In defense of the Kensington Runestone: Sauk Lake Altar Rock

Photo: Bob Voyles
The Sauk Lake Altar Rock, with stoneholes. Is this evidence of medieval Norse in Minnesota?

Bob Voyles
Bloomington, Minn.

Calling the beautiful and mysterious “stonehole rock” pictured here the “Viking Altar Rock” is a misnomer, since Vikings in the true sense of the word were not Christians. The Viking Age had been over for almost 300 years by the date inscribed on the world-famous Kensington Runestone, which was discovered in 1898 by farmer Olaf Ohman and is self-dated to 1362. The KRS was found about a half-hour’s drive away from where this huge rock sits just northeast of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Both icons are seen by many locals as corroborating one another by sharing unique medieval Catholic Scandinavian characteristics, including stoneholes hand-chiseled into rocks.

A history buff and his wife from Bloomington, Minn., recently bought Altar Rock, once owned by the local Knights of Columbus in Sauk Centre, and they plan to beautify the remote location and refresh the rock’s name to a simpler, more accurate title: “The Sauk Lake Altar Rock.”

Old information at Todd County’s website (www.co.todd.mn.us) says, “The Sauk Centre Knights of Columbus have worked unflaggingly in their efforts to jog public awareness and interest in the Viking Rock. They felt that in rescuing this Altar Rock from anonymity they could memorialize the dauntlessness of those long ago Vikings, brave and faithful in their religion and in their king’s quest for his lost crown colony… A regular trail of historic finds, which are unquestionably of Scandinavian artisanship, approximates a water system by which the Scandinavian mariners would have traversed a good portion of present day Minnesota. One of these finds is the Viking Altar Rock near Sauk Centre, Minnesota.”

A past Sauk Centre Interpretive Center brochure and past local newspaper accounts about the Sauk Lake Altar Rock all say that the Altar Rock is near the end of this proposed “Trail of the Vikings.” Sadly, much of the reasoning used by Hjalmar R. Holand, early KRS researcher, to support the notion of this Trail of the Vikings was untenable. Especially the ideas of “mooring stones” and a king’s quest to rescue errant Greenlanders in Minnesota are now seen by most researchers as a historically wrong take on the Altar Rock’s true history. By extrapolation, the Trail of the Vikings hypothesis also offered a wrong take on the true history of the Kensington Runestone, presently residing at the Runestone Museum in nearby Alexandria. Regrettably, standing 28 feet tall next to the museum, is the recently refurbished statue of pagan Viking (complete with horns) Big Ole, who is announcing to the world that Alexandria is the “Birthplace of America.” This is a silly take on local history, of course, but it is also very confusing, considering that the Viking Age was well over by the date inscribed on the KRS.

As astute as Holand was about most things involving medieval Scandinavians visiting Minnesota, he was hopelessly shortsighted about the actual reasons for most of the stoneholes in this region. He was in error thinking most of the stoneholes had been made for mooring ships or boats in this forested region, and this affected his reputation negatively. But Holand did spend a lifetime learning all he could about the Kensington Runestone, becoming its first staunch defender. He spent his whole life advocating for the idea that Norsemen had visited the New World and Minnesota in particular. He was the first person to document—with photos—some of the stoneholes associated with medieval Scandinavian explorations into this region. After studying the local history of the Altar Rock in-depth, he concluded, “Inasmuch as the holes were seen about ten years before anyone made any clearing on the land, the theory that the holes were drilled for the purpose of making the land fit for cultivation is pretty well excluded.” He went on to note that “The early farmers made no use of stone in building, as they found logs more serviceable, for both houses and barns.”

Holand bent over backwards to help prove that the KRS is a true medieval Christian document and that the Sauk Lake Altar Rock is likely to be “America’s earliest identifiable Christian altar.” He demonstrated that the four stoneholes hand-chiseled into the Altar Rock were likely made to hold up a small Catholic altar table and an accompanying canopy. Accordingly, the Altar Rock appears to have a well-defined historical purpose, and its later experience with the 1800s pioneer settlement days was well-explored by Holand, too. The sheer amount of ethnographic data emanating from Holand’s contacts with locals over the history of the Altar Rock is truly impressive.

The immense rock was likely discovered by Scandinavian explorers (or shown to them by Natives) while the men were looking for a suitable campsite. Fresh spring water trickling into Sauk Lake may have attracted the men to the large and unusually shaped rock, which back then may have existed alongside a “fine spring” just a few rods below the rock (before the large trees were cut down), according to local documented information from the late 1800s.

In this writer’s opinion, to understand medieval Scandinavian history in this region, one must begin with understanding Minnesota’s medieval stoneholes in rocks. Why? Because they help tell the real story of what happened here so very long ago. They are the glue holding some of the other medieval evidences together. The KRS is the perfect example, since it was encircled by a dozen or more stonehole rocks around Runestone Hill. But, generally speaking, medieval stoneholes in this region were made to mark land boundaries and waterways, usually in association with land claims… like examples back in Scandinavia. Other stoneholes were made for construction—as with the Altar Rock—and still others were made to conceal things buried, I believe.

While researching, I soon enough discovered that the overly simplistic “academic” view about the majority of stoneholes in this region is that they are “leftovers” from mostly Scandinavian farmers who laboriously chiseled out the holes back in the settlement days—but then forgot to blast the rocks! Minnesota academic Tom Trow encouraged this idea in an article he authored many years ago, and it seems that his skepticism has served to muddy many conversations about these “unblasted” stoneholes ever since. His take on stoneholes has also nourished the myth of “Scandinavian forgetfulness.”

Yet it is precisely because of these bizarre medieval stoneholes that we can now see that the Sauk Lake Altar Rock and the nearby Kensington Runestone were both created by visiting Scandinavian Christians a few hundred years before the later French arrived. If only Minnesota’s historians were more willing to open their eyes to some of this astonishing—and still-unrealized—state history.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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