The Kensington Runestone
I love the Kensington Runestone. But there are many misconceptions about it, and a lot of misinformation floating around. Most transliterations and translations and analysis is done by people who knows absolutely nothing either of runes or medieval Scandinavian language, and therefore most analysis you find on the web is full of mistakes. Admittedly, I’m also just an amateur, but still, history is a hobby of mine, and I like runes and language history. So I should be able to correct some misconceptions, even if I professional on medieval runes would make a better job than me.
To make sure we get things right, lets start from the beginning. The stone itself, and the inscription. It looks like this:
If we look at the runes there are a couple of immediately obvious things. First of all, they are “stung”, i.e, there are dots. That practice evolved during early medieval times, around the 12th century, as the younger futhark did not have enough signs to cover all the sounds of the Scandinavian languages, so a brief look tells us that the runes must be medieval. There is however older futhark t and n-runes instead of the versions more common in medieval texts, which would place the text back in the early viking age or earlier.
Some runes in fact are stung twice, which doesn’t fit with the medieval rune set. And worse, the third rune is an O with a cross in, and two dots above. Now, the O character did not exist in medieval runes or earlier runes either. Instead of an O, you used ᚮ, a straight line with two dashes to the left. A rune that in fact also is used many times on the stone. And the two dots above it seems to indicate that it is umlautes, like the swedish character Ö. Is that what is meant? Umlauts was invented in the 15th century and the first use in Swedish is from 1495. Their final form of two dot’s is something that appeared in the 18th century. So, we have a mix of runes that span upwards a thousand years here, and several of them like this ö-rune and a stung l rune are practically unknown. That’s intriguing.
So let’s try and figure out what it means, and it maybe gets clearer. If you look at the runes that are unambiguous and clear, no matter if they are medieval or viking age or iron age, and replace everything else with question marks you get:
and on the side is written:
Now, there is a lot of question marks, but we can start guessing what is supposed to be said. And the first row is the most interesting here. We can figure out that the first rune is actually a number. That type of runes is very unusual, except when used in cipher runes, which this isn’t. Here they are actually used as numbers. The first row therefore has to be “8 göter ok 22 norrmen bo”. Turns out that third rune is an “ö” after all! Is is an o with two dots as an umlaut. Putting umlats on runes is not common, and the fact that we have an ö on the stone means it can not be earlier that 16th-17th century.
The use of stung runes is also unusual. Normally, stung runes means a variation of the sound. For example, for d you would use a stung t-rune. But here the only sound that matches the stung ᛘ rune is v. And instead of using a stung t for d a ᚦ, normally used for þ (the same sound as th in “the”), is used. We also now can figure out that a stung ᚷ rune must be an a, which also fits with it having umlauts in some places, which makes it an ä. The ᛒ rune is a bit of a mystery still. I should be a b, but that doesn’t fit. Most places it seems to be an p, but in some places an f. I’ll write it as p for the moment. The stung l-rune is not unknown, but it means a double of fat l. That doesn’t work here, it’s could be a mistake. It was most likely made as an l-rune, and then corrected to an e-rune. Another mistake was done when “sten” was written “stnn” and then corrected.
If we take all these things into account, we’ll get the following transliteration:
Which in english would be:
8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on a exploration-journey from Vinland of west. Vi had camp with 2 skear one days journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. We came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. AVM (Ave Maria) save from bad.
Is 10 mens by sea to see after our ship 14 day travel from this island year 1362.
The problems with this? Well, first of all, the date says 1362. We have already established above that the use of umalut means this stone is no older than 16th century. We are at least 200 years off. And secondly, it’s not medieval language. The spelling is idiosyncratic, but mainly 19th century, and the grammar is completely modern. The language in the 14th century would have the plural nominative of Göte as “götar”, not “göter”. The pronoun “deno”, as used in “deno sten” (this stone) is unheard of. Since it’s “from this stone” both the pronoun and the noun, should be in accusative case. It should be “dænna” not “deno”. And it goes on like that. There is simply no medieaval grammar in there. The grammar is either modern, or just wrong. Sure, taking into account dialectical variations and the possibility of these people sing a simpler language, some modernization would be OK, but not a complete modernisation of the grammar.
So there is no trace of anything medieaval in this, really. And worse: There’s english in it. It doesn’t say “fra deno”, “frå deno” or “från deno”, it sais “from deno”. And the men are not “döda” or “döde”, they are “ded”. And the word “opdagelsefard”, “exploration journey” is modern. No concept of “exploring” and making expeditions existed during this time. The vikings who discovered Iceland, Greenland and Vinland did so by mistake, and after they found it, they moved there to settle, because they wanted more land. You did not “explore”. This stone is written by somebody whose main language for quite a while has been english and has never seen any medieval Scandinavian language. Neither has they seen many commemorative rune stones. “We were fishing one day. We came home”. Does this sound like a commemorative runestone to you? No it doesn’t. Such a stone would rather name the ten dead persons, and who had the stone made. People on such an explorative journey expect to bump into problems, and would not make some sort of little story about it. They would also not make an underhand implication that the ten men was killed by the natives. They would probably say so straight out. There is no need to just imply things. There is also no way in heck you could get to Kensington, Douglas, Minnesota from the sea in 14 days. It’s even 250 kilometers to Lake Superior, which assumes that they have gotten the ships up there. Past Niagra falls. Why would they do that? It took later explorers hundreds of years to get to Minnesota.
Intriguingly, recently a paper from 1885 surfaced with contained several lists of different character styles and alphabets, two of them different rune rows. Those two rows together cover almost all the runes on the stone, and the stones rune-style can therefore be tied to 19th century Sweden. The only problem with that paper is that it matches too well. It even has the stung l-rune, and that weird double-stung n-rune, which is supposed to mean u. However, that makes the last word on the front “illu”, which makes no sense. And the stung l-rune is supposed to mean el, which makes the word “skelar”, which makes no more sense than “skear”. But no matter if that newly discovered rune row is correct or not, nothing can save the authenticity of the Kensington runestone.
And this is what is so fascinating with this stone. The stone clearly is fake. It is not even a good fake. It’s a bad, stupid fake, which claims something ridiculous, namely that a bunch of Scandinavians reached Minnesota well over three hundred years before the French fur trappers usually seen as the first Europans there. And are there any reasons to assume the stone is not modern? No. None. Nothing in the making of the stone contradicts a date of the stone of the late 19th century. So what happened? Well, the stone was, surprise, surprise, discovered by a Swedish American farmer, Olof Öhman, on his lands. The stone is obviously made either by him or his Norwegian neighbor, as a joke. But people fell for it. And funnily enough, they are still falling for it. More than a hundred years later. The stone now stands in it’s own museum in Kenstington Alexandria, where it apparently is displayed as if it is genuine. It’s a monument to humanitys great desire to get fooled.3
Olof Öhman is no doubt laughing his socks off in his grave.
Gösta Bergman: Svensk Språkhistoria, ISBN 91-518-1747-0