Ever since the Vinland Sagas described a semi-mythical world beyond Greenland in the early 13th century, people have speculated about whether the Vikings really did make it to the New World.
Archaeological confirmation finally came in 1960 in Canada when Norwegian couple Helge and Anne Ingstad discovered a genuine Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.
Today, L'Anse aux Meadows remains the sole site in North America with a definitive Viking presence. Yet that doesn't mean there aren't any pretenders to the throne.
A number of claims have been made from all over the continent, including Sarah Parcak's failed satellite archaeological explorations, more convincing yet still inconclusive findings at Baffin Island, and a series of spurious claims in the US.
Chief among them, however, is the Kensington Runestone, which was first discovered in 1898 and has been bewitching and infuriating the general public and archaeologists ever since.
A lucky find
The Kensington Runestone was apparently discovered by Swedish immigrant Olof Öhman in the small town of Solem, which is seven miles from Kensington, Minnesota.
As Öhman was clearing land from his newly acquired farm, his son Edward was said to have spotted a large dark stone tangled in the roots of a poplar tree.
They pulled out a striking slab of greywacke, 75 cm in height and covered with a series of clearly legible Scandinavian runes.
The story it purports to tell dates to 1362, so it falls just outside the traditional Viking Age:
"Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this) exploration journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters) one day's journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found ten men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil. (side of stone) There are ten men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days' journey from this peninsula (or island)."
Naturally, the find stirred great excitement in the local area: was this finally the definitive proof that the Vikings had found their way to mainland America?
The Kensington Runestone's runic text narrates the journey of eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen who embarked on an exploration mission to "Vinland far to the west." Photo: Mauricio Valle / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unfortunately for Öhman, the initial expert reaction to his discovery was highly skeptical.
Olaus J. Breda, a professor in the Scandinavian Department at the University of Minnesota, examined a copy of the inscription and declared the stone a forgery due to its modern language use.
Several other linguists and historians in Scandinavia agreed with his assessment.
The stone itself was also in suspiciously good condition: the inscriptions were sharply visible, with little sign of the wear and tear you would expect to find from a 500-year-old artifact.
The runestone's cause, however, was soon taken up by Hjalmar Holand, a Norwegian-American historian and author, who began publishing a series of articles and books that advocated for its authenticity.
He was also joined by geologist Newton Horace Winchell and linguist George T. Flom, who both wrote favorable articles on the matter.
The Kensington Runestone's "period of authenticity" arguably peaked in 1948, when it was proudly displayed at the Smithsonian, the storied American museum in Washington, DC.
In subsequent years, the runestone also enjoyed a trip to Europe and a star turn at the World's Fair in New York in 1965.
The Kensington Runestone, weighing 92 kilograms (202 pounds), displays runic characters on both its sides and is exhibited at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota. Photo: Myotus / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A fantastical tale
Yet, as the former director at the L'Anse aux Meadows site Birgitta Wallace explains, the claims of authenticity appear to be based on little more than wishful thinking.
"Early in my career, I was asked to examine a series of alleged Viking finds in North America. What I found was lots of fantasy."
"There was a range of different inscriptions, sites, and artifacts," Birgitta says.
"Vikings have been popular for a long, long time, and people have forever been searching for this mysterious meaning. The Kensington Runestone was quite a sensation, but when it was examined, it was determined it was entirely modern."
"I don't know whether Hjalmar Holand really believed in it or if he just thought it would be a good story. He was a very good writer."
"He also boosted his claims by publishing photos and descriptions of many artifacts, mainly axes, swords, and arrows. I was asked to examine these artifacts, and in most cases, they were quite new."
"To put it simply, what he said was not real."
In 1910, Louise Lund Larsen created foldout illustrations of the two carved faces of the Kensington Runestone. Photo: Louise Lund Larsen (Public domain)
A powerful thought
Birgitta also mentions a 2004 discovery that provided further clues about the origin of the Kensington Runestone.
Though Olof Öhman was considered uneducated, he was far from the only Swede in the vicinity, as Minnesota had experienced an influx of Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th century.
Two sets of writings from 1883, depicting the runic work of a 16-year-old tailor named Edward Larsson from Sweden, were found. These writings correspond almost exactly to the combinations used on the Kensington Runestone.
"There is virtually watertight proof that the person who found the stone was friends with the person who wrote the inscription," Birgitta tells us.
"It seems that it was done as a big joke. These types of runes were used in Sweden in the 20th century in the area where that person had come from."
While most historians and archaeologists would side with Birgitta, the fascination with the Kensington Runestone persists. Unfortunately, Birgitta admits that she has experienced a certain degree of hostility over the years to her views.
"I've written a number of articles about it, and what I say there still stands. But I have had numerous quite tiring debates. You will find many people who swear it's genuine."
The Kensington Runestone's lasting impact on the State of Minnesota is reflected in various aspects of culture, including the NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings. Photo: Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A persistent myth
Today, you can find the Kensington Runestone at the official Runestone Museum in nearby Alexandria.
Though the runestone was the sole exhibit when the museum first opened, visitors can now look forward to a wide range of other attractions, including a children's discovery room, an Ice Age exhibit, and a 40-foot replica Viking ship.
The museum's popularity is certainly a testament to the power of imagination and global appeal of Norse culture.
There is also no denying the inspiring effect that the runestone has had on the State of Minnesota.
Countless businesses contain a reference to the Vikings or the runestone in their name or logo, while even the NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, is inspired by the runestone's discovery.
Perhaps the Vikings themselves, who had such a deep love of mythology and fantastical tales, might even approve.
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