By Solwyn AOR
The Kensington Runestone Museum is located in Alexandria, Minnesota. It is a small museum with an inside and outside display. The outbuildings are transplanted original dwellings donated by the current owners of various properties in the state of Minnesota. They present a small snapshot of how our folk would have lived in Scandinavia, and other parts of Northern Europe.
I enjoyed walking through the cottage, which according to its plaque saw several generations of one family born and raised in it. The upstairs loft was open to the two rooms below. On the right was the kitchen with the wood-fired oven built into the wall and the fire pit for the cauldron. A small table that seated four was nearby, and an even smaller table for children was in a corner away from the fire pit. The adjoining room which was separated from the kitchen by a pine partition contained a trundle bed set-up and a large cradle. The parents slept upstairs in the loft, along with two or three other children and an infant. The front area of the inside of the home was an open space in front of the two main floor rooms and contained a few chairs, and a spinning wheel and loom. This house was only slightly smaller than the 600 sq. ft. military home that we lived in before coming out here to Winnipeg. At any given time in its history, four to ten people lived in this dwelling. It gives perspective to the “house hunter” shows on television where families consisting of two parents plus one toddler routinely reject 2500+ sq. ft. homes for being “too small”!!! Six years later, my 1100 sq. ft. home still feels like a palace and I appreciate it a little more every time I see how my ancestors lived.
I have been to many Scandinavian historical lifestyle reconstruction sites since moving to Manitoba. People in this province, and in North Dakota and Minnesota below, are very proud of their Northern European heritage. It is interesting to note that in many of these homes, some authentic and some reproductions of houses from the 17/1800s, that the Northern European talent for space-saving furniture design that we associated with IKEA is evident in these buildings. Many of the tables have hidden tiers, and some of the chairs could convert into other pieces of furniture. Beds were built into walls and hidden behind quilts displayed as art, and communal food preserving areas between houses in small communities saved on kitchen space. Several of the homes in these places have been built within dairy barns. Housewives could milk cows and gather eggs by exiting through the back pantry.
I left with several jars of lingonberry preserves, a traditional Swedish jam served with sweets and a lovely red runic coffee mug. Interestingly enough, the lingonberry comes to Europe by way of Asia and with migrations this is how it found its way to Cape Breton and Newfoundland, where it is called the partridgeberry. I am quite familiar with partridgeberry preserves, having been the recipient of many spoonfuls as a child, because it made the cod liver oil go down a little more easily. It is for this reason that some in Cape Breton believe that Vikings may have lived there, too, because it grows in abundance in some areas. I don’t know if it grows everywhere in North America or not, just passing on a bit of berry lore!! Regardless, it was nice to find a treat that I have not had since I was small, so I shall be guarding these jars!!!
Inside the museum it became apparent that while proud of their history, these folks are only proud of some of it. A large poster board divided down the centre contrasted the “rough pagan Vikings” against the “kinder, gentler, Christian explorers” thought to have been the source of the Kensington rune stone. The board stated that things like law, education, and democracy did not exist before conversion to Christianity and that while their pagan ancestors were “bold and brave”, the text implied that they specifically targeted education and knowledge by sacking Christian monasteries and churches. This made me angry because I know that the historical and archaeological record point to a very different story. It is well known amongst scholars that our ancestors had democracy, education, centres of philosophy, art, and music – for an extremely long time before the short “Viking” period. However, this is a very Christian part of North America, particularly on the US side of the border, as evidenced by the “Jesus loves unborn babies” billboards practically every two or three miles and the overabundance of Evangelical country music radio stations. Folk are a little more relaxed about their pagan roots in Gimli and Arborg, Manitoba, although they will be quite quick to point out that they have been “good Christians” for many centuries now.
