The story of the search for Vikings in the America is an interesting counterpoint to the type of fringe history claims usually discussed on America Unearthed. If you’ve read my previous blog posts on the Vikings, Vinland, and Martha’s Vineyard, feel free to skip down to “The Episode.” Otherwise, please take a minute to read a bit about the background. Even if you’ve seen some of this material before, I’ve added a few new details.
I. Victorian Scholarship
The story begins with a Danish writer named Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864), who became enamored of the idea of Vinland, the land where the Vikings under Leif Erikson had made landfall and set up a short-lived colony. After reading the Norse Saga of Erik the Red and the Greenland Saga, the two primary sources, he became convinced that Vinland had been in North America, and he set about proving it in a book called Antiquitates Americanae (1837) through two lines of converging evidence. The first was the sagas, which described a landscape consistent with America and a wild people called the skraelings who answered well to the Native peoples of northeastern Canada. He also assumed that references to the stars could be used to compute the latitude of Vinland, which he placed in New England. The second was what he claimed were Norse antiquities in America, most of which involved scratch marks and Native American petroglyphs he took for runes. To this, he added in his Supplement of 1839 the infamous Newport Tower, which he saw as a Viking church.
From this, more extreme theories emerged proposing a widespread Norse settlement of New England, often linked to the mythical city of Norumbega. Ole Bull famously erected a statue of Leif Erikson in Boston, and Eben Norton Horsford claimed Leif had discovered the Charles River and had, by utter coincidence, placed this settlement precisely in the neighborhood where Horsford himself lived. Oddly enough, although the story of the Vikings coming to America would later be proved indisputably true, acceptance was tempered by wild claims—most notably for the Newport Tower—which threw the enterprise into disrepute until the end of the Victorian period.
In Bill Nye’s satirical History of the United States (1894), the claims for the Newport Tower were satirized with a funny depiction by artist F. Opper of drunk Vikings partying at the Tower, which Nye called the “least expensive summer” ever in that notorious playground of the rich.
Although Rafn’s physical evidence never passed scientific muster, his literary detective work made an impression, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was an accepted and standard view to hold that Leif Erikson had visited North America, though with the caveat that no physical evidence had yet turned up. Arthur Middleton Reeves offered the era’s definitive scholarly take on the story with his Finding of Wineland the Good, which drew upon the work of the Norse scholar Gustav Storm and concluded that the Norse had found Vinland, but that there was no permanent settlement. The great archaeologist scholar Sir Daniel Wilson (1816-1892) was only one of many other luminaries who also correctly identified the Vikings as visitors to America. Wilson placed on literary and geographic evidence the Norse landing in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where archaeological evidence would later be found. However, he argued that proof could be found in the fact that Yarmouth Rock in Nova Scotia contained Norse runes, but modern research believes them to be Micmac ideograms. Their real origin can never be truly known because the stone was re-carved by a believer in Norse colonization to make them look more like the runes he believed them to be. E. B. Tylor, reviewing the same evidence, placed the Viking landing in Labrador or Newfoundland and suggested the Vikings may have visited as far south as the St. Lawrence River.
And lest you think that Viking excursions to America are “forbidden” or “hidden” history that “they” want to keep out of “our” textbooks, here are the very first lines of Charles H. McCarthy’s History of the United States (1919), a standard high school textbook from its era: “The first white men who ever came to America were Northmen. Our continent was discovered through accident in the year 1000, by a Northman named Leif, who was on his way to proclaim the Christian faith in Greenland.” Yes, academics were truly suppressing the truth by “holding the line” on Columbus.
So why did late Victorian academics accept the Viking claims but not those for Atlantis, Henry Sinclair, the Phoenicians, etc. based only on similarly vague sagas and myths? For Sir Daniel Wilson, the answer was twofold. First, the literary evidence was overwhelming, and second, “New Englanders above all not unnaturally cherish the pleasant fancy that they had for their precursors the hardy Vikings, who, resenting the oppression of King Harold the fair-haired, sailed into the unknown west to find a free home for themselves.” In other words, they imagined the Vikings as early versions of themselves. In 2012 the literary critic Annette Kolodny published In Search of First Contact in which she echoed Wilson and wrote that elites in New England from Northern European heritage embraced claims of Viking discovery during a time of heavy immigration from the Latin South and adopted the Vikings as fictive ancestors, providing a Northern European prehistory for America that helped to Europeanize New England back to at least 1000 CE.
