Minnesota Man Claims to Have Found a Medieval Norse Skull One Day's Journey North of the Kensington Rune Stone
A Minnesota man is requesting $10,000 to prove that a skull found in an old farmhouse is the remains of the one of the Norse men whose deaths were reported on the hoax Kensington Rune Stone. According to the fictitious story told on the stone, ten members of an expedition made up of eight Geats and twenty-two Norse died in 1362 while the others were fishing one day’s journey north of where the Rune Stone was found in 1898. As I learned from David M. Krueger earlier today, Elroy Balgaard, who is apparently the Minnesota graphic designer of the same name, posted a video to YouTube outlining his plans for a documentary to explore his unusual claim.
In the video, which is composed of some original footage spliced into excerpts from America Unearthed, Balgaard makes a series of increasingly improbably claims. When an old farmhouse about 30 miles north of Kensington, Minn. Was cleaned out so that it could be moved to a new site, a piece of a skull was found amidst the piles of old junk inside. Balgaard provides no evidence for when or how this skull came to be within the house, but it was not unusual for white people of the era to collect Native American bones as curiosities.
In conjunction with local authorities, the skull was given a carbon-14 test to date it. When the test showed that the skull dated to around 900 CE, Balgaard said that he was crushed that his fantasy of “Vikings” in Minnesota, which he attributes to America Unearthed and Scott Wolter, had not panned out. Therefore, he sought out potential ways to get around the facts by looking for reasons that the carbon-14 test could have been inaccurate.
To that end, Balgaard assumes that the skull is of Norse origin, even though it was found in Minnesota, and therefore believes that the individual’s diet was made up of seafood from the Atlantic Ocean. Because of what is called the “marine reservoir effect,” marine organisms, and even freshwater ones, can appear older in radiocarbon dating because the ocean and land have different radiocarbon concentrations. This effect can transfer to those who eat marine diets. Balgaard, citing only one study from 1999, says that this effect can produce an error of just about exactly 400 years, making the skull date to about 1362, though it is not clear to me that this is a universal correction. In the study, the authors limit their findings only to Greenland, and the correction is relative to the percentage of marine resources in the diet. Even in this study, the correction required a diet of around 75% marine resources. The correction does not hold at 400 years for lesser amounts of marine foods. For example, a study from 2013 found that the marine diets of Pompeiians who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE only added between 30 and 60 years to their radiocarbon ages.
Balgaard wants $10,000 to pay for carbon-13 testing and DNA testing. The first test will help to determine how much fish the dead person ate, and the second will, he said, “hopefully” prove that the bones are those of a white European. Balgaard committed to reporting the results of the tests even if they do not support his hypothesis. He did, however, express his belief that the improbable train of logic—that the dead person had a marine diet, that the diet will correlate to a 400-year radiocarbon correction, that the bones will DNA test as Norse—will somehow come to pass and prove the Kensington Rune Stone true.
So why would Balgaard assume that bones found in a farmhouse are those of a Norseman from a fictional expedition? Well, part of it is the kookiness of Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage, which for centuries has tried to remake the Midwest in the image of Europe’s icy north in keeping with the cultural traditions of the Norwegians, Swedes, Danish, and Finns who settled there in the nineteenth century. The direct reason is a 1931 newspaper article, which actually reflects the prejudices I just outlined above.
Balgaard does not provide the source of the article, but the text is visible on screen during his video. The article begins by saying that bones found two miles southeast of Ashby, Minn. “have been quite definitively identified as the remains of an Indian burial ground.” According to the article, 42 bodies were uncovered, and these were very similar to known Native American burials in the area. However, eight bodies—six in one set and two in another—seemed different, described as more “regular” in their arrangement and without shell necklaces found in other graves. This prompted the locals to speculate that the graves were those of “white men.”
“In advancing the theory that the remains were those of white men, a possible tie-up with the activities of the Vikings on the North American continent in [the] fourteenth century, was brought out.” That “tie-up”? None other than the Kensington Rune Stone, which the article said locals used as evidence for the presence of ancient whites.
To cut to the point: Balgaard read the article and decided that the 1930s-era speculation of local ignoramuses was in fact the truth, and he accepts the racist notion that graves that were dug well must by definition be those of white men. (The evidence the article provides offers no way to know how old those specific graves were, or who was buried in them, or when.) From this, he illogically concluded that the skull found in the nearby farmhouse was one of the eight potential “white” men and not one of the “many cranial shells” that the article said were unearthed from what it described as a large burial ground, presuming moreover that the skull was connected to this 1930s-era discovery. Presumably the reasoning for this will be offered in the full documentary.
In short, Balgaard has absorbed the myth of Minnesota Norsemen and is seeking out evidence to support a preexisting belief.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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