The episode opens with Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot traveling to Minnesota to examine the Kensington Runestone. Nelson calls it “one of the most fascinating” artifacts in America, and they note that “some” believe the artifact to be authentic and others feel it is a hoax. They decline to note that the date on the stone—1362—is after the Viking age (traditionally said to have ended in 1066), so while it would be Norse if genuine, it is not Viking.
At the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minn., the two men examine the rune stone and have special permission from the museum to inspect it close-up, outside of its display case. Nelson claims that “a lot of effort” went into the carving of the stone if it were a hoax, apparently suggesting that hoaxers are unwilling to put in effort. The sixty forged volumes of the Hitler diaries suggest otherwise. Using only a magnifying glass, Nelson says that the “cool” stone looks like it has not weathered enough to be genuinely medieval. Arbuthnot scans it with a portable 3-D scanner and says it will be the highest-resolution computer model ever made of the stone. Both men are more interested in the scan than the actual stone, despite the original object being available in front of them. As we might suspect, the show expects the audience to be in awe of technology rather than history.
In a sign of the lack of care that went into this show, no one bothers to connect the narrative on the rune stone about finding ten from the Norse party mysteriously and violently dead to the supposed war with Native Americans that the show speculated about last week. Perhaps they are not too interested in depicting their heroes on the losing end of battles. More likely, no one really thought through the master narrative and did not consider continuity.
The men then travel to the site where the rune stone was uncovered in 1898, at the park where the expensive Kensington Runestone memorial bathroom—er, Douglas County’s Kensington Rune Stone Park Visitors Center—was erected last year. There, the men plan to test the soil to evaluate how much weathering the stone should have undergone if it had been buried for 500 years. This, I suppose, relies on a number of assumptions, such as the stone having been buried for 500 years rather than, say, falling down a hole after 200 or so, and the soil containing the same chemical composition today as it had in 1362—or the plowed-over top soil from what was a working farm accurately representing medieval soils down below. Arbuthnot concludes that the soil was not acidic enough to have weathered the stone significantly. They suspect, though, that the wetness of the soil—again, assuming this remained constant over 500 years—could have affected the weathering. Examining the depth of the carving on two different rock layers of varying hardness, the two men cannot agree whether the different depths of the carving represented weathering from the 1890s or 1362.
Therefore, they decide to use ridiculous evidence to break the tie. They plan to determine whether a Viking ship could make the 1,600-mile trip from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to Duluth, Minn., thus “proving” that if “we can do it, they can do it.” It turns out they can’t do it because the river they wanted to use to test out their ideas froze over. In fact, they never really tried to go across the continent by ship. They barely even tried to go farther than your average party barge travels on a Saturday night booze cruise. Needless to say, the possibility that Vikings could sail up rivers implies nothing about whether Norse explorers carved a stone in the Minnesota woods three centuries later.
Much of the episode is devoted to the buddies commissioning a replica Viking ship (a glorified three-man canoe, really, not a massive long-ship), training to develop “survival skills” to make the journey in the style of the Vikings, and then going into lengthy detail on the manufacture of the various accoutrements needed to conduct a Viking journey. They also attempt to recreate the carving of the Kensington Runestone. The two men suggest that if they can carve a convincing rune, then “even a Minnesota farmer” could have done so. This is a rather insulting way to put it, since Victorian farmers likely had much better artisanal skills than modern TV personalities. Arbuthnot fails miserably, but Nelson managed to carve a convincing rune. Nelson correctly notes that the long period of time it would have taken to carve the rune stone—several days, or a week—doesn’t match the story told on the stone, which speaks of a disaster. He continues to doubt its authenticity. His partner in crime takes the opposite role. “It’s one hell of a hoax, if it’s a hoax,” Arbuthnot insists, still playing the role of believer.
Near the end of the hour, we get a long segment showing Nelson and Arubthnot camping in what they say is Viking style while waiting for a guide to find them a place to try sailing their replica Viking ship on a river encrusted with two inches of ice. This is a rather disappointing development since they set up their adventure to be a journey from the St. Lawrence to Duluth, only to have their experiment amount to a few yards on an icy stretch of a rather gentle Minnesota river. I’d have rather liked to see how they intended to have the ship travel across the Great Lakes and between them, across the most dangerous parts of the 1,600-mile route they laid out. What we got was a gentle little Sunday sail, albeit a cold one in “bone-chilling” 21° weather (to which: I laugh at your definition of cold weather), lasting perhaps 30 minutes. The men express their excitement that the boat performed well, though we already knew it would since the Vikings used similar ships to sail around European rivers.
Nelson claims to want to believe that the rune stone is authentic, but he remains unconvinced. Arbuthnot claims to believe that the Vikings had the technology to reach Minnesota and therefore might have. Neither proved anything and wasted a great deal of time in what was essentially a shrug of the shoulders and a big “I don’t know.” The relative equality between the two men and their views gives spurious support to the notion that believers in the authenticity of the stone are equal in number and in evidence to those who have concluded it is a hoax, as the scholarly consensus clearly favors. Thus, the show indirectly supports the minority claim that the stone is real if only by presenting this as a serious option of equal standing to the weight of scholarly opinion.
Once again, the episode falls into the same pattern as its predecessors: Clearly, the producers and talent wanted to explore Viking sailing techniques on inland waterways and thrashed around for a “mystery” of dubious merit to fool the network and the audience into thinking they were investigating Vikings in the American interior rather than their real focus. The lack of interest in their putative subject is rather amazing, but the cynicism in assuming the American audiences are so xenophobic and America-centric that even a topic as exciting as the Vikings can’t be made interesting to them unless it connects to the United States is depressing.
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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