The rooms show various aspects of immigrant life, based on the Scandinavian settlers of the 1800s to the area. There is a small movie room that plays a short piece about the rune stone. The walls in this room are decorated with rune plaques showing the letters of the Elder Futhark. While it is obvious that these folks are proud of their immigrant heritage, they know little about runes. The plaques on display show “keyword meanings” taken from either Ralph Blum or some equally New Age author. The runes are out of order and not displayed in aetts. They are placed quite haphazardly on one wall. The Elder Futhark is also not the alphabet used on the Kensington rune stone. The runic alphabet on the wall also includes the wretched non-existent “Blank Rune” that Blum invented in the early 80s, complete with the keyword meaning “the unknowable, Odin”. I wanted to rearrange the runes and rip that blank monstrosity off the wall, but I was pulled out of there by my family and placated with a coffee mug and jam.
The rune stone itself is very compelling, and some point to evidence of root growth on the surface of the stone showing that it was in the earth at least 50 years before it was found, along with weathering. This gives credence to the insistence that it was not put there by it’s discoverers. The inscription tells of a party of explorers returned from a journey to their camp near modern day Kensington to find the ten men remaining at the camp murdered. It further states that some 14 days journey away, in an inland sea, was a boat with more men. Many scholars have denounced this as fake, but obviously the people of Minnesota do not believe this. The rune stone has taken on its own special existence in the state culture. Also displayed are tools that were found on various farm steads as the Scandinavian immigrants turned up soil to begin working their land. These tools have been dated centuries older than the accepted official immigration of Northern Europeans into Minnesota.
The argument over whether or not this stone is a fake can stir up the blood of many people in this area, from Manitoba to Wisconsin. Many in the heathen community want to believe that they have some sort of ancient tie to the New World and I can understand this. After seeing this stone I am leaning to the conclusion that it may well be a hoax. My reasoning is thus:
1. The tools that were found could very well have been brought over by more recent immigrants, despite being several centuries old. After all this time they are still in excellent condition and usable, the hallmark of ancient tool-making. Coming from The Maritimes, a part of North America with an old stock established culture, it is not unusual for extremely old tools and implements of the home to turn up in people’s attics – or kitchen drawers, still being used – having been dated at 300-500 years old, and older in some cases. There are lots of blacksmithing tools, fishing and whaling tools, cauldrons, and more, gathering dust in antique stores at home because there are simply too many of them still kicking around. It is entirely possible that some of these Scandinavian tools from the Middle Ages could have been brought by more recent immigrants because tools were passed down the family line.
2. I don’t know about you, but if I came back from any sort of expedition and found a camp full of dead people, I wouldn’t stop to split down a stone weighing over 200 lbs. and carve any long-winded stories in it. I would be getting the hell out of there quickly and gun-booting it to that ship docked 14 days away.
3. The “discovery” of the rune stone came at a time when political relations were not good between Sweden and Norway, and there was also a social revival of storytelling relating to the Vinland Sagas. The rune stone hinted at a joint trip between the two countries and is thought by some to be an attempt to unify the various ethnic groups from these two nations so that they would work together as “Scandinavians” and not bitter neighbours in their new American homeland.
4. The inscription is very difficult to read in any Scandinavian language, and the runes are said to be different than those in use in 14th century nations still using runes. When I looked at it in the museum I told Dave it was like looking at a sentence written by a Texan, a Newfoundlander, and an Englishman. I’m not a runic linguist and even I thought they looked all over the place. When the inscription is translated into Latin, it becomes very easy for a modern speaker to comprehend, the construct of the sentences being closer to 19th century Swedish than 14th century Swedish.
None of this opinion is given to stir the pot, and it should be remembered that it is only my opinion. I am very happy to have seen an artifact that I’ve been reading about on various folk and pagan lists for nearly twenty years online. I am happy that I went to the museum and I’d like to do some more research on my own and eventually return. It was a welcome treat, as I was not aware that this was on our road trip agenda. Dave and Nick concocted the idea as a surprise for me because I have become quite involved in a few rune study groups and runic projects over the last few months. Even without the rune stone, this museum is still a good place to visit because it celebrates the history of local settlers and helps to maintain ties to the past.