Compare the fetishization of the Vikings with H. P. Lovecraft’s not-atypical reaction to the changing ethnic face of Providence, Rhode Island a couple of decades later, in 1926: “In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin ...” (letter to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926).
It was in this milieu that the Sinclair family began to advance claims that their ancestor, either Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, or his son, Henry II, had discovered America. They did so not on account of his Scottish heritage but because he was a Norman and a Norse noble (his title was held by grace of the Norse king), an heir to the Vikings and privy to their secrets. And just as Lovecraft blanched at the thought of “Latin” peoples darkening New England, some Victorian-era Sinclairs, especially Thomas Sinclair, responded in exactly the same way to the Latin threat:
The glorification of Columbus in the discovery centenary of 1892 was an aid towards the threatened Spanish or Latin domination; and Scandinavian energy has been in movement, especially at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, to counteract the southern tide, by ascribing the discovery of America to Norsemen of the Teuton stock, including, as principal factors, the English and the Dutch. Caithnessmen [i.e. the Sinclair bloodline], especially of Canada and the United States, have the strongest personal interest in such a gigantic Armageddon contest of blood and belief, if it is to be early fact. (Caithness Events, 1893)
The Vikings had become totemic ancestors, and it is hardly surprising that this was the time when Viking and Norse hoaxes gained prominence, not least the Kensington Rune Stone. The story of the Vikings in America gained acceptance far ahead of archaeological evidence because of its political utility; Thomas Sinclair makes quite plain that he saw Columbus as serving to justify the wrong kind of immigration and the Vikings as a counterweight against southern European immigration.
None of this analysis, please note, is unique to me; scholars have been writing about this phenomenon at least since Sir Daniel Wilson in 1892 and as recently as Annette Kolodny last year.
Despite the widespread acceptance of the idea that the Vikings reached America, after World War I and especially after World War II, the idea of using half-mythic sagas as history fell into disrepute, and as archaeology, history, and literature grew into separate disciplines, the lack of archaeological evidence for the Vikings anywhere in America led to a period of doubt. Archaeologists weren’t willing to accept literature as sole evidence, and historians sought archaeological confirmation to give history a scientific cast. The Viking narrative didn’t quite meet the new standards, but no evidence contradicting the literary claims had ever emerged. It remained an open question. Against this two uncertain artifacts emerged in 1957: the Vinland map, often called a hoax, a medieval parchment which supposedly depicted the coast of Canada, and the Maine penny, a medieval Norse coin found in Maine without any provenance. The coin is often called either a trade item that diffused to Native Americans from Norse settlements in the North or a lost piece of someone’s coin collection.
Three years later, archaeological finds at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Canada found the remains of an actual Norse settlement from the early eleventh century. It was the first unambiguous evidence of Norse presence in North America, and it was a sensation. Immediately, the Viking question had its answer, and for the first time archaeology, history, and literary analysis all converged on the same answer, something that the stories of the Knights Templar, the Phoenicians, and Atlantis lack. There, literature, history, and archaeology diverge wildly into a mutually contradictory mess, and the deeper one probes, the farther apart the lines of evidence move from the claims made for them.
Today there is an active debate whether L’Anse-aux-Meadows was itself Vinland, was a part of Vinland, or whether Vinland lay somewhere to the south. Some think the Vikings might have traveled as far south as New England, but most scholars believe they mostly stuck to what is now Canada. The question of Vinland and its location revolves, in large measure, around the question of the Vinland grapes.
I previously explored this topic, and since it is directly relevant to the question of Martha’s Vineyard as Vinland, I will repeat that post below. The material under the next heading I originally published in a separate blog post in September.
II. The Grapes of Vinland
Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (6.37) describes the geography of the Fortunate Islands and says that they abound in fruit, but he does not specify anything about grapes. That honor falls to Isidore of Seville, who in the early 600s CE produced the medieval world’s most influential reference to the Fortunate Islands, one that echoes down through later myths and legends. Isidore wrote:
The Fortunate Islands signify by their name that they produce all manner of good things, as if they were happy and blessed with an abundance of fruit. For suited by their nature they produce fruit from precious trees; grape vines of their own accord clothe the hillsides; instead of grass, crops (i.e., wheat) and vegetables are common. (14.6.8, my trans.)
