On the Edge: Scandinavians to America before Columbus

Steinar Opstad

Steinar Opstad

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly offers opinions written by invited contributors to make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

A strange debate flies across the Atlantic Ocean. Findings in the U.S. tell us there have been Scandinavians in America in pre-Columbian time.

Husband and wife team Stine and Helge Ingstad made that clear with good evidence from their many years of research at  L’Anse aux Meadows years ago. According to their research, Scandinavians were in America approximately 500 years before Columbus. Scott Wolter, a geologist in Minnesota (who also serves as president of the American Petrographic Services in St. Paul), follows their tracks and has new evidence. One can wonder: What did they do when they came to America? What was their purpose, and were they really the first visitors from Scandinavia?

Since we know Scandinavians visited America several times prior to Columbus’ journey, we need not spend time discussing that. However, what they did when they went into the rich and vast land is still a matter for discussion. Let us start with findings that were discovered after they left.

A Swedish farmer living close to Alexandria, Minn., dug up a big flat stone about 115 years ago. He understood that the stone was more than just a stone in his unploughed field. He and the neighboring farmers, all of them Norwegians and Swedes, soon understood that they had uncovered a rune stone with a message from the medieval age.

I have a proud past as a 17-year-old bellhop and helper to perhaps the most famous Norwegian historian with a specialization in the Stone Ages, Dr. Erling Johansen. My job was to follow him around to the sites of  dozens of rock carvings. Some academics disliked that he, a plumber by trade, after years of studies was regarded an international specialist on Stone Age history. The Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) made him a scientific member of the faculty at the University of Oslo for his unique competence. In addition, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, a non-governmental interdisciplinary body which embraces all fields of learning, made him a member.

After my first visit to the Rune Stone Museum in Alexandria, Minn., I went home with photos and books with pictures of the Kensington stone. Erling said to me that it looked genuine. The year Erling passed away, I visited the museum with my good friend, the famous explorer, Dr. Thor Heyerdahl. He later told a large audience in Minneapolis that he was of the same opinion as Erling; the Kensington stone was a genuine rune stone.

The problem is that neither of them was educated as a rune specialist. They were general historians, and Thor was additionally educated in hard science. Here is the background for the strange debate about Scandinavian findings in U.S. Many linguists think they have the authority to decide what is wrong,when it comes to runes, but linguistics is not an exact science.

We have now developed techniques for dating which are more comprehensive than what we can do with carbon dating. We also have access to documents written by scholars some thousand years ago. We have scientific methods and a tradition for peer-reviewing so one expert can be evaluated by other experts and avoid scientists fooling themselves.

Being a Norwegian and having followed the Kensington stone debate for about 30 years, I am interested in what business my forefathers had in mind when they sailed across the Atlantic to Vinland (America). Was it a land claim? Were they escaping from something at home? Were they purely traders or transporters, or was it a part of a mission? Perhaps a Christian mission?

The questions remain unsolved, but new technology and new information from the U.S. and Europe are creating the full picture and the puzzle is almost complete. One thing is for sure: They did not travel there as tourists. They had a very clear and defined goal, and the result they hoped for was a big one in the scale of that time.

Steinar Opstad, born 1941 in Sarpsborg, Norway, is the retired vice president of the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry. During his career, he was an educator and communicator with positions as a journalist, editor, teacher and professor. He has a Ph.D. and Hon. Litt. D. from the University of North Dakota. He is the author of several professional books. He is also the founder of the American College of Norway in Moss, Norway.

Please bear in mind that opinions expressed in “On The Edge” are not necessarily those of the Norwegian American Weekly, and our publication of these views are not an endorsement of them.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 12, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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