this unsupportable theory became wildly popular in the Greater Boston area. As with their earlier support of Rafn, it seems to have been a movement among the area’s WASPs to push back against the changing demographics and culture of their city.
Horsford used his own money to erect a commemorative “Norumbega Tower” on the shores of the Charles. Further downstream the good people of Boston put up a big ol’ statue of Leif Erikson — partly to celebrate their supposed Norse heritage, and partly as a middle finger to the city’s growing Italian population.
These days no one believes Horsford’s theory at all, though the monuments still remain. Along with Weston’s Norumbega Park, Norumbega Resevoir, and Norumbega Road.
William Brownell Goodwin (1866-1950)
Horsford’s spiritual successor was William Brownell Goodwin. Not that Goodwin believed in anything as outlandish as Norumbega, mind you. He held the far more sensible belief that Vinland had been near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, coincidentally, not too far from where Goodwin lived.
However, unlike Rafn and Horsford, Goodwin was not obsessed with proving that Vinland was in any particular location. He was mostly interested in cataloguing artifacts that proved the Vikings had been to New England in the first place. And boy, over the years, he catalogued some doozies.
The Yarmouth Runestones
One of Goodwin’s most famous investigations was that of the Fletcher runestone, a 400 pound chunk of rock that appears to be inscribed with runic characters.
In 1809 the stone was discovered by Dr. Richard Fletcher, lying along the beach on the western side of Yarmouth Harbor, along the southwestern coast of Nova Scotia. Fletcher wasn’t sure what he had found but moved the rock away from the shore to protect the carvings. Later in the century, when New England was abuzz with Viking mania, an enterprising local chandler began claiming the inscriptions were Viking runes and put it on display in front of his shop.
Once the marks were identified as runes, scholars came crawling out of the woodwork to translate them. In 1884, antiquarian Henry Phillips Jr. of Philadelphia offered the translation, “Haako’s son addressed the men,” with “Haako” being one of the slaves Thorfinn Karlsefni brought to Vinland. In 1934 someone else translated the markings as, ”Leif to Eric raises this monument.”
The Fletcher stone has been studied enough over the years that we know that the markings are not just glacial striations or other natural marks. However, we can’t be sure that they are actually Norse runs. Some scholars have identified the markings as Japanese, Greek, Hungarian, or Basque. More recent scholarship suggests that may be Mi’kmaq ideograms, or even just nonsense markings made by someone for their own amusement.
Part of the problem is that the stone has been poorly conserved over the years. At some point in the 1880s the carvings were “cleaned out” with a metal spike and painted so that they could be photographed. This process appears to have been done haphazardly — photographs of the stone today bear almost no resemblance to drawings made in the early 1800s. As a result, while the Fletcher runestone is an interesting curio, its current state defies any sort of definitive analysis.
And then there’s the other Yarmouth runestone. This one was found in 1898, also on the western shore of Yarmouth Harbor, and bore an inscription similar to that of the Fletcher runestone, only longer. Like its predecessor, it was put on display to drive attention to a local business — this time a hotel in nearby Overton. Alas, it has never been investigated, because in 1912 it was used to build a retaining wall and subsequently lost.
While he was researching the Fletcher runestone, Goodwin met local prospector James P. Nolan, who claimed to have an artifact that would interest the intrepid scholar: a genuine Viking axe.
In the 1880s while plowing a field south of Tor Bay in Nova Scotia, a farmer unearthed an old axehead. He wiped off the dirt and put it on a shelf as a decorative curiosity. Some time later, Nolan noticed the axe and purchased it from the farmer. After a thorough cleaning he realized it was covered with a series of semi-circles and dots. He thought it was unbelievably ancient, perhaps of Viking origin.
Goodwin bought the axe.