Ah, grapes! And wheat! This idea of a vine-covered land of plenty spread very quickly. Here is Rabanus Maurus in De universo (12.5) about a century later:
The Fortunate Islands … by their very nature they produce fruits of the most precious trees; the slopes of their hills are covered with unplanted vines; there is grain in place of grass and kitchen vegetables everywhere. (trans. George Boas)
Compare this to the Voyage of Saint Brendan (chapter 25), believed to have been composed around 900 CE. Brendan crosses the sea and finds a magical island filled with grapes:
Three days after, they saw near at hand an island covered all over with trees, closely set, and laden with such grapes as those, in surprising abundance, so that all the branches were weighed down to the ground, with fruit of the same quality and colour, and there was no tree fruitless or of a different kind in the whole island. (trans. Denis O’Donoghue)
Such texts set the stage for the expectation that any land found across the sea must perforce be rich with perpetual grapes. This description of the island of grapes seems to inform Icelandic literary descriptions of Vinland centuries later.
The oldest text about Vinland is that of Adam of Bremen, written around 1075 CE. “Vines grow there naturally, producing the best of wines. That unsown fruits grow there in abundance we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes” (Gesta Hammaburgensis 4.38, my trans.). In so saying, Adam was very clearly conscious that his audience would relate the story to the well-known tales of the Fortunate Islands. In fact, Adam specifically relates Vinland to the Thule of Romans—which was the last stop before Hyperborea, where enchanted people live for a century or more in a land where abundant fruits grow spontaneously from the ground (Pliny, Natural History 4.26; Pindar, Pythian 10). We know, though, from Icelandic authors like Snorri Sturluson a century later that the northern people were well-aware of Greco-Roman mythology and had taken to interpreting their history and civilization through this lens. For Snorri, Odin and his crew were Trojans, and Norse history entwined with that of Rome.
If I had to guess, though, I would think that the story came about when Adam tried to find out why the place was called Vinland, a name that could mean either “wine-land” or “pasture-land” depending on which Old Norse homophone (vín for wine, or vin for pasture) one thought the vin represented. (Linguists now believe that the use of vin for pasture in place names had fallen out of favor before the Vinland expedition.)
Less than a century after Adam wrote, King Arthur was promoted to voyager through northern waters when Geoffrey of Monmouth made him conqueror of Iceland in his History of the Kings of Britain (9.10). In his later work, the Life of Merlin, Geoffrey describes a Fortunate Isle, the Isle of Apples, in language borrowed from the Fortunate Islands of Isidore of Seville, and a bit about the long-lived Hyperboreans taken from Pliny:
Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. (trans. John Jay Parry)
Geoffrey also describes Sri Lanka as having perpetual grapes and rocks covered in gems, a description very similar to the Island of the Saints in the first chapter of the Voyage of Saint Brendan.
Obviously, at the time lands over the sea were expected to have wild fruit, specifically the grain and grapes Isidore specified. Now let’s turn to the Icelandic sagas and see what we find.
In the Saga of Erik the Red (chapter 8), known from two slightly differing manuscripts of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries from a presumed twelfth century original, there is a brief mention of grapes. Upon arriving at the new land across the sea from Greenland, Leif Erikson puts ashore two Scots, and they return days later: “And when three days were expired the Scotch people leapt down from the land, and one of them had in his hand a bunch of grapes, and the other an ear of wild wheat” (trans. J. Sephton). Grapes and wheat… the two boons of the Fortunate Islands. What a surprise. Indeed, more than one scholar connects Vinland to Isidore’s Fortunate Islands.
Given how paltry the saga’s reference is, and the fact that there was no wheat in pre-Columbian America (though native peoples of eastern Canada cultivated maize), this may well be either (a) a fictional application of the Fortunate Islands or (b) the application of Old World terms to New World foodstuff. After all, the Spanish called turkeys “peacocks.” Technically, the saga does not say that Leif’s men found grapes and therefore called the land Vinland; instead, it says they purposely went in search of a place called Vinland the Good and then found grapes at an unnamed spot.
The same chapter relates that “Karlsefni and his people sailed to the mouth of the river, and called the land Hop. There they found fields of wild wheat wherever there were low grounds; and the vine in all places where there was rough rising ground.” I think you can see how this is a fairly direct translation of Isidore’s Latin text, right down to the vines on the hills and the wheat in the low ground. That this does not correlate to the facts on the ground in the known Viking settlement area in eastern Canada does not bode well for Vinland as a real land of endless grapes.
