To some people, the Maine Penny, also known as the Goddard Coin, is clear proof that the Vikings made it beyond the eastern extremes of Canada to the lands of what is today the United States. 

The Maine State Museum describes the coin as "the only pre-Columbian Norse artifact generally regarded as genuine found within the United States." 

To others, it is a poorly put-together hoax with no historical significance. 

So what's the truth? The Viking Herald investigates. 

A fortunate discovery 

In 1956, Guy Mellgren and Ed Runge, two amateur archeologists, were invited to investigate what is today known as the Goddard Site, found at Naskeag Point on the shores of Brooklin, Maine, in the United States. 

After their initial dig turned up a few copper remnants of unknown provenance, the following year, Mellgren came across something rather more unusual: a seemingly ancient metal coin half buried in the mud. 

Curious, Mellgren and Runge took the coin to a local numismatics club, where an acquaintance identified it as several centuries old and likely of English origin. 

Although the coin did appear to be historical and perhaps unusual, Mellgren initially didn't make too much of it, preferring to keep it as a memento to show friends and family. 

This only began to change some 20 years later, after a local article speculated that the coin indicated the English may have reached America centuries before Columbus. 

The photo that accompanied the story caught the eye of a British archeologist, who questioned the assertion that it could have come from England. 

Sadly, however, it was not until shortly after Mellgren's death in 1978 that the true identity of the coin was revealed. 

Discovered in 1956 at the Goddard Site in Maine by amateur archeologists, the coin, initially thought to be English, was later revealed as a Norse penny from the reign of King Olaf III of Norway. Photo: Maine State Museum

The reappraisal 

The new analysis by Norwegian numismatist Kolbjørn Skaare found that the silver coin was, in fact, of Viking origin. 

He determined that it was a Norse penny dating from the reign of King Olaf III of Norway, who ruled from 1065 to 1093. 

The news caused a minor sensation in the international press, and the Maine Penny was immediately claimed by some as definitive proof the Vikings had made it to the American mainland. 

Since then, few experts have disputed that the coin is genuinely from the Viking Age

At the same time, several observers have highlighted the lack of documentation around the initial discovery, the poor condition of the coin, and the absence of any corroborating historical or archeological evidence that could help confirm a Viking presence on the US mainland. 

So where does that leave us? 

Even if we assume that the Maine Penny is indeed of Norse origin, three questions must be answered to ascertain the truth of the matter. 

The first: could Mellgren have planted the coin deliberately? 

The second: was it even realistic or likely that the Vikings reached Maine? 

And the third: if it wasn't planted, how exactly did the coin get there? 

The Maine Penny's discovery in Maine provides evidence of potential Viking incursions beyond commonly acknowledged areas. Photo: Rapidfire (CC BY-SA 3.0)

An unlikely explanation 

Regarding the first of these questions, yes, it is possible that Mellgren deliberately placed a Viking coin in the ground and then pretended to have found it or pulled it straight out of his pocket. 

After all, there are countless examples of forgeries and tricks of this kind in archeology, where the will to believe often overcomes the power of reason. 

Archeologist Edmund Carpenter even pointed out that Mellgren could easily have obtained such a coin, given that he worked part-time at an auction house and knew plenty of people with an interest in archeology and history. 

Yet, if we consider that Mellgren apparently believed it was an English coin for the rest of his life and never truly sought out publicity for his discovery, this theory becomes challenging to explain. 

If he set out to trick us, he didn't do a very fast job of it. 

Later, expert analysis commissioned by the Maine State Museum's chief archeologist, Bruce J. Bourque, also found that the coin's degradation and corrosion suggested that it had been placed underground or in the mud for a long period. 

In other words, there appears to be a good chance that the coin truly lay buried in American soil for an extended period, possibly several centuries. 

L'Anse aux Meadows is a Norse settlement located on the northern tip of Newfoundland in Canada, and it stands as the only confirmed Norse site in North America outside of Greenland. Photo: Russ Heinl / Shutterstock

An almost plausible journey 

With regards to whether the Vikings could have brought the coin to Maine themselves; it is hard to say. 

We do know that the Norse made it to North America and established a camp at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. 

And even Birgitta Wallace, the former director at L'Anse aux Meadows, who is highly skeptical of most claims of Viking visits to the United States, believes it is likely that the Norse did travel as far south as New Brunswick in Canada. 

Therefore, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that they also made it to Maine, the American state on the other side of the border. 

There is just one problem with this particular theory: the period of settlement by Leif Erikson and others at L'Anse aux Meadows was estimated to have occurred between 990 and 1050 at the latest. 

With this latter date coming some 16 years before the beginning of the reign of King Olaf, it seems impossible that someone from Erikson's party could have been responsible for leaving the coin in Maine. 

The Maine Penny, also known as the Goddard Coin, is now housed at the Maine State Museum in Augusta. Photo: Stilfehler (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Still in the dark 

So where could it have come from? There are several theories. 

One is that later European travelers may have dropped it in the initial explorations of the new continent, or even that an American citizen may have lost it at a much later date. 

Another, perhaps more likely, is that it was brought to Maine by Native Americans, who had traded with the Norse further to the northeast. 

Perhaps the most tantalizing possibility of all is that the Viking links to North America may have persisted longer than previously thought. 

In this scenario, it really was dropped by a Viking traveler who had landed in Maine, eager to explore the new continent. 

Ultimately, based on the current evidence we have, it is impossible to say with any great certainty how the Maine Penny may have found its way to the shores of the USA. 

There are many who want to believe that the Vikings made it beyond Canada to the shores of the United States, and research into finding further evidence of a Viking presence in North America goes on. 

Unfortunately, the fleeting nature of the Norse visits to North America and the relatively small number of artifacts means that they will be extremely rare, even if there are any to be found. 

As for the coin itself, it was donated to the Maine State Museum in 1974 and has remained there ever since. 

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