He probably shouldn’t have. Nolan was not exactly the most trustworthy person. He had been indicted in 1906 in Nebraska for mining on public lands, and had previous attempted to sell several treasure hunters on nearby Oak Island a so-called “gold finding machine.” He also changed the story of how he had found the axe several times — first claiming to have bought it from a farmer, and later claiming to have found it himself on quiet hillside.
Afterwards Goodwin sent photos of the axe to experts, who announced it was a Viking axe from the 11th century, and and the dots were a mystic inscription invoking the god Tyr. It’s not clear what those experts were basing their decisions on. The axe is not a particularly unique design — it’s a fairly common style of poll-axe that was used extensively throughout Europe because it can be made quickly and easily with low-grade iron. They were also made in vast numbers by Colonial blacksmiths to be used in trade with local Native Americas.
As for the mystic inscription, it appears to not be an inscription at all. Instead, it appears to be a decorative maker’s mark stamp that has corroded away over the years, leaving only a few small divots. That seems like the simplest explanation, unless you’re Barry Fell, who identified the a Norse inscription using the Tifinag alphabet of Libya. (Fell pointedly ignores the question of why a Viking would choose to use an ancient Libyan script to inscribe an axe with a message in Old Norse.)
The Tor Bay axe was not the only axe in Goodwin’s collection. He also owned a second “Viking axe,” this one purchased from an old New England family who lived near Plymouth, Massachusetts. This second axe appears to be inscribed with fourteen runes, though only a handful of them are anything close to legible. Over the years the inscription has been variously translated as “father gave” or “Engr engraved this for Aelu” or even “inscribed for divine protection.”
The second axe is far more interesting, and worthy of additional study. However, there’s the slight problem that both axes have gone missing. It was thought for years that they were in the collection of the Wordsworth Athenaeum in Connecticut. While the Athenaeum did purchase several Goodwin’s collections after his death, they were only interested in the decorative arts and declined to purchase his Viking collections. So no one knows where they are, and they are known only from small photographs in Goodwin’s books and a handful of low-quality rubbings.
Another strange location Goodwin investigated was a petroglyph on a boulder outside of Westford, Massachusetts. Most locals interpreted it as a crude human figure they called “the Old Indian,” while others said it resembled a Celtic cross. Goodwin’s correspondents thought it resembled a broken sword, which Vikings used to mark graves.
There’s the slight problems that Vikings didn’t use broken swords to mark graves, but never mind that. Goodwin was convinced.
Curiously, later investigations of the carving have caused it to expand from a mere sword to an entire human figure dressed in full late medieval plate armor and carrying a shield embossed with a coat of arms. It has subsequently been interpreted as a gravesite left by an expedition of Scottish knights to the New World. It seems far more likely that the “full figure” is a fantasy, produced by an avid amateur archaeologist’s imagination and now permanently etched into the soft rock of boulder by subsequent tracings.
Frederick Julius Pohl (1889-1991)
Goodwin’s successor in the fruitless search for Vinland was Frederick Pohl. Not the famous science fiction author, mind you, this is Frederick Julius Pohl. Pohl had some disagreements with his predecessors. Namely, he didn’t believe that Vinland was anywhere outlandish like Rhode Island or Boston or Portsmouth. No, Vinland was located on the shores of Follins Pond on Cape Cod, coincidentally, not too far from where Pohl lived.
Pohl’s big addition to the Vinland discourse was the concept of “mooring holes.” They’re a simple form of anchor — just a small hole you could drop a metal peg in, which provides enough tension to prevent you from drifting off from a spot, but loose enough that you can work it free quickly if trouble comes up. Pohl found mooring holes all over Follins Pond, and despite having no indication of their origin attributed them all to Viking settlers.
In one particularly telling anecdote, Pohl reports that after discovering a mooring hole right where he had predicted one would be, his wife responded: “Of course you found it. It had to be there.” He chooses to interpret this as praise from someone proud of his accomplishments, but I can’t help but see it as the sarcastic put-down of a long-suffering spouse frustrated to see what was supposed to be a pleasant Saturday boat ride turn into yet another field trip for her husband’s pet project.