We turn next to the Greenlander Saga from the Flateyjarbók, written around 1387. It offers a more expansive version of the story, but one that differs in its details. Here is the material:
“I have not been very far, but I have something new to tell you; I have found vines and grapes!” “Is this true?” asked Leif. “Yes, indeed it is,” answered Tyrker, “for I was brought up in a land where vines and grapes were in abundance.” “Then there are two matters to be attended to on alternate days to gather grapes and to fell timber, with which we may load the ship,” said Leif; and the task was at once commenced. It is said that their long-boat was filled with grapes. And now, having felled timber to load their ship, and the spring coming on, they made ready for their departure. Before he left, Leif gave the land a name expressive of its good produce, calling it Vinland—land of wine. (trans. James William Buel)
I’m not sure what kind of grapes grow in winter, as the narrative says, but the saga claims that the grapes of Vinland are perpetually ripe all the year round. These are clearly the magic grapes of the Fortunate Isles, not a real species.
Literary critics note that many of the readings in the Flateyjarbók are expanded and more fully developed versions of texts found in other sources. In fact, the Greenlander Saga appears to be an interpolation in the text and cannot be dated certainly. Since it is more elaborate than the Saga of Erik the Red, there is therefore reason to suspect later mythic expansion of an older, simpler text. Indeed, the Greenlander Saga has several points of contradiction with a version of Erik the Red included in the same book.
However, traditionally, scholars have argued on internal evidence that the Greenlander Saga is the older Icelandic account of Vinland—largely because Bishop Brand is given his name without the sobriquet “the Elder” found in the Erik the Red, implying the text was composed prior to 1263 when the second Bishop Brand was consecrated. Similarly, Greenlander preserves an older name for Blacksarck not found in the other texts.
At the same time, however, the inclusion of mythological motifs in the Greenlander narrative suggested to twentieth century critics that whatever truth there was to the account, it had been purposely or by chance corrupted in the telling. The magic grapes that ripen at all seasons were cited specifically as evidence of this corruption, as they match no known species.
Let’s recall that Erik the Red, in his Saga, supposedly named the frosty wastes of Greenland after the verdant valleys of paradise “‘because,” said he, ‘men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name.’” I’m not entirely sure that Vinland does not follow the same pattern, with the name attracting to it the myth of the Fortunate Islands that then informed the “history” of the place.
III. Vinland on Martha's Vineyard
The name Martha’s Vineyard was originally bestowed upon a small island near the current Martha’s Vineyard when Bartholomew Gosnold explored the island in 1602. Although he did not explain for whom he named the island, some believe he named it for his wife or daughter. Also called Martin’s Island, it may also have originated as the name of Gosnold’s ship’s captain. No matter from whom it was named, the vineyard designation comes from the prevalence of wild grapes, which blanketed the smaller and larger islands in the 1600s and 1700s and can still be found there to the present day. Carl Rafn took this to mean that Vinland and the Vineyard were the same, although his critics, like R. G. Haliburton in Popular Science, pointed out that he and his supporters “seem not to have remembered, that wild grapes were found on the south shore of the St. Lawrence” and in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia—and, historically, still more broadly across Canada. I discussed the Martha’s Vineyard connection to Vinland earlier this year, and I will reprint that discussion below in slightly edited form to save you the trouble of looking it up.
There is an alleged dolmen at Martha’s Vineyard that was the subject of New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) research in the 1970s. The “Chilmark Dolmen,” “Chilmark Cromlech,” or “Quitsa Quoit” is a small stone structure comprised of a flat, oval-shaped capstone supported by several small stones. It’s probably colonial, from what I’ve read, but not much is known for sure. At any rate, it is orders of magnitude smaller than the European Neolithic dolmens or cromlechs to which it has been compared. Some have tried to make it a Norse burial marker, but even fringe thinkers can’t agree on that since many want it to be Neolithic or Irish.
Additionally, some claim that a passage in the saga Flateyjarbok details Leif Ericson’s voyage to Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard, though this is of course a matter of interpretation. It depends on how much weight you place on the “elbow shape” of the land and the uniqueness of Martha’s Vineyard’s shoals. In 1926, a rock was discovered on nearby Nomans (or No Man’s) Island which allegedly had the runic-Latin hybrid inscription “Leif Ericson 1001” and “Vinland.” The Navy took control of the land during World War II and used it for target practice until it became a nature preserve in 1996. In 2003, Scott Wolter traveled to the island to find the rune stone. It was partially submerged, but Wolter found it and wrote about it in his book The Kensington Rune Stone. He discussed it several times thereafter.
