NORTH KINGSTOWN, Rhode Island — The fabled Narragansett Rune Stone, taken by some as proof of a Viking visit 600 to 1,000 years ago, is only 50 years old, according to the Providence man who claims he carved it.
Only the runes, of course. The stone itself is ancient, just about whatever age you’d expect a six-ton, 7- by 5-foot chunk of Rhode Island formation meta-sandstone to be. Every low tide for as long as anyone can remember, it poked out of the water not far from Pojac Point. If you wanted to sound like a native, you called it Quidnessett Rock.
But that’s giving a lot of syllables to a relatively unremarkable landmark. In fact, it’s really not clear if anyone called it anything before 1984. Then, as one story goes, a clam digger discovered mysterious carvings on the rock and, in a blink of geological time, it became Quidnessett Rock, the Narragansett Rune Stone, and the darling of the Vikings-in-New-England camp.
Runic characters mean Vikings, as everyone knows. And currently the only solid evidence of a Viking presence in North America is the thousand-year-old remains of settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland—as archaeologists wish everyone knew. Some folks (Scott Wolter, for example, host of a History Channel program described as only a few steps above “Ancient Aliens”) held out hope that the Narragansett Rune Stone could become the second solid piece of evidence.
Runes were used to communicate, but these runes haven’t done much to shed light on their own mystery. One student of the rock sees the name of an Icelandic river. A recent “translation” reads like a real estate contract between God, the sun, and a boatload of Egyptian Norsemen from the Vatican. In a tiny mark on one of the runes, the History Channel guy sees the symbol of a Templars secret mission which seems to have involved telling everyone about their secret mission on various stones, perhaps just to be ironic.
Is it all that unlikely that Vikings splashed ashore somewhere along the Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts coast?
New England must have been a great place to live a thousand years ago. Even today it’s not too bad despite the traffic. So why is it unreasonable to think the Vikings couldn’t have planned a settlement here? Or at least take an occasional summer vacation on the Cape with a stop at Narragansett Bay for fresh corn?
In a word, Skraelings. Or Indians, for those of you who don’t have Google Translate.
Skraelings were without question the best argument for the Vikings to stay up in Newfoundland. The slim evidence that does exist shows that Skraelings kicked every Norse butt that ever came ashore. The Norse sagas say so. The archaeological evidence, or more specifically the lack of it, backs it up. I think the theory is sound. And so does Everett Brown.
And that’s why Brown chipped SKRAYLINGAE into a rock off Pojac Point back in the summer of 1964. Or tried to. He messed up some of the letters, inadvertently deepening the mystery when the carving was discovered some twenty years later.
“I was a 13-year-old boy that summer,” Brown told me in a phone call yesterday. Drawn to tales of adventure and the mighty sweep of history like many boys his age, he said, “I’d found out I had a Swedish background. I was very interested in the Vikings.”
He said he spent a lot of time out on the water, especially at a beach that was hard to get to except by boat. He remembered pulling up in an 18-foot Thompson—not a knorr by any stretch, but to a boy adventure came in many shapes. He remembered carrying his mother over the shallows between the boat and the beach.
“I felt like a Viking,” he said.
About that time, along with his epic discoveries along the Rhode Island shore, Brown discovered an abiding interest in language. He was fascinated by the languages of old England, Saxon in particular, and the obsolete alphabets of northern Europe. He also began to study Latin.
Curiosity about his heritage and old languages came together for young Brown in an unusual way that summer. He wrote some runes on a piece of paper and took it out to the rock near the beach. At low tide, he said, he took a sledge hammer and “one of my dad’s Craftsman nail punches or an awl, something pointy,” and, holding the hammer just below the steel head, carefully picked away at the rock.
That is, as carefully as a 13-year-old boy racing against the tide can be.
“I made a few mistakes,” Brown said. Referring to the falsely identified “hooked X” on the stone (he called it the “N”), he said a chip flew out, changing the character he was trying to create.
“And I used the character for the combined AE,” he said, accidentally giving an incongruous Latin plural to an Icelandic word. “As I said, I was familiar with Latin, but the funny thing was I was trying not to make it look Latin.”
