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Alice Beck Kehoe

Richard Nielsen and Scott Wolter are hard scientists. They understand the methodology of science, and Inference, from data, to the Best Explanation -- IBE, philosophers of science call it. Both scientists are experienced serving as expert witnesses in court cases. Nielsen, with his doctorate in materials science, realized that the question of the Kensington Runestone's authenticity likely could be answered with petrographic data. He engaged Wolter to examine the Runestone using current high-tech microscopy. The result was clear: the rune incisions are too weathered to have been carved as recently as the nineteenth century. QED, inference from the petrographic data leads to the carved date of A.D. 1362 as the best explanation for its origin.

Wolter presented his petrographic data to an audience of archaeologists and anthropologists at a session of the Plains/Midwest Archaeological Conference happening to meet in St. Paul soon after the petrographic tests were completed. To his surprise, the audience was cool. "We know it's a hoax," people insisted. Nielsen presented his research on Old Swedish vernaculars and rune variations at the same session, linguistic data that are much less familiar to Midwestern archaeologists than geology of weathering, but that explained why the century-old rejection by professors of languages is no longer tenable. The Runestone itself stood at the front of the meeting room, letting everyone who came up to it see, and feel, that its graywacke is a very hard stone, not a slab a hoaxer would be inclined to select for a remarkably long inscription.

I met Nielsen in the 1980's at a conference on pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts, receiving from time to time his ongoing discoveries of variant runes in medieval Scandinavian manuscripts. Barry Hanson, a chemical engineer, independently figured out, about 1990, that the Runestone ought to be examined by a contemporary petrographer. He found Nielsen on the Internet and the two agreed to work together to obtain the obvious tests. Nielsen asked me to advise as an archaeologist, which led to my putting him, Hanson, and Wolter on the Plains/Midwest Conference program. I contacted two of my colleagues, senior Professor Guy Gibbon of the University of Minnesota and recently retired professor Dale Henning, considered the foremost authority on western Minnesota-adjacent regions prehistory. Gibbon and Henning heard the presentations and agreed that inference to the best explanation supported authenticity of the 1362 date of carving.

It happens that both Gibbon and I have studied history and philosophy of science in order to better understand our field of American archaeology. We encountered a number of cases where an eminent authority figure's opinion closed off research, or a fashionable approach eclipsed empirical data. Initial lack of appreciation of the significance of Wolter's work did not surprise us, given textbooks' frequent mention of the Kensington Runestone as a classic hoax. Wolter and Nielsen proposed a day-long workshop presentation of their petrographic and linguistic data, along with discussion of historical circumstances of 1362 and 1898, the time the Runestone was discovered. Professor Gibbon was pleased to chair the workshop, at Fort Snelling in St. Paul, April 2003, and to explain to the audience how the weight of probability now lies on the side of authenticity (and had since the late 1960's when L'Anse aux Meadows excavations proved that the Norse had built a colony on Canadian soil.) Still the representatives from the Smithsonian and Minnesota Historical Society could not give up their dogmatic insistence that 1898 linguists' opinion has to trump the hard data of geology and more than a century of advances in knowledge of Scandinavian languages, manuscripts, and North Atlantic settlements and trade.

Richard Nielsen had engaged Scott Wolter for the laboratory analysis of the Runestone carvings because Wolter enjoys a national reputation for expertise in petrographic analysis. The geologist, although a native Minnesotan, knew nothing about the Kensington discovery. When he went to the Minnesota Historical Society archives to look at his predecessor geologist's report, that of Newton Winchell. Wolter of course knew of Winchell, his name graces the University of Minnesota's Geology Building. Reading Winchell's field notes and report, carried out ten years after the initial discovery, Wolter was deeply impressed by the pioneer researcher's thorough, well-considered fieldwork and conclusion that Inference to the Best Explanation supported authenticity for the inscription -- basically, the same weathering data Wolter confirmed at stronger magnification. Disrespect for Wolter's presentation puzzled the forensic petrographer, but disrespect for the scientist who had fathered Minnesota geology appalled him! Now Wolter systematically searched the Archives for clues to the rejection; what he has found is, as he says, "a scandal of scholarship," dismissal of leading geologists' evaluations, failure to publish or follow up letters validating the early settlers' accounts of the find, refusal to consider later judgments by the leading Danish archaeologist, Brøndsted, and by the distinguished American linguist Robert Hall.

What has been popularly held up as a classic hoax is now a classic example of dogmatic insistence on a hasty, inadequately-informed verdict. From a larger perspective, facile rejection of the Kensington Runestone inscription indicates the power of the Columbus myth, that the Americas had been hidden from the active world until the Admiral of the Ocean Sea rent the veil. Five centuries denigrating civilizations of America's First Nations have been also five centuries pooh-poohing Norse history. Newton Winchell was not the only solid scientist whose conclusions have been ignored; the great early-nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt published comparisons of American and Old World cultures to argue the probability of transoceanic contacts before Columbus, and so did, in the twentieth century, the remarkable Cambridge biochemist and historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham. Columbus and his Spanish backers were entrepreneurs who broke, not a veil hiding America, but international law recognizing entitlement from first discovery -- first discoveries indubitably made thousands of years ago by ancestors of the hundreds of millions owning America in 1492. European invasions intent on conquest and dispossession have been "legitimated" by convoluted rhetoric claiming virgin wilderness, brute savages, and God's will. Not even a small expedition of Norsemen seeking sources for furs west of the familiar Canadian Atlantic regions could be admitted to the virgin land.

Richard Nielsen and Scott Wolter give us a full account of the finding of that Norse expedition's memorial to their fallen comrades, clear presentation of the geological and linguistic data validating a pre-colonial dating, and, at last, publication of the ignored materials in the Minnesota archives. The offer, too, a few intriguing aspects of the inscription hinting of the text writer's education by clerics and perhaps association with medieval military organizations. You readers may accept these more extensive possibilities. You must respect the petrographic and linguistic data and Wolter's and Nielsen's inferences to the best explanation. Accept, too, that sorely beleaguered farmer Olof Ohman was an honest man. The notion that the Kensington Runestone is a late-nineteenth-century hoax is not supported by contemporary data.

Milwaukee Wisconsin

September 2005