“I am absolutely convinced that Vinland is the area around Martha’s Vineyard and Nomans Land Island,” Wolter stated in 2008. Is this possible? It is just possible that the Vikings traveled that far south, but the complete lack of any archaeological presence similar to L’anse-aux-Meadows, the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, argues against Martha’s Vineyard being Vinland. As I’ve mentioned before, the assumption that Vinland—the land of grapes—was so far south of Newfoundland derives entirely from ignorance of climate change and the fact that in 1000 CE, during the Medieval Warm Period, Newfoundland was much warmer than it was when the first alternative theories were proposed, during the Little Ice Age that lasted into the 1800s. Because early scholars knew of Canada only as an icy waste, they could not fathom that the Vikings could have found a warm, comfortable environment.
Reaction from scholars to the No Man’s Island stone was almost uniformly critical. The rock features both runes and what Wolter called Roman numerals (actually numeric runes), something not typically found in genuine Viking inscriptions. Wolter, however, told Jeff Belanger of Weird Massachusetts (2008, p. 38) that he had no trouble with this detail because—wait for it—the Kensington Rune Stone had the same thing! The trouble with that is that the Rune Stone uses the numerals differently than any known European inscription. Calendar runes are “cumulative,” meaning that, like Roman numerals, there is one numeral to represent a two-digit number, such as fourteen. However, the Rune Stone lists numbers as digits, writing fourteen with the runes for 1 and 4 (two separate runes). Richard Nielsen has identified an Arabic-formatted runic inscription from Greenland dating to 1314, which could therefore support the Arabic-formatting on the Kensington Rune Stone, but this does not bear on the question of the Nomans Island stone, which is supposedly 300 years older. This style is simply not used in European runic calendar inscriptions until Western (Arabic) numerals were introduced and adopted, and even then they are first used with Arabic figures, not runes (see Stephen Chrisomalis, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 131). Arabic numerals were first brought to Europe around 970 but were not widely used for centuries afterward and were still a novelty mostly confined to accountants and scholars when Fibonacci learned them in the 1200s. It is just possible that Leif could have learned the Arabic system, but highly unlikely.
The No Man’s Island inscription, however, is not even this complex. It simply uses “MI” (1001), a Roman numeral, and such numerals do not appear in conjunction with runes. (Imagine, for example, writing your name in English but using Greek for the date.)
The No Man’s Island stone is widely believed to be hoax, according to academic experts in Norse history and Norse runic inscriptions. Professional historian F. Donald Logan reported that a hoaxer from New Bedford was widely suspected of faking the inscription (Vikings in History, Routledge, 2005, p. 79). Additionally, Stephen Chrisomalis declared it an “undeniable” forgery based on the fact that the stone uses the wrong style for recording the year. Wolter, as we saw, has no trouble with this because he believes that the Kensington Rune Stone (nominally dated 361 years later) is somehow proof of the authenticity of the “earlier” inscription.
IV. The Episode
Our episode opens in North Carolina in 1971. A young girl stands in a graveyard wandering through the stones amidst fallen leaves. Suddenly many children appear, as if playing hide and seek. The girl runs into the woods and finds on the ground a stone with Norse runes.
Suddenly we’re on to the opening credits.
We open with a dramatic overhead shot of L’Anse-aux-Meadows as on screen graphics inform us that the Viking settlement there contains evidence of southern voyages by the Vikings. Instead of explaining this, loud music plays us to a boat where Scott Wolter is racing to No Man’s Island, which Scott Wolter visited in an earlier trip discussed in his previous book.
We then bounce back three previous weeks in order to confuse the viewer unnecessarily, substituting cinema-style drama and editing for clear storytelling.
Wolter describes the known voyages of the Vikings, and he plans to view a boulder in Oklahoma where he thinks the Vikings left an inscription. Wolter visits the Heavener Rune Stone, which Scandinavian runologists have declared a modern forgery. Until 1951, locals believed that the carvings were Choctaw ideograms, but a local woman named Gloria Farley devoted her life to making the site famous as a Viking relic, sending the inscription to the Smithsonian, which said that the letters were Norse. Wolter says that the Smithsonian has “a history of dismissing these mysterious anomalies.” The Smithsonian said it says “GNOME DAL,” Gnome Valley, but Richard Nielsen translated it as GLOME DAL, or Glome’s Valley. Wolter says Glome was a known personage, but the only evidence for him appears to be this inscription.
