Rewriting History: America and the Vikings


Mar 19, 2007

The Vinland Mappa Mundi and the Kensington Runestone are just two pieces of a puzzle that point to Viking explorers having prospered in North America long before Christopher Columbus supposedly discovered the New World.

Add to that the possibility that the enigmatic Knights Templar had dealings with the Vikings, and history begins to take on a radical new light. Of course even when it is quite literally written in stone and supported by a myriad of archaeological evidence, the voice of true history struggles to be heard.

Alternative theories continue to gather support and the past is slowly but surely revealing new mysteries, which as they unfold change our perception of the ancient world even further.

The possibility that the Vikings really did discover America opens up a huge can of worms for historians because it calls into question much of what we’ve been brought up to think as being true, If historians don’t know who discovered America, what else have they gotten wrong? In the past, hostile rebuttal and cries of ‘hoax’ have suppressed these inconvenient artefacts as soon as they came to light, but often these seemingly unrelated artefacts often tell the same story.

Perhaps we should start by looking at some of the evidence.

An Ancient Map of the World

The Vinland Map has been at the centre of controversy since it first came to light in 1957. The map is thought to have been copied in the 15th century from an earlier map and was discovered bound together with a codex named the ‘Historia Tartorum’, or the ‘Tatar Relation’. Authorship of the manuscript is often credited to Joannes de Plano (c. 1180-1252), one of the first Europeans to have access to the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Quite how a Viking map ended up in what appears to be a European manuscript is unclear, but one theory is that the original map may have been taken from a Templar Knight who had fallen on the battlefield. Although this is mainly supposition, we know that many Templars were killed by the Mongols at The Battle of Liegnitz in Poland in 1241 and in other such battles.

Certainly as the persecution of the Templar Order was sanctioned, many travelled as far north as Scandinavia finding a haven from persecution in Norway and Denmark. Hence the possibility that the Templars are the missing link between a Viking map and a European / Tatar manuscript has to be considered. One of the things that makes the Vinland map of interest to researchers isn’t so much how it came to be bound to the Historia Tartorum, but rather that it not only shows the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe in some detail, it also depicts a body of land across the Atlantic called Vinland (North America), which it claims was visited in the 11th century.

If the Vinland Map is genuine, it would represent the earliest surviving cartographic representation of North America we have, and of course would pre-date the feted voyage of Christopher Columbus by many years. It also raises the possibility that when Columbus discovered America, he may have used an ancient Viking map to navigate the oceans and ‘discover’ the new world.

Written In Stone

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Vikings did indeed travel extensively beyond Europe. In 1888, Swedish farmer Olof Öhman unearthed a Viking relic popularly known as the Kensington Runestone and in so doing, ignited a heated debate concerning the stone’s authenticity that has continued to this day.

Like the Vinland Map, the authenticity of this ancient marker has far reaching implications; if it can be demonstrated to be a genuine Viking artefact then it represents incontrovertible proof that medieval explorers from Northern Europe reached America at least 130 years before Christopher Columbus. This suggestion comes as no surprise to many, as there is already a substantial amount of archaeological evidence to suggest that the Nordic presence in America actually dates back well over 800 years and incorporated a well established trade route along with several outposts that early explorers and traders used for centuries.

Controversy and Condemnation

The much maligned Kensington Runestone that represents such a vital clue to our past is a six inch thick rectangular granite slab, measuring 30 inches in length and 16 inches in width and weighing around 200 pounds (90 kg). Questions as to the authenticity of the artefact largely centred on the fact that Öhman was Swedish; this remarkable coincidence and the fact that its inscription challenged our understanding of what is in effect fairly recent history, meant that the runestone and its unfortunate finder were denounced as frauds for over a century. Other than the fact that he was Swedish, there is little to suggest that Öhman would have possessed the knowledge and motivation to create such a forgery. When he was asked to send copies of the inscription to Olaus Breda, professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Minnesota at Saint Paul, the transcription he sent was said to be clumsy and lacked the fine detail that someone familiar with the language would have included.

Linguists who have since studied the inscription confirmed that it had been carved in a Swedish dialect spoken during the Middle Ages, not the modern language that Öhman would have known. Analysis of the dialect used on the runestone further confirmed that it originated in Gotland; a place specifically mentioned on the stone.

The inscription on the Kensington Runestone seems to have been intended to serve as both a memorial and a warning to other Vikings. Covering the front and one side, the inscription tells of a bloody massacre that took place at one of the Vikings camps while part of the group had gone fishing; the ‘Goetalanders’ mentioned were from the Swedish island of Gotland and the ‘Northmen’ hailed from one of two settlements in Greenland founded by Eric the Red. Although there have been several attempts at translating the text, resulting in slightly different interpretations, the most complete translation is the following:

“We eight Goetalanders and twenty two Northmen are on this acquisition expedition far west from Vinland. We had traps near two shelters one day’s march north from this stone. We went fishing one day. After we came home, I found ten men red with blood, dead. Ave Maria, save us from evil! I have ten men by the sea to look after our ships fourteen days’ travel from this site. Year of the Lord 1362.”

Although it is not known for sure why such an event might have occurred, there is historical evidence to suggest that it may have been as a result of clashes between rival fur traders, or between the indigenous tribes and the Viking invaders who would regularly harvest food, cut timber and trap animals for fur to take back to Greenland.

The Enigma of Vinland

The Kensington Runestone clearly states that the expedition came from Vinland and the Vinland Mappa Mundi also clearly shows Vinland as being a known landmass, which begs the question, where exactly was Vinland?

