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Friday, July 6, 2007

Spirit Pond runestones

Inscription on the map stone
Inscription on the map stone

The Spirit Pond runestones are three stones with runic inscriptions, allegedly found at Spirit Pond in Phippsburg, Maine in 1971 by a Walter J. Elliott, Jr., a carpenter born in Bath, Maine. The stones, currently housed at the Maine State Museum, were widely dismissed as a hoax or a fraud.[1][2] If authentic, they would be proof of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact and Norse colonization of the Americas.

Unlike the prehistoric monumental runestones raised in Scandinavia, the stones are small handheld objects, with a resemblance of medieval runic manuscripts. A similar stone is the authentic Kingigtorssuaq Runestone found in Greenland in 1824. Of the three stones, one contains a total of 15 lines of text on two sides. The map stone contains a map with some inscription; in different papers Paul H. Chapman proposes that the map depicts the landscape visible from the 1,075 feet high White Mountain, the highest point in the vicinity of Spirit Pond,[3] or the northern tip of Newfoundland.[4]

The inscriptions contain several instances of the use of pentadic numerals in arabic placement. The number 1011 appearing on the inscription (represented as "011") has been interpreted as a date, leading to speculation that the stones are connected to the expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni.[5] Linguistic analysis however points to a later date. The first to study the stones scientifically was Harvard University professor Einar Haugen. In 1974, after transcribing the runes, he found the runes used and the language of the inscription to be inconsistent with 11th century Old Norse. He also noted peculiarities relating the inscriptions directly to the Kensington Runestone inscription. He concluded that the inscriptions were most likely created after 1932.[2] Later researchers have been more sympathetic to a medieval origin of the stones; Suzanne Carlson of NEARA suggests a mid 14th century date for the inscriptions.[6] Richard Nielsen gives a precise date of 1401.[7]

Edward Larsson's notes from 1885 show the use of "pentadic" runic numerals to replace the Arabic numerals in representing dates.
Edward Larsson's notes from 1885 show the use of "pentadic" runic numerals to replace the Arabic numerals in representing dates.

Analyzing and authenticating Christian era (post-Viking era) Norse runic inscriptions poses challenges. While runes remained in use in Scandinavia outside the Latin learned circles well into the Middle Ages, the corpus of surviving inscriptions is very small; the largest part consist of the Bryggen inscriptions, sticks of pine with a few runes. The only major manuscript is the Codex Runicus from 1300. The anomal runes peculiar to the Kensington Runestone, that were earlier seen as proof of non-authenticity, have later been located in the Codex Runicus.[8] The main objection to the authenticity of North American runestones remains the use of pentadic or "runic" numerals, used in both the Kensington and the Spirit Pond stones; their earliest recorded and authenticated use in an Arabic positional system seems to be from 1885, in the notes of an 18-year-old journeyman tailor!

Transcribing the Spirit Pond inscriptions is in itself a challenge; experts can agree on only 80% of the text. Suzanne Carlson reads in the stones a story of a sudden storm and fearful Vikings trying to save their ship from "the foamy arms of Aegir, angry god of the sea." The runes tell of foam gushing around the ship and 17 Vikings smashed, bloody, and dead.[9]

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