The rune stone uses Elder Furthark, a type of rune that stopped being used in the 700s, three centuries before the Norse sagas themselves claim that the Vikings first discovered the New World. Two of the runes are also written incorrectly. Nielsen noted that the runes were from the 700s, not the 1000s. No evidence of Viking artifacts has ever been found in Oklahoma, which casts doubt on the idea that Glome was staking a land claim.
Wolter says that the carving, which he plans to date geologically, is “possibly a land claim,” derived from Nielsen’s translation. (What isn’t for Wolter?) He tells us about the rock’s geological history, but he concedes that he is unable to date the stone geologically any more specifically than the period between 1000 CE and 1900 CE (he fudges this by saying it isn’t ancient but also isn’t modern) and without bothering to check the runes, he concludes it must be a Viking original because “no one” could have carved the runes “as a joke” in the 1830s. Funny, that’s exactly the period when everyone was busy making rune hoaxes thanks to Carl Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae.
I swore I was going to try to be nice tonight because this episode seemed like it would be close to the mainstream, but God damn it, Wolter is thumbing his nose at the audience’s intelligence by telling us that his much-vaunted dating technique can’t prove that the stone is older than 1830 but that he feels it is because his complete lack of interest in researching the runes or the area or looking for any kind of material evidence of Vikings leads him to think that nobody could have hoaxed the stone. Archaeologists Ken Feder and Lyle Thompson, who have both examined the evidence for the stone’s authenticity, both concluded it is a modern forgery and that no evidence of a Viking visit (artifact or otherwise) exists in the area. They are the wrong runes.
After the first break we get a recap, and Wolter imagines two sailing routes to Oklahoma, neither of which would have worked before the existence of canals connected various rivers.
Wolter says that the runes “make perfect sense,” which no Scandinavian runologist has ever confirmed. Again, they are wrong runes for the period, being at least 200 years out of date for the purported period in which they were carved.
Wolter then examines photographs of two other stones with runes found in the area. Wolter pretends to “recall” in a staged conversation an email about the rune stone in North Carolina that opened the episode. Wolter does not examine the other Oklahoma stones, which archaeologists such as Lyle Tompsen have concluded are modern forgeries. By not examining the stones, Wolter avoids having to admit that, as archaeologists concluded, they are obviously modern.
At Wolter’s laboratory, Nancy Millwood listens to Wolter repeat what we just heard before she presents him with the rune stone that she found in 1971. We go to commercial rather than hear more about this.
After the break, we get another recap, and Millwood tells Wolter that she tried to have the rune stone authenticated. She sent a rubbing of the stone to the Smithsonian, but Millwood’s mother refused a request from the Smithsonian (so she says) to donate the stone. Wolter says that the Smithsonian “would have hidden it immediately” because of what he implies is a conspiracy to suppress the truth. No one asks the Smithsonian for proof of any of the assertions made on the show. I mean, seriously: In 1959 the Maine legislature was debating whether to replace Columbus Day with Leif Erikson Day, and we are asked to believe that there was a conspiracy to suppress Viking finds?
Wolter examines the stone and tells Millwood about his belief that Vinland of the Norse sagas was the United States. Now here’s the thing: These same sagas said that Vinland was discovered in 1000, give or take, so authenticating pre-1000 runes would mean that the sagas are wrong and therefore are not literal records of the past. This then negates much of their value in finding Vinland! In examining the stone, Wolter concludes that he cannot date the soapstone geologically. He says he’ll get the stone translated, and Millwood thanks Wolter for rescuing her from the wall of indifference that is academia. We then forget about this for the rest of the show except for a very brief by vital line later on.
Wolter calls Michael Arbuthnot, the archaeologist from last season’s “Giants in Minnesota” episode. He tells Wolter that he will send a copy of the inscription to a colleague for translation. Arbuthnot then tells Wolter about No Man’s Land, and Wolter explains that he already visited the rock in 2002 but will go back because (a) it is dangerous and will make great TV and (b) he would like Arbuthnot’s opinion of the inscription.
