Carved In Stone

Originally posted October 14, 2009

It’s a tale that I think every Minnesota kid of Swedish descent knew when I was young: In 1898 in west-central Minnesota, Olof Öhman was clearing his land when he found a slab of stone tangled in the roots of a tree. The stone – about thirty inches by sixteen inches, and six inches thick – had carving on one face and one edge.

Wikipedia says:

“Soon after it was found, the stone was displayed at a local bank. There is no evidence Öhman tried to make money from his find. An error-ridden copy of the inscription made its way to the Greek language department at the University of Minnesota, then to Olaus J. Breda, a professor of Scandinavian languages and literature there from 1884 to 1899, who showed little interest in the find. His runic knowledge was later questioned by some researchers. Breda made a translation, declared it to be a forgery and forwarded copies to linguists in Scandinavia. Norwegian archaeologist Oluf Rygh also concluded the stone was a fraud, as did several other linguists.”

But what did the stone say? Here’s a fairly common translation from the runes:

Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on a journey of exploration from Vinland very far west. We had camp by two rocky islands one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM save from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our ships fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362

(“Goths” has generally been interpreted to mean Swedes, and “AVM” is an abbreviation for “Ave Virgo Maria,” a supplication to the Virgin Mary.)

At the time, there was no proof for the supposition that the Viking explorers had ever reached North America, much less traveled as far inland as the area that would become Minnesota. The discoveries of Viking settlement ruins in Newfoundland were about sixty years in the future. The idea that Scandinavians had reached the American Midwest seemed ludicrous. But was it?

Well, I don’t know. I’ve known about the runestone for most of my life, and from time to time, it makes the news when some scholar or another brings new eyes, new historical context and new technology to bear on the runestone, providing another piece to a puzzle that will likely never be solved. (The Wikipedia page on the runestone, a generally skeptical account, reviews the century of research in detail that can become mind-numbing, especially during its review of the actual runes found on the stone.)

The most interesting bit of recent geologic research that I’d been aware of compared the weathering on the stone and its runes to the weathering on gravestones of similar rock in the eastern United States. The conclusion was that the Kensington stone was likely underground between fifty to two-hundred years before it was unearthed in 1898, which means the stone was buried sometime between 1698 and 1848. I’m not certain when the area was settled, but there would have been few, if any, settlers in the area by 1848, which almost certainly would mean that whoever carved it and left it there did so while the land was wild.

Is the stone authentic? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows, either. There are some indications that it’s a hoax, and some – like the geological analysis mentioned above – that raise more questions. As a good Minnesotan, and half Swedish at that, I’d like the runestone to be authentic. If it’s a hoax, okay, but what was the point? No one’s ever provided what seems to me to be a persuasive answer.

The Kensington Runestone in its display case in Alexandria, Minnesota.

I hadn’t thought about the runestone for years, but a couple weeks ago, I saw a promotion for a film on the History Channel titled The Holy Grail in Minnesota, which had as its starting point the Kensington Runestone. I set the film to record, and I finally got back to it the other evening.

The film, produced by Minnesotans Andy and Maria Awes, begins with a pretty good look at the runestone’s known history, though it does tend to skim over some of the skepticism. And then it looks at the history of the Knights Templar and the order’s dissolution by the Vatican in the early fourteenth century. So far, so good. But then the hints began: The Knights Templar had searched for something precious on the site of the ruins under Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and a fleet of ships later sent out from France by the Templars was never seen again.

In a segment filled with the words “might,” “maybe,” “could” and “possibly,” I saw the film’s destination: It was the Knights Templar who carved the Kensington stone when they brought the Holy Grail to America in 1362. I wasn’t in the mood for that much historical theorizing, so I quit watching. I imagine I’ll look at the film again someday, and until I do, I’ll reserve judgment. I suppose that the idea of the Knights Templar in Minnesota is no more unlikely than the idea that Vikings got here. (A little digging turned up a link to a book that seems to look at the same idea; I’ll likely see if it’s in the library.)

These days, the Kensington Runestone is displayed in a museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, a town of about twelve thousand people that’s about seventy miles northwest of St. Cloud. The city is also home to Big Ole, a twenty-eight foot statue of a Viking whose shield proclaims Alexandria as the “Birthplace of America,” a claim based on the ownership of the runestone. Never mind that the stone was found near Kensington, the town where it was displayed in the bank window, about twenty miles west of Alexandria. Near there, Öhman’s homestead, the site of the stone’s discovery, has been turned into a park, with, I believe, a replica of the runestone. There’s also a replica of the stone in a park on the east end of Alexandria, where the main U.S. highway used to come into town before the opening of Interstate Highway 94.

