By Elizabeth I. Ward
Material History Review, No.54 (Fall 2001)
Abstract: The travelling exhibition, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, featured a case containing primarily plastic horned helmets seamlessly included within a serious cultural exhibition. Never worn by Vikings, this popular cultural icon embodies the disjuncture between scholarly and popular knowledge of the Viking past. The exhibition as a whole sought to highlight the recent studies that have revealed a complex view of the Viking past at odds with the simplistic popular stereotype, and the horned helmet case was a fitting introduction to this theme. But it simultaneously demonstrated the lack of agency museums have had over the meanings associated with modern popular culture items and was therefore an ironic, somewhat problematic, experience for visitors. This essay examines issues that arose during the curation, design, and display of this case, suggesting an accepted, though perhaps unjustified, categorical division between popular material culture and “authentic” artifacts.
In 1898, a Swedish farmer living near Kensington, Minnesota, was grubbing up trees to clear more land for crops . According to the published reports, as he toppled one poplar tree, he discovered clenched in its roots a large stone slab . Upon inspection, the stone turned out to have peculiar carvings, identified later as Scandinavian Runic letters. As transcribed, the letters tell the story of “8 Goths and 22 Norwegians” who came to North America in 1362 and were on an exploratory journey that brought them to modern day Minnesota. If true, this would provide proof of a European presence in North America almost 150 years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”
Current scholarly opinion is that the stone is a modern hoax, created most likely by Scandinavian American immigrants who populate this area of North America. Neither the forms of the runic letters nor the circumstances of the find inspire serious scholarly attention. However, despite the united front of professional academics, amateur enthusiasts throughout the Mid-west continue to push for a re-evaluation of the stone.