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Science: Bye, Columbus

3 minute read

Did the Vikings arrive first?

In Calvin Trillin’s 1977 comic novel Runestruck, the fictitious Maine coastal town of Berryville goes crazy when a stone with inscriptions that seem to be Nordic is unearthed there. Some townspeople want to cash in on the bonanza by doing such things as building a theme park and holding a festival. Others seek, in vain, to avoid exploitation. Chaos reigns as the citizens realize that Berryville is likely to become a national shrine: the site of the first Viking settlement in America. Last week real events in a small Maine community seemed on the verge of following those in fictive Berryville.

More than 15 years after a battered old coin was discovered in an ancient Indian rubbish heap near the coastal town of Blue Hill, it was belatedly identified by scholars as a Norse artifact dating back to the 11th century—making it the oldest European object ever found in the U.S. What is more, the find reopened all the old arguments about who really discovered America: Columbus or some Viking predecessors?

At the heart of the hubbub is a thin, badly worn and chipped silver disc about the size of a dime. On one side, it is stamped with a cross; on the other, with a stylized animal head. Found in 1961 by an amateur archaeologist named Guy Mellgren, the coin was turned over Animal head to the Maine State Museum in Augusta four years ago and described as a 12th century English coin. But Riley Sunderland, a retired military historian and also an amateur archaeologist, had his doubts about that identification. While vacationing in England last summer, he discussed the coin with Peter Seaby, a noted British numismatist. After examining photographs, Seaby concluded that the coin was “almost certainly a Norse penny,” probably dating to the reign of Olaf III Kyrre (the Quiet), King of Norway from 1066 to 1093. British Historian Michael Dolley concurred. Said he: “To me there’s no doubt, it’s a Norwegian coin struck in the 1070s.”

At the Maine museum, where the treasure has now been placed under protective plastic, Archaeologist Bruce Bourque was more restrained. Even if the coin is Norwegian, he said, it may have been brought to the site from a Viking settlement in Newfoundland, not by Norsemen but by seagoing Indians. After all, he noted, no other Norse materials have been discovered around Blue Hill. Still, the museum is taking no chances. To stave off a possible stampede of runic treasure hunters who might indeed turn Blue Hill into a facsimile of Trillin’s Berryville, Maine officials want the area around the Indian mound placed under federal protection.

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