I’ve seen the stone once, in 1975, when my Danish brother and a friend of his were traveling the U.S. and stopped in St. Cloud for a few days. And I’ll likely see it again soon; the Texas Gal has said she’d like to see it. Maybe next spring, we’ll take a Saturday and head off to see the evidence of those eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians.

A Six-Pack of Stone
“Murdering Stone” by the Walkabouts from New West Motel [1993]
“Dr. Stone” by the Leaves from Hey Joe [1966]
“I’m Stone In Love With You” by the Stylistics, Avco 4603 [1972]
“Rollin’ Stone” by Johnny Rivers from Last Train To Memphis [1998]
“Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand, Columbia 45236 [1970]
“Tombstone Shadow” by Creedence Clearwater Revival from Green River [1969]

On first listen, the Walkabouts’ “Murdering Stone” lies on the ears as a discomfiting bit of recent Americana: Not being sure what a murdering stone is, the listener might shrug, thinking it all sounds all right, but what does it mean? But I get the sense that meaning isn’t important here; what matters is connection. And “Murdering Stone,” with its fiddle and its piano and with its unsettling narrative, pulls me back to an early 1970s classic of country rock, Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen.” From there, it seemed to me that “Murdering Stone” also links to the country tale of “The Long Black Veil.” Numerous great versions of that classic of Americana are easy to find; the first that come to my mind are those by The Band on Music From Big Pink and Johnny Cash’s version on his 1965 album Orange Blossom Special. Wikipedia notes that Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin wrote the song for Lefty Frizzell, whose 1959 recording of it went to No. 6 on the Billboard country chart. (JB at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ noted this week that Rosanne Cash’s new album, The List, includes a performance of the song by Cash and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco; he also found a video of a television performance of the song by Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell.) I’m not sure that “Murdering Stone” is quite on the level of “The Long Black Veil,” but it certainly sent a chill or two up my spine – and not for the first time – when I listened to it this morning.

So what type of medicine does one get while visiting the Leaves’ “good friend” Dr. Stone? Well, in the Los Angeles of 1966, one can make a few guesses. But more important than pharmaceutical guessing games is the intoxicating rhythm track and the garage band sound that “Dr. Stone” celebrates

“I’m Stone In Love With You” was just one of the seemingly uncountable hits that came from the songwriting team of Thom Bell and Linda Creed during the early 1970s. In the wrong production hands, Creed’s lyrics might have been unbearably sappy, gooey to the point of parody, but Bell’s production and the talent of the vocal groups he was recording made the listener believe Creed’s insistently romantic words. And the pairing of the Stylistics’ talents and those of Bell and Creed on “I’m Stone In Love With You” worked exceedingly well, despite some risks. Using “stone” as an adjective was probably risky in 1972 for two reasons: First, because of the word’s drug connotations, and second, because its meaning in what was at first a jarring phrase had to be inferred and then accepted by the listener. But it sounded good as a lyric, and the Stylistics and Bell pulled it off in the studio; the record went to No. 10 in the autumn and early winter of 1972-73.

I have a number of versions of “Rollin’ Stone” I could have put on this list, from the 1950 original by Muddy Waters onward. (I have shared at least once the version by Johnny Jenkins from his Ton-Ton Macoute! album with Duane Allman as part of the backing band.) Johnny Rivers’ cover from Last Train To Memphis is the most recent I have of the song, which is one of the sturdiest in the history of the blues. Rivers’ performance isn’t ground-breaking, but it’s solid, like the rest of the album, on which Rivers pays tribute to the music he grew up with. The album is worth a listen or two.

There are times when I admire Barbra Streisand for her vocal abilities, her range of talents, her ambition and her success. And there are times when I cannot stand the woman. And that’s all me and has nothing, really, to do with her. But whether I wake on the pro-Babs or anti-Babs side of the bed, I’ll always enjoy hearing “Stoney End,” the Richard Perry-produced title tune to Streisand’s 1971 album and a No. 6 single during the winter of 1970-71.

As for “Tombstone Shadow,” all I really need to say is that it’s a slice of tight, brooding and slightly spooky rock ’n’ roll from one of the best American bands ever to strap on guitars and set up a drum kit.

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: