Mondays are my busiest day of the week, so today I thought I’d share an interesting bit of information that turned up recently in a Cracked.com article on historical mistakes. Regular readers will recall that alternative historians are obsessed with the idea of finding early medieval Irish Ogham writing virtually everywhere on earth. Ogham, of course, is easy for non-specialists to confuse with any random scratch mark because it is made up primarily of straight lines and angles. Barry Fell famously declared nearly every set of angular lines appearing on any rock evidence of Ogham. Scott Wolter thought he found some in Oklahoma. Worse, the Nigerian scholar Catherine Acholonu-Olumba, who holds a wide range of alternative beliefs centered on Afrocentric claims to history, has even proposed that Ogham is not Irish or medieval but rather a pre-Sumerian African invention!
In fact, she believes that Homo erectus possessed magic powers and that Adam and Eve were (a) real, (b) Black Africans, and (c) a downgrade from the magic Homo erectus:
…our findings reveal that the creation of Adam was a downward climb on the evolutionary ladder, because he lost his divine essence, he became divided, no longer whole, or wholesome. All over Africa and in ancient Egyptian reports, oral and written traditions maintain that homo erectus people were heavenly beings, and possessed mystical powers such as telepathy, levitation, bi-location, that their words could move rocks and mountains and change the course of rivers. Adam lost all that when his right brain was shut down by those who made him. (Source)
Did I mention that Ms. Acholonu-Olumba’s books are widely used in Nigerian schools and that she is honored as one of Africa’s most important women writers? (I don’t like the term “women writers,” but that’s how Who’s Who gives it.)
She also claims, like Zecharia Sitchin, to have the unique ability to translate inscriptions found in Nigeria as an otherwise unknown system of writing extant in sub-Saharan Africa prior to the invention of writing in Mesopotamia. Most scholars, by contrast, believe the inscriptions in question, found on the Ikom Monoliths (a UNESCO world heritage nominee), date no earlier than 200 CE and possibly as late as the nineteenth century. Their writing is not believed to be systematic but rather a series of symbols unique to each artist.
Anyway, I bring this up only as prologue and analogue to the interesting story of a medieval mistake that neatly parallels this rush to find Ogham in scratch marks.
In the twelfth century CE, near Blekinge, Sweden, some mysterious lines were found on a flat slab of stone, and the king at the time, Waldemar I, sent a team of scholars to inspect the find, under the assumption that it was an ancient bit of runic writing. Saxo Grammaticus reports the find of what was later called the Runamo Inscription in the preface to his Danish History:
For there stretches from the southern sea into the desert of Vaarnsland a road of rock, contained between two lines a little way apart and very prolonged, between which is visible in the midst a level space, graven all over with characters made to be read. And though this lies so unevenly as sometimes to breakthrough the tops of the hills, sometimes to pass along the valley bottoms, yet it can be discerned to preserve continuous traces of the characters. Now Waldemar, well-starred son of holy Canute, marvelled at these, and desired to know their purport, and sent men to go along the rock and gather with close search the series of the characters that were to be seen there; they were then to denote them with certain marks, using letters of similar shape. These men could not gather any sort of interpretation of them, because owing to the hollow space of the graving being partly smeared up with mud and partly worn by the feet of travellers in the trampling of the road, the long line that had been drawn became blurred. Hence it is plain that crevices, even in the solid rock, if long drenched with wet, become choked either by the solid washings of dirt or the moistening drip of showers. (trans. Oliver Elton)
Olaus Wormius tried his hand at deciphering the text as well, but failed to make sense of it. Nevertheless, for five centuries it had been treated as a real bit of Norse writing and would be for another two. That changed in 1805, when the Danish antiquary M. F. Arendt recognized it as nothing more than the natural cracks in the rock. That didn’t stop believers, of course, or those with partisan agendas. During a surge of Northern pride in the 1830s, the Bishop of Zealand (a part of Denmark) put together a task force to declare the inscription genuine and extremely ancient, arguing that the “natural” cracks were minor additions to a truly ancient text. This was at a time when the Scandinavians sought common ground against the various Germans, specifically the Austrians and Prussians, who in pagan times had shared the same gods but were now seen as an invading force threatening the North.
An Icelandic and Danish nationalist, the scholar Finn Magnussen (Finnur Magnússon), eventually decided to read the cracks backward in order to try to make sense of them, allegedly deciphering the whole “epic poem” within two hours of applying his new method on the afternoon of May 24, 1834. Not coincidentally, the Iceland-born scholar discovered that the inscription was…wait for it…Icelandic!
He then translated the entire text, which, miraculously, recorded a victory of King Harald War-tooth found in the work of Saxo Grammaticus, the only physical proof then known of that battle. Finn Magnussen’s book on the subject ran 700 pages. This is what he said the inscription said:
Hildekinn received the kingdom.
Not only was this evidence of a lost battle, but it also restored the reputation of Saxo as a legitimate source for Northern history.
Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae, a Danish archaeologist and a co-founder of scientific archaeology, immediately doubted so miraculous a conclusion that simultaneously solved innumerable questions about Scandinavian history. Worsaae had famously argued against the idea that myths and legends could be taken as real accounts of prehistory, and he equally famously rejected the nationalist idea that archaeology would provide a definitive history of Germans and Danes from the Creation, arguing instead that prehistoric peoples were so distant from modern times that no direct lines of descent could be drawn, nor modern divisions read back into prehistory. (In one instance, he debunked the nationalist claim that an Iron Age peat bog mummy was the medieval Queen Gunhild on the obvious evidence that the Iron Age was much farther back in time than the medieval period.)
Now, in 1842 and again in 1844, Worsaae turned his attention to Magnussen’s claims. He noted, first, that Magnussen was working from a drawing, not the actual rock, and that the drawing was flawed. More accurate illustrations failed to correlate with the material Magnussen read into them. “Finn Magnussen’s whole reading and interpretation of the inscription which was grounded on this drawing were completely wrong,” he wrote. He demonstrated that the “inscription” was little more than the natural cracks on a piece of weathered rock.
So persuasive was Worsaae’s argument that the English Encyclopedia of 1868 (s.v. Worsaae) stated blankly that “the great Runic scholar [Magnussen] was not to be trusted in Runes.”
And so ended the long, strange story of the Runamo Inscription, a medieval mistake that played into the nationalist desires of Northern Europeans in a Romantic age. The parallels to modern alternative thinkers’ efforts to make scratches, graffiti, and natural fissures into Ogham and other ancient alphabets in service of a Romantic vision of an ancient European world hegemony (or ancient Nigerian supremacy, for that matter) should be fairly obvious. Fortunately for us, however, our alternative authors are not yet as prominent or as influential as those who promoted the Runamo Inscription, who were in their day the leading figures of science, scholarship, and literature.
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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