Brown is a well-informed, well-spoken man. Far from seeking publicity, he had made no attempt to contact the press or local TV about the rune stone. He didn’t seek me out; I contacted him out of the blue. He didn’t volunteer the story; I had to coax it out of him. As I interviewed him I was struck not only by the casual detail of his account but also by the lack of ego behind his statements and the overall openness and honesty of his manner. Even to my cynical ears, his story rang true.
There are those who will beg to differ. There are people like Wolter who, putatively trained in science, none the less abandon their objectivity to chase moonbeams like Jesus’ bloodline. And there’s at least one woman who lived in the area in the ’50s who recalls something about a carved stone in the water. Memory isn’t the most reliable testimony, however, and I suspect that woman actually heard about the carvings some years after moving to Pojac Point.
Brown’s relaxed manner and unrehearsed, consistent answers could have been enough to convince me he was telling the truth. But I also had some supporting evidence.
First, despite a century of armchair archaeologists trying to knock Columbus off his pedestal for whatever reason, no one mentioned the rune stone before the 1980s. Edmund B. Delabarre left it out of his overview in the Rhode Island Historical Society Collections for April 1925. Science fiction writer Frederick J. Pohl, who left few stones unturned in a quest to put Vinland on Cape Cod, didn’t mention it either.
Second, and most telling I think, is that Brown knew exactly what was carved in the stone. For all of the nonsensical and half-sensical translations that have been advanced since the stone was rediscovered, Brown told me exactly what was on the stone, errors, guesses, and all.
In other words, this 13-year-old with a hammer and punch knew the one thing that would make Vikings put up a sign: CAUTION! INDIANS!
Fact is, a strong argument can be made that anytime between, say, 800 and 1300 was a really bad time to visit southern New England. Native culture was under stress like never before. The Mediaeval Warm Period had totally messed up hunting and gathering patterns. On top of that, a new crop coming in from the west, corn, convinced many nomadic families to abandon their wandering ways. As usual, agriculture and warfare progressed apace. Corn gave the Indians a reason to stake out land and to get real mean when someone—whether a member of another tribe or a furry-chinned metal head from Iceland—tried to move in on it. It was a era for shooting first and asking questions after.
Everett Brown hit on just the right message to leave on a rock. It’s pretty funny that no one figured out the simple word he wrote considering how obvious it is now that he’s explained it.
I don’t think there was anything deceitful in what Brown did in 1964. He says he never intended to pull a prank or fabricate a hoax. It was just something a boy his age liked to do. I believe him, just as I believe that he did the carving in the first place.
We know the Norse reached New England’s shores. We can be pretty sure they wanted to stay. We can be pretty sure Skraelings wasted no time chasing them off. But we know—those of us who have stood on a rock and faced a bold new world at some young point in our lives—we know the Norse reached here.
We’re just waiting for proof still.
A couple of years ago the Narragansett Rune Stone, all six tons of it, vanished. The state got it back a year ago April. When the stone showed up in the news, Brown was spurred to get in touch with the Rhode Island Historical Society. He gave them a call, figuring someone there would help him get the truth out. He’s still waiting for someone to call him back.
Meanwhile, the stone showed up in the news again for one final shot at fame. The town of North Kingstown announced last week it would be set up for display in Updike Park. You know, like a real Viking rune stone.
Many, many thanks to Kathy Renaud Ewart and Sean Condon, who tipped me off to Everett Brown’s revealing tale, and especially to Mr. Brown himself for his good-natured interview on short notice.
I use “Norse” and “Viking” interchangeably, a bad habit of writers much better than I. Some standards of usage also call for lower-case treatment of the words Viking and Skraeling. I refer to them here as distinct cultural entities and think it’s appropriate to capitalize the terms.
Please see Debunking the Kensington Stone for more information on runes in North America. Of particular interest is the observation, “Knowledge of runes was not an esoteric academic discipline in the nineteenth century. Runic script was alive and well, especially in remote rural areas of Norway and Sweden (Boëthius 1906; Jansson 1963).”
Last but not least, for insight into what happens when science collides with belief, readers may enjoy Dealing With Electric Pandas: Why It’s Worth Trying to Explain the Difference Between Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology.