Expert from Sweden exposes mystery of Minnesota runestone

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

Dr. Henrik Williams, professor of Scandinavian languages at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, will present the 2010 O. Fritiof Ander Lecture in Immigration History on Friday, Oct. 1, 7 p.m. in room 102 in the Hanson Hall of Science (726 35th St.). Williams will debunk myths about the mysterious Kensington Runestone, a stone that allegedly marks the arrival of Scandinavians in central Minnesota in the 14th century.

The Kensington Runestone was discovered in 1898 by Olof Öhman on his farm near Kensington, Minnesota. According to Öhman, the 200-pound, two-and-a-half-foot high stone was under a tree and was covered with strange letters, which scholars identified as runes, or the letters used to write early Germanic languages. Its inscription describes a visit by a party of Scandinavians and is dated to 1362.

Experts on Scandinavian languages and runes have concluded that the inscription on the Kensington Runestone is not medieval. However, Williams warns against calling it a “fake,” which implies that it was created to deceive. “Almost everyone who sees the runestone as a fake will claim that it is worthless,” said Williams. “My attitude is exactly the opposite. The inscription is of interest to historians of Scandinavian languages, even though it is not as old as it declares.”

Williams emphasizes the importance of the Kensington Runestone for Swedish Americans. “If the Swedish-American community holds what may be the world’s most famous runestone, it ought to pay some attention to it,” he said. “The rich history and controversy surrounding the stone has made it an important cultural icon.”

Williams became interested in runes and runic inscriptions in 1983 when working as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—thousands of miles from his home. “Runic inscriptions are common enough in Scandinavia, but it took distance to see the uniqueness and exoticism of runes and runestones,” he said. He wrote his dissertation on runology, or the study of the runic alphabet, and has been studying runes ever since.

Williams’ lecture at Augustana will be part of a 12-lecture tour in the United States to promote the study of runology in academic settings. Williams is particularly excited to stop in Rock Island since he has visited several times before. “I am truly honored to be giving the 21st Annual O. Fritiof Ander Lecture in Immigration History and am looking forward to October 1,” he said.

Dag Blanck, director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, values the role of the annual O. Fritiof Ander lecture in raising awareness of immigration history. “Immigration history is important for American society in general and the Quad Cities in particular—be it Scandinavian immigrants from the 19th century or Mexican and Asian immigrants today,” said Blanck.

The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, located inside Denkmann Memorial Building at Augustana, is a national archives and research institute for the study of Swedish immigration to North America. It promotes the O. Fritiof Ander Lecture in Immigration History every year in memory of O. Fritiof Ander, a longtime professor of history at Augustana and a pioneer scholar in immigration studies.

For more information, contact Kamy Beattie at kamybeattie@augustana.edu or (309) 794-7721.

About Augustana: Founded in 1860 and situated on a 115-acre campus near the Mississippi River, Augustana College is a private, liberal arts institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The college enrolls 2,500 students from diverse geographic, social, ethnic and religious backgrounds and offers more than 70 majors and related areas of study. Augustana employs 287 faculty members and has a student-faculty ratio of 11:1. Augustana continues to do what it has always done: challenge and prepare students for lives of leadership and service in our complex, ever-changing world.