This morning I got up and reached for my glasses, only to find that the frames had broken. The ear piece snapped off, and the optometrist says that they can’t be repaired. Naturally, my spare pair of glasses (which I never wear) somehow managed to get bent when I moved a year ago without me noticing. The optometrist bent them back, but for whatever reason the right lens isn’t sitting quite right, so I’m having trouble seeing. I’m doing my best, but it’s a struggle.
I wasn’t aware that Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts was associated with alternative history, but apparently it must be so. According to the Vineyard Gazette, Chilmark selectmen approved a request by America Unearthed to film a segment for the show on May 2 and 3 on the boat of charter captain Scott McDowell. The vote was unanimous. I only knew of Chilmark as Fox Mulder’s home town on The X-Files.
As I understand it, 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 alternative types can’t agree on that since many want it to be Neolithic or Irish.
Additionally, some claimed 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 2005 Kensington Rune Stone.
“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 and/or meadows—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). This style is simply not used in European runic calendar inscriptions until Western (Arabic) numerals were introduced, and even then Arabic (digital) positioning was never used with runic figures, only Arabic numerals. (See Stephen Chrisomalis, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 131.) [Update: Note, however, as Gunn references in the comments below, that Richard Nielsen has identified an earlier Arabic-formatted runic inscription; however, this does not bear on the question of the Nomans Island stone.]
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.
It sounds like we’re in for another attempt to rehabilitate a hoax.
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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