One day last summer, Scott Wolter was moved to visit the gravesite of Newton Winchell, a prominent geologist in Minnesota history. Winchell is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Wolter, a forensic geologist, admires the man, and he’s been studying the controversial Kensington runestone, as Winchell did in the early part of the 20th century.
As the story goes, Swedish farmer Olof Ohman came across the peculiar stone slab on his farm in 1898. Cryptic markings and the date, 1362, characterize the stone, which is exhibited at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minn.
Like Winchell, Wolter, who was hired by the museum in 2000 to assess the runestone’s age, encountered quite a bit of pushback when he deemed it a genuine article.
Wolter, who lives in Chanhassen, has continued to delve into the artifact. That day at the cemetery, as if Winchell were there in the flesh, “I told him, ‘We’re going to finish the job you started,’ ” he said.
It’s just one of many mysteries that Wolter is digging into for his TV show, “America Unearthed” on the History Channel, or H2. The show recently aired its second season. Right now, Wolter and the all-Minnesotan crew from Eden Prairie-based Committee Films are in the middle of shooting a third season.
The show has taken Wolter all over the globe. Locally, he’s investigated giant bones that the show said may hint of the Vikings’ presence in Minnesota; the Great Lakes copper heist, and what some believe might be Aztec pyramids at the bottom of a Wisconsin lake.
For Wolter, these types of investigations represent an “opportunity to get the history of the country corrected … that doesn’t come along very often.”
“What I say on the show is that, ‘The bottom line is, I want to get to the truth of these things,’ ” he said.
‘Let the rocks talk’
The runestone case catapulted Wolter into new territory, which he coined archaeopetrography, “because we employ geological microscopic laboratory science to rock-related archaeological mysteries,” he said.
Even though Wolter has been a principal petrographer in thousands of investigations all over the place — including that surrounding the Pentagon’s fire-damaged concrete in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — he had no idea how polarizing this research would be.
The runestone topic alone “generates passionate viewpoints on both sides,” he said.
Academics often take issue with Wolter’s theories along these lines. But in his view, it often boils down to the differences between what he calls hard and soft sciences.
Since the beginning, the runestone’s origin has stirred controversy, with most scholars now writing it off as a modern hoax. But Wolter, who studied the stone’s weathering and made five trips to Sweden to study the script, has learned to “let the rocks talk.”
To get firsthand experience on what it takes to carve a runestone, he made his own, which stands in his yard. It incorporates letters from an old Norse alphabet, a serpent and a cross, just for fun.
“I bet that will confuse scholars a thousand years from now,” said Wolter’s wife, Janet. “You should see our rock garden under the snow. That is where the souvenir rocks from trips usually end up,” including a wild boar skull that Wolter found in a cave.
After all of that legwork, Wolter found the stone had plenty to say.
He believes it’s a “secret coded document written by an intelligent and secretive order,” or the Knights Templar of the Middle Ages in Europe. He theorizes that it’s a land claim that predates Christopher Columbus’s arrival to America, and that it indicates ownership of nearly half of the continent.
To those who disagree with his theory, “I said, ‘Show me your evidence.’ People didn’t have any. They just said, ‘Everyone knows it’s a fake,’ ” he said.
Still, the theories about the runestone’s back-story abound. Some people speculate that it’s tied to the Vikings, but they didn’t arrive in the area for another 300 years, he said.
The runestone represents probably the biggest mystery he’s come upon. It’s like a real-life “Da Vinci Code,” he said.
It underscores how little is known about the state’s history. He calls it the Rosetta stone of North America, something he believes people should be proud of.
In 2004, Wolter contacted Darwin Ohman, the grandson of Olof Ohman. “I was blown away by all of the information he had,” Darwin Ohman said. “Finally, someone was paying attention.”
It inspired him to go back into his family’s history and belongings surrounding the runestone. Despite accusations that Olof carved the stone himself, “there’s never been any doubt in my family,” Darwin said. “We always knew my grandfather didn’t carve it. We knew it was genuine. We just didn’t know what it was.”
In reality, the two oldest Ohman boys, Darwin’s uncles, stumbled upon the stone, which was enveloped by tree roots, when they were clearing the land, he said. One of the boys wiped it off and discovered the markings.
Darwin Ohman is glad that Wolter took an interest in the runestone. “One thing about Scott is that he’s full of energy,” he said. “He just keeps going, and I love it. He goes where the information leads him. I wish more people were open-minded like that.”
Ohman has since appeared on “America Unearthed,” posing alongside the runestone, and sharing his story.
St. Paul researcher Jerry Lutgen has also been a guest on the show. He said Wolter contacted him about the runestone, something that he’s also been interested in.
Lutgen is in an episode about a symbol called “The Hooked X,” which appears on the runestone. On the show, the pair discuss possible ties between the Knights Templar and the runestone.
Wolter has plenty of detractors, but he “deserves a lot of credit,” Lutgen said. “He raises a lot of possibilities. He has a vivid mind to make connections between things.”
Maria Awes, the executive producer at Committee Films, a former WCCO investigative reporter, first got in touch with Wolter about a story she was doing in about 2005. Wolter helped to identify a body encased in concrete in the Las Vegas desert.
In 2009, they produced a documentary titled “Holy Grail in America.” It became the premise for “America Unearthed.”
That episode aired last year. It wasn’t long before it became the network’s top-rated show, she said.
Since then, thousands of tips from viewers all over the world have poured in. An everyman’s adventurer, she said, “Wolter has a keen sense of how to make historical connections to actual artifacts in a really compelling way and expand on the story.” His theories about certain artifacts might seem crazy, she said, but “when you really dive into it and the legends, a lot seems plausible.”
Another former WCCO investigative reporter, Don Shelby, is also a familiar face on the show.
One episode was shot partly in the study of his Excelsior home. He talks about his ancestor, Confederate Gen. Joe Shelby, who may have buried treasure “across the continent,” and the circumstances surrounding the death of Meriwether Lewis.
The show is entertaining, but it’s also about having the courage to challenge the status quo, admirers say. Like a scientific journalist, “Scott wants to make sure the information is right. He’s willing to listen to alternate views,” Shelby said. “He is bringing real evidence to light. What we believe to be true isn’t always true.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.