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COMMENTARY: The passing of a giant in Runestone research

Dr. Richard Nielsen is shown with the Runestone he loved to study. (Photo courtesy of Eye Wonder Media)

By Dr. Jim Bergquist, Executive Director, The Runestone Museum, Alexandria, MN

Since Alexandria is the home of the Kensington Runestone, I want to tell you about an important but sad recent event. Dr. Richard Nielsen, a towering figure in the scientific research of the Runestone, died suddenly in early July. He was in his 80s.

Why should this matter to you, a resident of Minnesota? Dick Nielsen studied the Runestone for 30 years, bringing it to the attention of many well-known scientists, and making them realize it was worth a serious look.

He contributed greatly to publicizing it and showing that the negative, hastily conducted studies of the 1920s through the 1950s were largely flawed and contained personal bias. During that time the Runestone languished in public opinion. Dick brought it back.

Dick was well educated, with several degrees, one being a doctor of technology. But even more, he had tremendous practical experience including nautical travels that gave him a good background in what Medieval sailors would face.

There is a site of an undisputedly Medieval runestone, found at a high Arctic latitude in a rock cairn in Greenland, the Kingittorsuaq runestone (Google it). During his Coast Guard days, Dick traveled within sight of that remote location, and realized that the Norse could and did reach it. He knew what it felt like to be on the frigid North Atlantic.

In my conversations with Dick, I was always surprised at the breadth of his knowledge, with a bit of the knowledge of each of a university’s professors wrapped up in one person – history, engineering, mathematics, culture, language. The last one, linguistics, is where Dick really brought his gifts to bear for our benefit.

By laboriously reading Medieval Swedish manuscripts, Dick found that the language and grammar on the Kensington Runestone is largely accurate for the 14th century. This was after previous researchers had dismissed the language out of hand.

Above all, Dick was a consummate scientist. If strong, contrary evidence showed up regarding a word or phrase on the Runestone, he would turn on a dime, and consider the new evidence.

That’s how it should be. We want our unique artifact to be supported by solid evidence.

Did Richard Nielsen secretly believe the Runestone was Medieval, or modern? Who knows? He has said he sees no irrefutable evidence that it is modern. That’s a pretty good final report from the finest gentleman I’ve ever known!