According to 13th century Norse Sagas, Vinland – the Land of (grape) vine, was named by the earliest Viking explorer, Leif Eriksson (c. 970 – c. 1020), son of the infamous Erik the Red, because wild grapes were plentiful in the area. Eriksson had set sail from Norse colonies founded by his father in Greenland with the intention of obtaining much needed timber, supplies and trading goods for the Greenland colonies.

In the past, it has been assumed that Vinland was a either a country (mythological or actual) or a known and very ancient Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. However, if the Kensington Runestone’s translation is correct, it seems likely that Vinland actually referred to a geographical region.

Norse legends tell how Eriksson’s longboat carrying thirty men cast anchor in a bay somewhere along the coast of America. To the north of them, a point of land extended into the sea; beyond it was an island. The land along the coast was low with lush meadows and forested areas. A small stream flowed from a lake a short distance away. The high and low tides were very marked, when the tide was out, the entire bay became mud flats. The precise location is however difficult to ascertain due to major changes in the water table, which was higher then what it is now. There is geological evidence to suggest that 600 years ago the Kensington Runestone would have stood on what was originally a small island or peninsula.

If the Kensington Runestone was a one off, it might be a little easier to explain away, but the fact is this is not an isolated Viking artefact; it is one of several Viking markers discovered in America, many of which have been discovered quite far down America, in Oklahoma. If, as the evidence suggests, Oklahoma was an ancient centre for Viking explorers then it is possible that Oklahoma was in fact Vinland.

More Viking Runestones

A series of runestones have been discovered across North America, how many more lie undiscovered or have been lost remains unknown, but it is highly unlikely that we have found every runestone the Vikings left.

The Vérendrye Runestone, which has since been lost, probably ending up a casualty of the second world war having been shipped to Europe, was discovered a century before the Kensington Runestone, in 1783 near Minot, North Dakota.

The three Heavener Runestones found in Heavener, Oklahoma, seem to offer further evidence of a Viking presence in North America. This trio of runestones have been dated to 1012, 1017 and 1022, making them several centuries older than the Kensington Runestone.

Another stone, the Poteau Runestone was found by schoolboys in 1967. This stone is 15 inches long and inscribed with seven characters in a straight line, each l 1/2 to 2 inches high. Finally, the Shawnee Runestone was found in August of 1969 by Jim Estep in Shawnee, central Oklahoma, one mile from the North Canadian River, which is a tributary of the Arkansas River. It is thought that these rivers played a vital part in the Viking’s movement through North America.

New Evidence

Modern day scientific advances have meant that there is now scientific evidence to support the authenticity of the stone. Geologist Scott Wolter, who had been hired by the curators of the Alexandria museum (which houses the Kensington Runestone) to assess its age and authenticity, arrived at the conclusion that according to the weathering of its grooves, the stone had been carved many centuries ago. His examination revealed that most, if not all, of the artefact’s glyphs had been overwritten using a modern tool at the end of the 19th century; probably to make the weathered letters more easily discernible.

Microscopic analysis of the ruts that formed the glyphs revealed that oxidation residue surrounded each of the characters, demonstrating that the modern over scoring was done on top of the ruts. Wolter's findings support the first geological analysis of the runestone that had been conducted in 1910 which had also found the stone to be genuine.

The Mystery Deepens

An interesting theory that has come to light in recent years is that the inscription on the Kensington Runestone contains a hidden code, similar to the code that researchers discovered at Rennes le Chateau in France; long said to be a repository for Templar treasure.

It was when Wolter began analysing the individual carved glyphs that he discovered a dot inside each of the R shaped runes. Working with Dr Richard Nielsen, Wolter began to research the implications of this discovery more deeply.

"It's an extremely rare rune that only appeared during medieval times," Wolter said. "This absolutely fingerprints it to the 14th century. This is linguistic proof this is medieval. Period."

The dotted R rune was traced to Gothenland (or Gotland) where it can still be found on many of the runic grave markers on the island. While this discovery validated Wolter and Nielsen’s belief that the stone was authentic, they were surprised to discover Templar Crosses alongside some of the runic inscriptions. The Templar Order had been outlawed in the early 14th century and swiftly disappeared into various parts of Europe – taking their legendary treasure with them. The possibility that members of the Knights Templar not only found their way to Sweden, but from there to America opens up tantalising possibilities about what the Kensington Runestone might truly represent.

One rumour that has persisted for many years but has never had much by way of validation is that the Swedish Banking system has its origin with Templar refugees, who used some of the lost Templar money to finance it. This of course adds a new dimension to the Vikings’ presence in America, particularly if Wolter and Nielsen are correct in their assertion that the Kensington Runestone contains a secret code.

Wotler now believes the words on the stone may have done more than act as a marker to record the murder of the ten men; it might also have a second purpose.

Linguists single out two runes representing the letters L and U as being out of place because they are crossed when they should not be. A third rune has a punch at the end of one line. This method of concealing a coded message in plain view has echoes of the strange coded tombstones and documents long associated with Rennes le Chateau.

Were the Vikings accompanied on their travels by Templar Knights seeking to disperse their treasure in places out of the reach of the all powerful Catholic Church? According to authors Tim Wallace Murphy and Maryln Watkins, the famed St Clair Templars of Scotland were descended from Regenvald, the Earl of More in Norway, suggesting that the link between the Templars and the Vikings dates back to the very founding of the Order. There is certainly speculation that Henry St. Clair, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Roslin, sailed across the North Atlantic in 1396 and not only integrated with the native American tribes, but eventually died there.

As far as historians are concerned, history is metaphorically written in stone, it cannot and will not be changed, yet they may be proven wrong by evidence that really is written in stone in every sense of the word. A very different version of the past lies waiting in the shadows; one where Columbus fades into obscurity and the Vikings take their rightful place in history as the world’s foremost explorers. Whether or not the Vikings were alone is a mystery that is yet to unfold.

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