There are several problems with the idea of mooring holes. Plenty of people make holes in stones: Native Americans made them for various reasons, and farmers did it to blast away rocks with black powder. There are no mooring holes to be found anywhere in the Greenland settlements. Not a single Viking artifact has ever been found near any of Pohl’s mooring stones despite years and years and years of intense searching. And of course, even if the holes were genuine, there’s no reasonable way to date a hole.
Various Other “Vikings Artifacts”
Of course, New England is also full of other Viking artifacts that Rafn, Horsford, Goodwin and Pohl never got around to investigating.
Monhegan-Manana Island Runestone
On Manana Island near Port Clyde, Maine there’s a rocky outcrop filled with markings markings that have been interpreted as runes.
They do sort of bear a resemblance to runes or Native American decorative patterns. But you know what they look like more than anything else? The Runamo “inscriptions” that turned out to be natural weathering. That was the conclusion reached by Professor George Stone of Colorado College in 1885, and by almost every geologist who’s visited the site afterwards.
In Hampton, New Hampshire there’s a small rock covered with grooves and slashes sitting in the bottom of the world. In 1902, Charles M. Lamprey wrote that the rock, which had long sat on his family’s land, was undoubtedly a runestone and more than that, Thorvald Eriksson’s grave marker. Lamprey presented absolutely no evidence for this claim, which seem motivated less by a quest for truth and more by the desire of real estate mogul Wallace D. Lovell to build a Norse-themed development nearby. The runestone would be a fixture in the area, standing at the intersection of Viking Street and Thorwald Avenue.
Most people who see Thorvald’s Rock just see some weird scratches, maybe plow marks. No one has been able to make out discernible runes except for Olaf Strandwold, a friend of William Brownell Goodwin, who translated the markings as “Bui raised this stone. 1043 A.D.” This just raises more questions. Like, why would anyone spend hours carving such an utterly insignificant message into a rock? And if it’s real, why have no significant messages survived?
Despite being a clear fraud, Thorvald’s Rock remains a popular local sight. After a few attempts to steal it, it was moved from its former location into a protective enclosure at the nearby Tuck Museum.
Nomans Land Runestone
Of course, at some point Martha’s Vineyard had to get in on the act. Why can’t they be Vinland? They’ve got “vine” right in their name!
In 1926, Vinyard resident Joshua Crane was off the shore of nearby Nomans Land island when he spotted a rock with strange markings sitting at the low tide line. They appeared to be norse runes. He returned a few days later with historian and amateur photographer Edward F. Gray, who snapped a few photos before the rock vanished back under the rising waters. Gray sent the photos to experts at Oslo University, who said they showed the name “Liif Eriksson” written in Old Norse and the number number 1001 in Roman numerals.
Subsequent investigations by Viking skeptics in 1934 and Viking proponents in 1944 both concluded that the inscriptions were likely a modern hoax for several reasons, including the mixing of Old Norse with Roman Numerals and the unlikelihood of the inscription surviving a thousand years worth of erosion. In 1953, one Martin Dahl claimed to have seen a Norwegian cook carve the inscription in 1913, though his story placed the runestone on the wrong side of the island.
The Nomans Land runestone seems worthy of further investigation, but all requests to visit it have been denied for several reasons. First, the Wampanoag think that the stone may actually be a Native American petroglyph, and object to anyone disturbing it. Second, the island is a Federally protected migratory bird sanctuary and therefore off-limits for visitors. And finally, the United States Navyused the island as a bombing range for more than fifty years, and it is covered with unexploded bombs. So yeah, it’s really off-limits.
Fortunately, there are dodgy runestones that are easier to reach. The Narragansett Runestone was discovered in December 1984 by a group of quahoggers working off of Pojac Point in North Kingstown, Rhode Island spotted a stone with runic markings some sixty feet offshore, visible only at low tide.
