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America's Lost Vikings Found?

Museum volunteers are shown bringing home the Viking sailing vessel used during production of an episode of the TV series "America’s Lost Vikings." (Contributed)1 / 4
Runestone Museum Board members must be in attendance on site any time the stone is brought out of its case. Pictured are board members (clockwise from lower left): Nikki Schabel, Geri Zabrosky, Bill Meyer and Sally Smith. (Contributed)2 / 4
Archaeologist Blue Nelson gets a closer look at the rune carvings. (Contributed)3 / 4
Archaeologist Mike Arbuthnot examines the Kensington Rune Stone for the Science Channel cameras. (Contributed)4 / 4

Some of you were able to watch the recent six-part TV series, "America's Lost Vikings," on the Science Channel. Blue Nelson and Mike Arbuthnot, archaeologists and television personalities, used science and adventure to investigate how much of North America Nordic explorers may have traversed.

As many of you are aware, the only confirmed "Viking" site in North America is L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and dates to about 1000. The Kensington Rune Stone, a controversial artifact that has a medieval date of 1362 carved on it, may be evidence of later or continued exploration of North America by Nordic adventurers.

The idea that early Nordic explorers made it to Minnesota was investigated in Episode 4, "Ghosts of the Great Lakes." The team examined the Kensington Rune Stone, which included an updated 3D scan of the stone.

The museum is hoping to not only add an interactive 3D computer model to the current exhibit, but to also have the model available on our website. Nothing groundbreaking has been discovered from the new 3D model yet, but the remote access it will provide for online research and examination is priceless.

On the television show, after looking at the runes on the 3D imaging model, the hosts then tried carving their own runes in stone. After discovering how hard runes are to carve, they decided it was a multi-day process, a conclusion previously drawn by contemporary rune carvers. I think it was just a fun illustration for television, not to mention a fun activity to try their hand at.

The other thing they discussed was the calcite deposits on the stone itself, which I knew they were interested in before filming began. The calcite findings are actually not that controversial, having been agreed on by separate American and Scandinavian geological research. I'm not sure why there was so much interest in it, except to make points about possible erosion.

In the end, Nelson was not fully convinced of the stone's authenticity, while Arbuthnot remained open-minded about the possibility.

One thing I was surprised about was the time and attention they devoted to fire steels in the same episode, yet they did not discuss the Climax Fire Steel, nor test it when they were here in November. They had access to a portable PXRF machine, which I wasn't aware of until the series began to air in late February.

A PXRF machine measures purity levels of metal objects, which can be an indicator of the object's age, with purer levels being found in more contemporary objects. The Climax Fire Steel, part of the Runestone Museum Foundation's collection, is one of, if not the only, identified Nordic Middle Age fire steel on display in North America.

To my knowledge, there has not been extensive research done on the Climax Fire Steel and I think it deserves more attention and study than it currently receives. For example, can we definitively say it is a Nordic Middle Age artifact? We have documents identifying it as such from the University Museum in Oslo, but I don't know if a physical examination ever took place.

We have additional objects, like axes and spear points, that could also potentially benefit from an analysis by a PXRF machine. Keep in mind that tests like these are not definitive and do not tell an entire story of an object.

For example, we do not know why the Climax Fire Steel was found by the Red River near Climax, Minnesota. Was it handed down through generations of Scandinavians only to be lost by an immigrant to the area? Did Middle Age Nordic explorers leave it behind? Was it traded and then left behind on the commonly-used waterways by an Indigenous, English or French fur trader in the 1600s? Boats during this era would be moored at the mouth of the Nelson River on the Hudson Bay and smaller boats were taken to Lake Winnipeg and down the Red River.

Boats, like the one Nelson and Arbuthnot successfully tried their hand at maneuvering in northern Minnesota, were used by Nordic explorers to travel smaller rivers that a larger vessel was unable to navigate. The boat used in Episode 4 of the series was generously donated to the museum by the production crew. I was hoping to see more discussion about possible waterway routes to this area, but maybe that can be explored in Season 2? The final episode certainly indicated room for additional seasons of the series.

In conclusion, while not a lot was really "discovered" about possible Nordic activity in North America outside of Newfoundland, the door for future investigation was left wide open and it has encouraged online debate and discussion. Anytime people get excited and curious about history is usually a positive outcome, especially if it encourages additional research, transparency and critical thinking.