Glorious dreams and accusations of lies have swirled about the Kensington Runestone for more than a hundred years.
In 1898, Olof Öhman, a Swedish immigrant in America, reported that he had found a grey slab of rock carved with runes in a field in Minnesota. It soon became known by the name of the nearby settlement of Kensington. And that’s about the only thing that’s clear about this rock. Was it, as the inscription on the rock suggests, left there by Vikings in 1362? Or was Öhman a liar?
This is the mystery that sees actor Peter Stormare (Fargo) and history enthusiast Elroy Balgaard set out to delve into the discovery in the series American Runestone: A Viking Mystery.
This is more Fargo-esque than academic exploration, more roadtrip than rigorous science (though there’s some of that, too). But those who harbour a fascination for the mysteries of history might find kindred spirits in these two history buffs, and sympathy for Stormare’s staunch belief in Öhman’s innocence.
Here’s a quick guide to who’s who, what and why.
So, Peter Stormare? He was in Fargo?
Yes, Stormare is an actor, writer, director and musician. He played Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo, and you might have spotted him in Prison Break, The Big Lebowski and American Gods, too. Stormare is actually his stage name; he was born Rolf Peter Ingvar Storm, in Sweden. And in the opening scenes of American Runestone, he explains why he felt kinship with Olof Öhman.
“Let me .. tell you why I care so much about this mystery,” he says. “My name is Peter Stormare, but you might recognise me better as the woodchipper guy from Fargo. And that’s the film I was working on when I first saw the runestone. Recently, I went back to Sweden, to Hälsingland. Hälsingland is the small county where I grew up in and actually the same county where Olof Öhman grew up in. I even found his birth record in the village church. Olof and I, we were born 100 years apart and we both immigrated to America 100 years apart and destiny brought us together in Kensington, Minnesota, of all places.
“Why would the academic community accuse a poor immigrant farmer of carving a runestone? It didn’t make much sense to me. So I decided to find out who did carve this stone.”
And Elroy Balgaard?
Stormare describes Elroy Balgaard as “the best sidekick of my career”. Balgaard is a graphic designer, not a historian, but like many others, he’s long been fascinated by the mystery of the stone.
“My family comes from Ashby, Minnesota. I remember as a kid stopping at the Alexandria Museum and seeing the Kensington Runestone and thinking it was a very cool thing, even as a kid… I think I’ve watched every documentary that you can watch about the Kensington Runestone,” he says in the show.
Convinced that there was a part of the mystery yet to be explored, he wanted to dig deeper. “So I decided to make a YouTube video, so I could do a GoFundMe page, and I got an email from Peter Stormare saying he saw my video.” And eventually, that turned into the two of them taking to the road and trying to find out the truth, and from that YouTube video came a six-part TV series.
“I’m really excited about where this is going to go. If we prove that the runestone is real, it will rewrite history. It’s a little scary. Sometimes when you rewrite history, it doesn’t make everybody happy. But I really am excited about coming in and upsetting the apple cart,” Balgaard says in the first episode.
100 years of controversy
As website of the Runestone Museum – home of this rough greyish stone – explains, “This intriguing artifact was discovered in 1898, clutched in the roots of an aspen tree on the Olof Öhman farm near Kensington… The Runestone has led researchers from around the world and across the centuries on an exhaustive quest to explain how a runic artifact, dated 1362, could show up in North America.”
The inscription on the stone reads like a record left behind by early European explorers, noting the story of a group of 30 men who were ambushed by a lake. Could the date of 1362 notched into the rock possibly be real?
In the first episode, the history buffs talk to forensic geologist Scott Wolter, who was asked by the museum to study the stone in 2000.
“The fundamental question of the runestone is: Is it a late 19th-century hoax or is it genuine? We already know the rock was old. The real question was: How old is the inscription? That’s a whole different matter and a lot more complicated. When you go through this process of documenting facts, you start putting them on one side of the ledger or not. And… most of the time, it starts to add up on one side or the other pretty quickly.”
So on which side did Wolter see the evidence falling? Based on tests looking at weathering, he said it was carved well before 1898. “And I trust rocks… they’ve never lied to me,” he tells Balgaard.
But of course it’s not that simple. As the documentary and the museum website both make clear, there’s been expert opinion on both sides.
Many believe it cannot be genuine because of the runes used.
“The Kensington Runestone is a fascinating artifact. There is no doubt that it is a runestone. The problem with it is that its inscription cannot possibly have been written in the 14th century, because it’s written in modern Swedish. That is to say in 19th-century Swedish,” says Dr Anders Winroth, a professor of medieval history at Yale university who appears in the documentary.
And as Stormare and Balgaard discover, there’s more to the story of the rune than just “is it real”. For Öhman and his family, it meant a life under the shadow of accusations. And if it was real, what would that mean for American history? “It’s an open challenge to the mythology of America,” says Alice Beck Kehoe, an anthropologist, in the series.
American Runestone: A Viking Mystery takes a personal approach to trying to find out what happened. The duo talk to descendants of Olof Öhman and discover just how hard it was for the family. They talk to experts and enthusiasts, on both sides of the real/fake divide. And they hear there’s a new test that could help prove whether Olof was innocent.
So, is it a fake? Or was Olof wronged by those who accused him of lying?
Without giving too much away, we’ll say this: Stormare and Balgaard discover something that makes them happy.
The six-part series American Runestone: A Viking Mystery starts Thursday 4 March at 9:20pm on SBS VICELAND.