Henrik Williams is a good sport.
Fielding an attempt to compare ancient Viking rune stones with something more 21st-century, he rose to the occasion.
Rune stones “are a mixture of the Star Tribune, gravestones and Twitter,” he said, speaking from Sweden, where he’s a professor at Uppsala University, as well being among the world’s foremost authorities on rune stones.
In Nordic cultures of a thousand years past, communication was almost always word-of-mouth, making rune stones the multimedia of that era. “This was about the only writing they came across,” said Williams of runic inscriptions that blend art and alphabet.
“The multimedia aspect comes from the fact that when you encountered rune stones, they were set in a specific place in the landscape,” he said.
Sometimes by graves, often by roads and bridges, a runic inscription conveyed information about society and geography, while also providing public art.
Williams is in the Twin Cities next month, speaking Nov. 1-2 at the Minnesota History Center and the American Swedish Institute.
Minnesota looms large in runic studies because it’s home to the Kensington Runestone, considered the most famous rune stone in the world — mostly because of the controversy surrounding it.
The 202-pound artifact was discovered in 1898 in the roots of an aspen tree on the Olof Öhman farm near Kensington, about 15 miles southwest of Alexandria. The runic language it contains describes a massacre of 10 Swedish and Norwegian explorers in 1362 in what’s now central Minnesota.
That would put the explorers here more than 100 years before Columbus sailed from Spain — an unlikely circumstance given that there’s no other archaeological evidence that the Vikings got this far into the continent. An ancient site at the northern tip of Newfoundland is the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America.
While some regard the Kensington Runestone as an attempted fraud, Williams stressed that he’s never used such language regarding the artifact, housed at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria.
“I can’t prove that someone carved it with the intention to fool people,” he said. “There are rune stones carved all the time and they’re not frauds, just modern reproductions. But neither can I hold with fanatics who say it is ancient and nothing else is possible.”
Williams speculated that whoever made the rune stone could have been motivated by good intentions.
“Maybe someone wants to re-create history. Maybe they knew about an expedition that could have reached America and played on the theme of ‘What if they had? What would they have said? Where would they go?’ ”
Scholarly consensus holds that the stone could not have been carved in 1362, yet Williams said that doesn’t make the stone any less interesting.
“I would maintain that it’s a very important stone, because it puts many questions to the front and center,” he said. “I’m entirely happy I came in contact with it because it’s made me a much better runologist.”
Williams has worked on a translation of the inscription for years and will present his latest work in a talk at the Minnesota History Center.