VIKING RUNESTONES

I'm not a big believer in Viking runestones. I figure some day somebody will hold one up to a mirror and it will read, "Hah! Hah! From all the guys at moose lodge 352!" Still, a couple of them have turned up in Arkansas museums. Lots of true believers are interested in them, so here's what poop I have on the local occurrences of stones etched with mysterious glyphs.

Here's a stone found in the Arkansas River valley. It's in the Logan County Museum in Paris. The keepers of said museum make no specific claims about the origins of the stone other than to report the name of the guy who turned it in and the place where the stone was found. This stone has not been examined by any experts, and nobody has suggested that the marks mean anything specific in millennium-old Scandanavian. Still, the Norse hypothesis is always the one that comes up in conversations.

Stone number two can be found at Powhattan Court House State Park way up near the Missourri bootheel. The runes themselves have been darkened with pencil so they can be seen better. Unlike the stone in the top picture, this one has been examined by runestone enthusiasts. According to documentation accompanying the exhibit, it was found in Lawrence County by Cleamon and Elsie Nicholson, who submitted drawings of it in 1977 to Barry Fell, President of the Epigraphic Society of Arlington, Mass.

After two years of careful study of the drawings, Barry came to the conclusion that the stone was a 500-year-old Amerindian copy of a 1000-year-old Norse grave marker. How that conclusion was reached is not specified. He translated the runes as, "This stone Ari cut for (his) son Nikolas."

If you want to hear about a couple more runestones, you can call Blythe's Museum in Waldron. They don't have the stones on hand, but Gary Blythe told me he knows where some are located.

I went down to Arkadelphia (City of Brotherly Ark) to Henderson State University to visit the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, where I spoke with Professor Early about the phenomenon of Viking runestones. She told me that of all the purported runestones found in North America (and there have been dozens), none have been authenticated by authorities with serious credentials even though they have been assiduously studied by legitimate scholars.

She further told me that scholars have absolutely identified one and only one sure-as-shootin' Norse settlement in North America, and that one is in Newfoundland, and even in that spot no authentic runestones were found. Therefore, she is not disposed toward taking seriously the notion of Ozark Vikings. So what does she think is the source of the runestones? She believes them to be hoaxes and frauds, sometimes the result of "enthusiasm." Sometimes people make a game out of fooling the experts, of demonstrating that the emperor has no clothes. Sometimes people are trying to make a dishonest buck, like the guys who make authentic flint arrowheads to sell in gift shops.

Still, for a long time scholars didn't take seriously the notion of ancient Norse presence in North America. All they had to go on was an ancient account of a place called Vinland across the western sea. That and a bunch of runestones with marks that looked vaguely Scandanavian and were probably phony. Today a temporary Norse presence in North America is accepted as historical fact. I have to wonder, without the presence of runestones, given only the legendary Vinland accounts, would scientists have kept looking for New World Norse settlements?

RTJ-5/1/98

RUNESTONE UPDATE

On the recommendation of the staff of the Museum of Prehistory and History at Arkansas Tech, I went to the public library in Little Rock and looked up "Motifs of Ancient Man" by P. Clay Sherrod and here's what I found:

This is a detail of the Powhattan runestone with the color drained out and the contrast cranked up. Below and at right is a copy of a page from Sherrod's "Motifs of Ancient Man" showing panels of petroglyphs found in a cave on River Mountain near Dardanelle (location 202 in his catalog).

The similarities are pretty obvious. Note the off-angle crosses, the bird tracks, the paired "H" figures and the three-pronged forks. Sherrod calls these "susquehanna" type marks because of their similarity to petroglyphs commonly found in the Susquehanna river valley in Pennsylvania. Before now, susquehanna style petroglyphs were known in Arkansas on the wall of location 202 only. The Powhattan stone was found some 150 miles away in Lawrence County.

About the most we can say is that the people who carved the marks in the Powhattan stone and the people who carved the marks in location 202 had these marks in common with ancient cultures in the Susquehanna river valley, be they Indians or Vikings. The common occurrence of similar marks in other locations suggests to me a Native American origin.

A couple of things bug me about this whole episode. First, when the state-funded museum at Powhattan Courthouse acquired the stone, why was a private Viking runestone enthusiast consulted as an expert, but credentialled scholars from the state-funded Arkansas Archaeological Survey were not? I suspect that people just didn't want to be told that Indians could scratch marks in stones. The truth might ruin the fun of the Viking hypothesis. Second, why were legitimate experts so dismissive and so willing, without examining the stones, to write them off with a roll of the eyes as frauds and hoaxes? As you can tell from my opening paragraph in the article, I myself was ready to attribute the marks to grown men who drive miniature motorcycles. Is that any less absurd than the Viking hypothesis?

Nobody checked. The appropriate information has been sitting in the library for a couple of decades and nobody bothered to just look it up. It took all of twenty minutes to find marks in this book, marks reliably associated with Native American cultures, marks that resembled the marks on the Powhattan stone; but people conjectured and argued and theorized about the possibility that was most absurd and ignored (or shall we say "avoided") the possibility that was least absurd.

Has anything important happened as a result of this? How's this: We used to think susquehanna type petroglyphs occurred in only one place in Arkansas. Now we know of two places. Okay, it ain't Leif Erikson paddling up the Ouachita, but it is a fact and it's something that hadn't been put together before. So there.

As it turns out the caves and rock shelters of Arkansas are loaded with petroglyphs and pictographs painted and carved by ancient cultures and it is utterly unnecessary and distracting to conjure imaginary Vikings to explain them. This one at left is from the Rock House at Petit Jean State Park. I don't know what that big bulby mark is supposed to be, but the figure in the bottom left is commonly found and is called a "bear claw." It's only been in the last couple of decades that any substantial number of them were catalogued, and the lack of collated information doesn't help when lay people are confronted with something beyond the common experience. If a guy finds a stone carved with unfamiliar marks in his field, he's likely to think it's unique, as opposed to merely unusual; and the Viking hypothesis is likely to seem as tenable as any other.

A couple of interesting bits of trivia before I sign off. A petroglyph is a carving on a rock, while a pictograph is a painting on a rock. A runestone is a rock carved with Norse characters dating from around 500 to 1000 a.d. Also, in caves where cave art is found, there are usually also found stone implements and tools. Caves where pottery and clay artifacts are found are usually devoid of cave art. Now ain't that peculiar!

RTJ--5/21/98


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