We then go to another break.
After the break Wolter takes us to L’anse-aux-Meadows.
Wolter asserts that “academics” had “instantly dismissed” L’Anse-aux-Meadows and refused to believe it was real. This is not true. While some may have waited for the site reports to accept the find, the material I have found in a literature search of the 1960s shows immediate and enthusiastic interest in the site. Several academics visited the site to confirm the reports, and within five or seven years, it was widely accepted.
Wolter claims that the existence of butternuts in L’Anse-aux-Meadows proves that the Vikings traveled at least as far south as Maine to collect them. This is also wrong. In 1000 CE, butternut trees were native to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, areas much closer to L’anse-aux-Meadows and long suspected of having been the site of occasional Viking visits. The best guess (and it is only a guess) is that the Gulf of St. Lawrence was the spot known as Vinland since it had grapes, butternut trees, and was reasonably close to the known Viking settlement in Canada.
Wolter heads to Martha’s Vineyard, where he says the Leif Erikson stone, butternut trees, and grapes all come together in one spot. He describes the MI on the Erikson stone as the Roman numeral for 1001 CE, and he claims that the Spirit Pond Rune Stone, another hoax, points the way to Martha’s Vineyard as Vinland. According to Wolter Martha’s Vineyard must be Vinland because “Vineyard, Vinland”—i.e., they sound alike. This despite Martha’s Vineyard gaining its name only in the 1600s and grapes being native to most of eastern Canada during the Medieval Warm Period. Wolter does not mention any of this, leaving viewers with the false impression that grapes could be found only at Martha’s Vineyard. This is the same problem I keep pointing out with this show: It purposely leaves out important information in order to fabricate a pseudo-historical story that the viewer is invited to believe without being told that it is not a full and fair representation of all the facts surrounding the story.
We head to another commercial break, and somewhere another fact curled up in a ball and waited to die.
After the break Wolter reaffirms his manliness (since this is a program designed to appeal to upscale males 25-54) by telling us how he is taking a risk by traveling to the ordnance-strewn Nomans Land Island. (The spelling was normalized as Nomans thanks to America’s hatred of apostrophes; it used to be No Man’s Land. Martha’s Vineyard is one of the few places to keep its ancient apostrophe.)
Arbuthnot and Wolter both talk about the Leif Erikson stone as though it were genuine and spin scenarios about its importance while assuming that Martha’s Vineyard is Vinland. The show elides the thought process and leaves the impression that this is a solid conclusion, not just ancient Victorian speculation born of wishful thinking, mistakes made by Carl Rafn (his latitude calculations were recognized as faulty in the 1800s), and a hoax.
Wolter tells us that it’s too dangerous to view the Leif Erikson stone thanks to unexploded bombs. Wolter explains that the island is eroding and the rock is sinking into the ocean. Wolter notes that in the 1920s the stone was right on the beach, indicating his familiarity with the discovery of the stone and the claims of its hoaxing. Wolter asks why archaeologists don’t want to preserve it (because it’s widely believed to be a hoax!), and he demands that the rock be removed from the water and preserved.
Wolter concludes that the Leif Erikson stone is genuine, despite presenting no evidence to support this. He also claims that Martha’s Vineyard was Vinland based on all of the “evidence” he’s seen—but that evidence is nothing. He presented not a hint of it. The stones are the only evidence, and they can’t be dated—by his own admission! Wolter briefly mentions that the “translation” of the North Carolina rune stone was “inconclusive” (i.e., gibberish), but he accepts it as genuine anyway.
So, to recap: Wolter authenticated the Heavener Rune Stone based on (a) his super-secret science of “looking at” the stone, which determined it could be dated to sometime after “ancient” times and before “modern” times and (b) his belief that no one could have had knowledge of runes in the 1830s, contradicted by Carl Rafn’s bestselling 1837 book. He also insinuated that the Smithsonian is covering up Viking voyages to America, despite the fact that this claim was so widely accepted that it was literally in school textbooks in the 1900s. He then provided no evidence that the Leif Erikson stone was genuine, or that Martha’s Vineyard had any relationship to the Vikings other than a coincidence of name. But through sheer repetition of his beliefs, this magically transformed into evidence that supported a dramatic conclusion that situates the Vikings in Martha’s Vineyard as part of a continent-wide set of “land claims.”
The sound and the fury were all there, but the evidence still signifies nothing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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