The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

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September 18, 2011

Professor investigates ancient carvings

HUNTSVILLE — Scholars have known for decades that Vikings reached North America five centuries before Christopher Columbus’ famed 1492 voyage. It’s now common knowledge that a Viking settlement was founded off the coast of Newfoundland sometime around the year 1000, a discovery that challenged many common perceptions of European colonization.

But what if that’s not the whole story? What if the Vikings made it even further into America, so far that they left their mark on the Midwest? It’s far from certain, but researchers like Sam Houston State University professor Dr. James Frankki are trying to find out the truth through the study of runic inscriptions found in Minnesota, Oklahoma and Missouri that may date back hundreds of years before Columbus, and maybe even before the Newfoundland settlement was founded.

These runestones – large stones engraved with Germanic runes that date back to the Middle Ages – are common in Scandinavia, the home of the Vikings, as reminders of Viking culture. “Before paper was invented, there were very few cheap materials that could be written on. We do have manuscripts from the Middle Ages, but they were very expensive. Prior to even having manuscripts, earlier cultures wrote things on rocks,” Frankki said. “So basically runestones are in some sense similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics, things like the Rosetta Stone. The Vikings also carved inscriptions. They carved their special alphabet on rocks and sometimes on wood chips, short inscriptions, sometimes entire stories.”

The runestones that have been found in America may be evidence that the Vikings made it as far west as the Mississippi River, or they may just be hoaxes or the work of Viking enthusiasts hoping to recreate a culture they love. It’s up to experts like Frankki - who has extensive experience in Germanic languages and writing systems, many of them dead - to determine if the stones are authentic.

A Wisconsin native with his own proud Viking ancestry, Frankki holds a PhD in German from the University of Wisconsin, and has devoted much of his professional life to the research of runic alphabets and runestones.

“I’ve always been interested in languages, but more recently I’m becoming more interested in the stories behind it, what it means to find these inscriptions,” Frankki said.

Frankki has already devoted extensive study to the two most famous American runestones: the Kensington Runestone in Minnesota and the Heavener Runestone in Oklahoma. Now he’s been called upon to be part of a research team that will travel to Kansas City, Mo. to investigate the authenticity of a newly discovered runestone found on private property.

“It’s a smaller stone. We don’t know how big, because it’s buried in the ground. What we need to do is get up there, analyze the whole context in which this stone was found, get the story behind it, research some of the information that was gathered, talk to the landowner, find out the history of the stone and then record everything,” Frankki said. “We want to take pictures of the stone from all different angles so we can take out the shadow effect. We want to get pictures of each individual rune and look at all the different markings around the stone.”

For Frankki and his fellow runic experts, finding out what the stones say is the easy part. The hard part comes when they try to place these objects in the context of history.

“It’s easy enough to look at the carvings and match them up to known runestones in Sweden. You can find examples. From the content and the way that the rune looks, it’s authentic. But the last question is the stone itself,” Frankki said. “One of the first problems is, if you carve something on a small stone then there’s always the chance that it could have been moved. Dating the inscription is different from dating the rock, and you can see the problems there. I’m not a geologist, but experts in geology have often tried and failed to give a credible dating of these inscriptions based on the rock. What you have to do in order to prove authenticity is to find other things in the area around it that match up, or you have to show that it couldn’t have been brought in.”

If the stone are genuine, they paint a new picture of the depth of Viking exploration in the Western World, and challenge common assumptions about the foundation of America.

“There is a current that goes all the way down the coast with almost no effort. They could have easily gone all the way down the coast, got to Florida, gotten around, gotten into the Gulf of Mexico, gone up the rivers, got into Oklahoma and probably died without anyone knowing they were there,” Frannki said. “That’s a possible explanation. It’s not impossible, although it does seem pretty farfetched, but we

know the Vikings were for sure off the coast of Newfoundland around the year 1000. At least since 985 the Vikings knew about North America. They had the technology. Not only did they cross the ocean in their boats, but they had these longboats that could go from river to river. We have all kinds of evidence that that’s exactly what they did all over Europe.”

Though the authenticity of the stones is still debated, there’s no doubt that their implications are broad, and for Frankki, the work continues to be a source of excitement.

“If any of these runestones can be shown to be authentic, in a sense we have to rewrite our history, or at least the history books we’re using to teach the general population about Columbus as the foundation of America,” he said. “This research needs to be brought out to the public, if authentic. There’s a lot of it ­that hasn’t been studied and nobody is aware of.”

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