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The debate over the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone has waged on for 100 years. There's still no definitive conclusion on this rock, which farmer Olaf Ohman unearthed on his western Minnesota farm back in 1898. Amateur sleuths have poured thousands of dollars of their own money into gathering evidence the stone is for real and academics have spent decades trying to prove it's a fake. The one thing clear about this debate is that it's deeply rooted in faith, culture, and community.
Brad Lantz: That's the thing right there that everyone is talking about. A 200-pound piece of rock.
Brad Lantz gazes admiringly at the huge glass display case which is now the home of the Kensington Runestone. Lantz is a volunteer at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria and whenever he has a free day, he leads visitors through this gallery of rocks, artifacts, newspaper articles, and photographs. Not surprisingly, he's a firm believer the Kensington Runestone is genuine.
Lantz: I haven't gone out with a shovel because I wouldn't know where to start, but in talking to people, and I read as much as I can, I am just convinced that there are more things that are for the authenticity than against it.
Lantz and his neighbors know all the arguments against the Runestone's authenticity. They've heard the claims that this dark-gray rock with ancient runic writing on it is a hoax perpetrated by early Scandinavian settlers. They know many Viking historians say it is impossible early Scandinavians could travel as far as Minnesota when they reached this continent. And they're also keenly aware many Minnesotans laugh at them for their belief in the relic, but they carry on.
Moe: There are six of us doing quite a bit of research on this.
Gillmore Moe is a 76-year-old native of western Minnesota. His weathered face lights up when he talks about the stone, but he also has the manner of an investigator who cannot tell the whole story - a story he has carried all his life.
Moe: And we find, well, artifacts of this. As far as that goes, I have a stone that I've had for 57 years and it's a getaway stone. What I mean by that is this stone was throwed out in water before they land, and they'd have that tied to the ship or boat so in case they got attacked or something, they could pull themselves out into the water faster than they could row.
Moe is one of the few remaining people who has an immediate connection to the Runestone's eventful history. He grew up with Art Ohman, the son of the farmer who discovered the stone. He heard all the stories about the Runestone controversy firsthand, and his own recollections and findings have added to the debate. Runestone Museum Executive Director Arlene Fults says amateur researchers like Gillmore Moe are keeping the spirit of the Runestone alive.
Ohman: There are a lot of local people who do research with their own time. It's given us a bonding in this community, created a sense of who we are maybe a little, maybe about where we're going, and it defines us. And that's good.
Fults says she still regularly gets calls from newspaper reporters and TV crews from around the world who are intrigued by this community of amateur detectives. She says it's discouraging that many in the media paint the Runestone believers as quaint and misguided. Minnesota-based archaeologist and historian Tom Trow says the intrigue of this story does often overshadow its cultural significance. In a recent article for Minnesota History magazine, Trow explains the last 100 years of debate is really about the struggle for ethnic pride in a culturally diverse nation.
Trow: In 1898, when it was found, it was a time when there was a lot of competition among immigrant groups, and there was a sense that the Italian Americans really were one-up on everybody because they could claim that Columbus was the first among the Europeans to come to these shores. And meanwhile the Scandinavians knew from their own sagas that Vikings had been here much earlier, at 1000 A.D. It wasn't until the 1960s that that was actually proven with archaeological data.
Trow says the intensity of this ethnic rivalry is not as great in the 1990s, but traces of it continue. It's not surprising, he says, that the greatest interest in the Runestone remains in the predominantly Scandinavian communities in western Minnesota. Trow does admit the Runestone story still attracts many scholars outside Minnesota and Scandinavia. He says it's the notion of a fantastic, adventurous journey that still draw people to the story.
Trow: It's fun to imagine that Vikings made it 1,000 miles down from Hudson Bay. It's fun to imagine that they made it through this wilderness and all the hardship of going upstream, and somehow made it to this part of Minnesota back in 1363.
Trow predicts no end to the debate over the Runestone's authenticity. Runestone Museum Director Arlene Fults agrees, and that's a reality she's willing to accept.
Fults: Even if someday it is proved a hoax, we still have a priceless artifact. I love the mystery of the stone. Yes, I want to see it solved. But in the process of solving the mystery, we lose the mystery. And that would be... I would find that kind of sad personally, to lose the mysterious quality that it has.
The mystery of the stone may need to be solved soon. If not, it's possible the handful of people with a passion for the story may die. 81-year-old Marion Dahm is one of these people. He's researched the Kensington Runestone for 40 years, and doesn't plan to quit any time soon. This winter, he and an underwater camera crew are heading to Norway Lake, near Willmar, to locate what Dahm says is another Runestone and another mystery.