This time the markings are pretty clearly actual runes. Amateurs working for the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) have variously translated the inscription as either “screaming river” or “Beware, in this area are terrible bears!” The question, of course, is are they genuine? And as usual, one has to ask the question — who would bother wasting their time carving such an insignificant message?
In 2012, one of the millionaires who lived nearby got sick of tourists coming to see the Narragansett Runestone and ruining his view, so he stole the rock and dumped it in deeper waters. He was forced to retrieve the stone, and it was subsequently moved to nearby Wickford for safe keeping. Shortly afterwards, Everett and Warren Brown came forward and claimed to have carved the runes in 1964, and to have forgotten all about it until the recent unpleasantness. The Browns’ claim is contested by those who claimed to have seen the rock before 1964 — though of course that raises the question why none of them ever mentioned seeing it before its subsequent “discovery.”
And then, finally, there’s the only 100% genuine Norse artifact ever discovered in the United States — the Maine Penny.
The penny was unearthed in 1958 by two amateur archaeologists, Guy Mellgren and Edward Runge, who were conducting a dig on a beach in Blue Hill, Maine. It’s a small dime-sized coin with a hole punched in it, which they first assumed to be an old English penny brought over by early colonists. Twenty years later when the coin was sent to be examined by a professional numismatist, it was revealed to be a rare coin from the reign of King Olav Kyrre.
Here’s the thing: the coin is definitely of Norse origin. But we still have no idea how it got to a beach in Maine. Was it carried by a Viking explorer? Later explorers? Did the Vikings trade it to Native Americans? Did they trade it with Lapps, who then traded with Eskimos, who then traded with Native Americans? We have no way of knowing.
We can say one thing with confidence: Maine is definitely not the site of Vinland. No other Viking artifacts have been found near the dig site, despite decades of searching.
The Real Deal
There’s been a noted slowdown in the discovery of Norse artifacts along the Eastern seaboard. That’s probably because in 1960, Norwegian archaeologists unearthed an actual Viking settlement. L’Anse aux Meadows is a small farming village that sits at the very tip of Newfoundland, some 1,000 miles away from where everyone else had been looking.
While L’Anse aux Meadows is absolutely authentic, we have to concede that it may not be Vinland. It doesn’t match the geography in the sagas at all. Which raises the possibility that either the sagas are wrong…
…or that Vinland is still out there, waiting to be discovered.
(All corrections from the errata have been incorporated into this article, but not into the published audio.)
In 1884 the Fletcher runestone was “translated” by Henry Phillips Jr. Two decades later, Phillips brother-in-law, J. Bunford Samuel, used that translation to justify erecting a statue of Icelandic settler Thorfinn Karlsefni in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. We recounted the contentious story of the statue in “The Icelander”, and also discussed its ultimate fate, being thrown into the Schuylkill River by either militant anti-racists or drunken Eagles fans. Philadelphia!
The second Yarmouth runestone appears to have been a hoax created by a hotelier to drum up business. For an earlier instance of hoaxing and hotels, check out “His Royal Snakeship.”
While we’ve never actually been to Vinland, we’ve made several trips to its namesake, Vineland, NJ, to check in on its eccentric residents, including eugenicist Henry Herbert Goddard (“Common Clay”) and chromotherapist Dr. Dinshah Ghadiali (“Normalating”).
Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius was a multi-talented genius. Not only did he effectively debunk the Runamo inscription, he also discovered that fluorine continues to accumulate in fossilized bone. Centuries later, a technique based on this discovery would be used to debunk the so-called Piltdown Man fossil. We discussed that famous hoax in “Dawson’s Creek.”
If you would prefer to read about the time Scandinavians actually tried to colonize the New World, check out “Nya Sverige” about the ill-fated colony of New Sweden.
Eben Norton Horsford may have also been the leader of a cabal of Harvard professors trying to sabotage the career of Charles Thomas Jackson, the purported inventor of surgical anaesthesia (“Kings of Pain”).
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