Ever heard about the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail? From the two-hour show last fall on the History Channel called Holy Grail in America to Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, many conspiracy theories have been mentioned and has been a hot commodity for the media.The Holy Grail in America takes as its premise that evidence for a previously unknown “Templar voyage of discovery” might be encoded on the infamous Kensington Runestone. (E.A. Powell) The program suggests that the knights, in the company of Cistercian monks, brought the Holy Grail to the New World in the late 14th century, and that the runestone might hold the key to its final resting place.
The Kensington Runestone (KRS) was unearthed near the town of Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898. The Kensington Runestone is a 200-pound slab of graywacke sandstone inscribed with a bizarre collection of Norse runes that supposedly records the travails of a party of Scandinavian explorers in 1362. The KRS was dismissed as a hoax shortly after its discovery when a Swedish immigrant Olaf Ohman claimed to have discovered it while clearing trees on his farm. “Most scholars agree that the inscriptions date to the 19th century, pointing out that they include what seem to be elements of modern Swedish phonetics and grammar.” (E.A. Powell) Although a medieval Viking settlement dating to A.D 1000 was discovered in Newfoundland in the 1960s, credible archaeological presence in the Midwest has never been found. Suspicion settled over Ohman, who most assumed was responsible for carving the runes, perhaps to spoof Scandinavian-Americans who insisted their ancestors discovered the New World.
Still, the KRS still holds passionate scholars and academics interests who believe its authenticity and some maintain that further study is required before passing any judgement. In 1909, Newton Winchell, Minnesota’s first state geologist, studied the stone and found the inscriptions so weathered that they couldn’t have been made in the 19th century. The stone is currently exhibited at the Kensington Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota.
Translations of the inscriptions vary, but one of the most recent is: “Eight Gotlanders and 22 Northmen on [this] acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two [shelters?] one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home we found 10 men red from blood and death. Ave Marie save from evil.” And on the side of the stone are runes that can be translated as: “There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships 14 days journey from this peninsula [or island]. Year 1362.”
Holy Grail in America is just the latest in a long line of television programs that have presented the KRS as a genuine artifact. Despite the show presenting itself more like fiction than a documentary show, it raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of documentary television to present viewers with credible information about the past.
Danish-American engineer Richard Nielsen, materials scientist Barry Hanson, and archaeologist Alice Kehoe, a Marquette University emerita professor partnered up for the most recent studies of the KRS. Neilsen donated $10,000 to the KRS Museum, so they could study the stone but he and the others didn’t want direct control or ownership of the results. The museum hired Wolter and his company, American Petro-graphic Services to perform the study in 2000. Wolter specializes in the forensic analysis of concrete, masonry, and stone. Wolter subjected the stone to its first thorough, modern geological analysis. To determine the rate of weathering, he compared the runes to inscriptions on slate gravestones in a colonial cemetery in Maine. He found that mica crystals exposed by carvings on the tombstones had only just begun to weather awa after being exposed for 200 years. There were no mica crystals left within the runes on the KRS, so Wolter decided the stone could not have been carved in the 19th century.After determing the stone was genuine, Wolter threw himself into researching its origins, with Nielsen as his mentor, since he had no background in Scandinavian languages and Nielsen had years of experience with runes and the KRS specifically.
In 2004, the KRS was studied by a team of geologists led by Runo Lofvendahl, then of the Swedish Central Board of Antiquities. Now retired, and wasn’t available to comment, but his team reported that evidence for the runes’ age was not conclusive and further study on the rates of mica crystal weathering would be necessary to make any kind of determination of the KRS’s authenticity on the basis of erosion. (E.A. Powell)
Wolter’s started to develop bewildering theories and by 2006, Wolter’s zealous efforts to find evidence to prove his claims linking the stone to the Templars became too much for Nielsen and Kehoe to bear, and they have both since ceased working with him. They were particularly concerned that Wolter refused to submit his weathering study to a peer-reviewed journal. Larry Zimmerman, an archaeologist at Indiana University-Purdue University who knows both Nielsen and Wolter and has followed the KRS research, agrees the lack of peer review is a serious problem. “Good science demands peer review by practitioners with similar skill sets, and good scientists actually seek such review. When review seems to be avoided, the science becomes immediately suspicious.”
University of Uppsala philologist Henrik Williams has worked closely with Nielsen since 2002. The emergence of a set of 19th century documents known as the Larsson Papers may have convinced him the KRS is a 19th century artifact. While the KRS was in Sweden, documents in the collection of the Institute for Dialectology, Onomastics, and Folklore Research un Umea came to light that show the runestone may not be an isolated anomaly. Two sheets of pater date 1883 and 1885, from the collection of a tailor and musician named Edward Larsson, contain a number of runes that resemble the eccentric ones on the KRS. (AIA)
Williams doesn’t think Ohman carved the KRS, but somebody familiar with the alphabet must have. “I don’t think the runestone is a medieval product, but it does tell you something about the use of runes in the 19th century. And people should remember that the stone now has a history of its own; it’s been out there for a while and is part of American mythology and part of history. It’s a cultural icon and it’s fascinating.”
The production company is building on the success of Holy Grail in America and are planning documentaries that explore North American archaeology. They are currently working on another show for the History Channel and the working title is Who Really Discovered America? It will explore a number of theories about pre-Columbian Old World visitors to the Americas. possibly including the Japanese, Welsh, and ancient Egypt! What are they going to think of next?
Until next time everyone!