In comments on an earlier blog post, the commenter “Dan” pointed to an old USA Today article from 2001 that I had not seen but which sheds new light on Scott Wolter’s geological acumen. The story concerns the AVM Runestone (or Rune Stone), which I knew was a hoax, but whose full story I wasn’t aware of. I missed the USA Today piece in my research because it doesn’t appear in the version of Lexis-Nexis I have access to, nor does any other mention of the incident. Scott Wolter has removed references to the incident from his website.
The prelude to the incident is rather interesting. In 1995, Bob Berg, a Minnesota man who believes in Norse contact with medieval Minnesota, reported to his local Viking research group that he had found a one-ton stone bearing the runes AVM while surveying near the place where the Kensington Rune Stone, the nineteenth century hoax that many fringe writers believe is a genuine Norse artifact from an expedition from Vinland in 1362, was found in 1898. The AVM inscription resembled the one on the Kensington Rune Stone. After a closer inspection, Berg and his colleagues concluded that the so-called AVM stone was a fake. “I’ve considered it a fake for seven years,” Berg told Minnesota Public Radio in 2001.
In the spring of 2001, stone carver Janey Westin and geologist Robert G. Johnson, her father, rediscovered the AVM boulder near Kensington, Minnesota. It became known as the AVM Runestone after Westin and Johnson became convinced that the stone was authentic and told their story in the local newspaper, which presented their view of the stone’s medieval date. The pair did not allow Berg to view the stone and seemed to ignore evidence that the inscription was not authentically medieval, particularly geological evidence that the rock was underwater in 1363.
Two weeks later Scott Wolter and the Kensington Runestone Scientific Testing Team traveled to the site to investigate. Wolter cleared the boulder of lichens and discovered more inscriptions, including a line of runes and a date on the stone, which read 1363, a year after the date carved on the Kensington Rune Stone. The stone was removed to Wolter’s lab for photography and weathering analysis, but Wolter made no comments between May and November 2001 to indicate that the stone was anything but authentic. Wolter and the the AVM Special Committee of the Kensington Runestone Scientific Testing Team announced the discovery of the AVM Rune Stone at a press conference and declared it important “new evidence” for the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone. According to published accounts, the team suggested that the stone was likely a Norse grave marker, but the Fall 2001 edition of The American Edge, Scott Wolter’s then-newsletter, where this claim was said to have appeared, has been removed from his company’s website, along with his other older newsletters.
The Runestone Museum, which carried an announcement on its webpage, also scrubbed mention of the claims from its pages. Fortunately, the Wayback Machine preserved a copy of the August 13, 2001 text, which was attributed to the joint authorship of the “AVM Special Committee,” whose members included Wolter, Johnson and Westin, as well as Richard Nielsen:
A runestone that is believed to have been inscribed by Norse explorers or traders in the 14th century was found on May 13, 2001 near Kensington, in Douglas County, Minnesota. This newly discovered stone is in addition to the Kensington Runestone, found in 1898 by farmer Olof Ohman and his son when grubbing out trees.
At this point, Wolter had been studying the inscription for almost three months.
In October 2001 two professors, Kari Ellen Gade and Jana Schulman, confessed by affidavit to carving the stone in 1985 while graduate students in Minnesota. According to Kensington Rune Stone researcher Barry Hanson and other published accounts, the women and several classmates had taken a class on the Kensington Rune Stone hoax and wanted to create one of their own to see how easily it could be done. Wolter accepted their confession and announced it on behalf of the AVM Special Committee on November 5. He told Archaeology magazine that he was troubled by some nagging doubts about the stone’s authenticity in the weeks before the pair confessed. He did not explain why it took him nearly six months to come to this determination, nor why his geological analysis failed to conclusively determine that the stone was a fake before the hoaxers confessed. Gade herself expressed shock that anyone would take the carving seriously since it was “clearly a fake.”
Wolter lists the AVM Rune Stone as a hoax on his 2010 list of past projects.
What is interesting is the way that the documents paint different pictures of what happened as the story was revised and massaged. USA Today describes Wolter as “disappointed” that the rock turned out to be fake but unembarrassed by his interest in it when describing his reaction in 2001. None of the 2001 reports explain what aspects caused Wolter to doubt the stone’s authenticity, but in a memo of November 5, 2001, at the time the confession was announced, Hanson stated that the geological analysis had indicated that pyrite was present, which due to its rapid oxidation indicated that the AVM stone was much more recently carved than the Kensington Rune Stone, which lacked such pyrite.
However, by 2005, something changed. Speaking to Alice Kehoe, who was writing a book about the Kensington Rune Stone, Wolter now said he was “delighted” by the hoax. According to Kehoe, it was only through the revelation of the hoax that Wolter learned how quickly pyrite oxidized, allowing him to determine that the Kensington Rune Stone was significantly older than the AVM Rune Stone.
The two accounts are seemingly in conflict, but if taken together suggest that the pyrite oxidation wasn’t considered solid evidence of age until after the team learned that the inscription was a hoax—another reason why they were taken in by it in the first place.
The long and short of it seems to be that any time Wolter says he can determine relative age within minutes by looking at a rock, such analysis cannot be trusted.
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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