Runestone Cowboy

Scott Wolter believes the Kensington Runestone is proof that medieval knights explored Minnesota before Columbus was even born. Could he be right?

It’s not hard to get Scott Wolter talking, but one way is to hitch along on his regular pilgrimage from the Twin Cities to Alexandria. On a cool autumn morning, I meet him in a shopping-mall parking lot in Maple Grove. He leaves his truck and folds his lean, ex-linebacker frame into the back of an aged Oldsmobile driven by his friend Darwin Ohman. I take the front seat and then, as these guys have done many times over the past decade, we cruise the two hours northwest, Ohman putting the hammer down, Wolter jawing the whole way.

“I just follow the facts, okay?” Wolter says from the back seat. “I have to be accountable. I can lose my job.”

Wolter is wearing a polo shirt courtesy of that job. It says American Petrographic Services, the St. Paul firm he’s worked for since 1990. He’s trained as a geologist—a “rock head,” as he puts it. In practice, he’s a forensic petrographer, which means he’s spent much of his 52 years peering through a microscope, mostly at concrete, to fathom what went wrong to cause structures to fail. His world is one the rest of us can’t see.

After 9/11, Wolter was asked to examine the scorched walls of the Pentagon. He once helped Las Vegas police identify a murder victim simply from the bodily impression left on the cement in which she was encased. “I testify in court all the time,” he says, “and I have yet to be on the losing side of a case. I don’t make things up for anyone.”

Often, however, Wolter’s truth contradicts everyone else’s truth. “Look at this!” he shouts as we enter Alexandria. “Viking Plaza, Viking Motel—wrong, wrong, wrong! There were never Vikings in Minnesota—the Viking age ended in 1066, hell-oo!”

We park in front of Big Ole, a 28-foot-tall Viking holding a shield that says “Alexandria: Birthplace of America.” Beneath Ole’s gaze, we stroll into the Runestone Museum. On a back wall, a fantastical mural depicts a coterie of Vikings, complete with winged helmets, standing around the countryside that begins just outside the museum. They’re carving a large rock.

Wolter walks over to a glass case in front of the mural and beams, as though visiting an old friend. Ohman stands off to the side. With his snow-white hair, his fuschia polo shirt tucked into tan shorts, Ohman looks like he just rolled in from Scottsdale on a golf cart. But he’s been coming here his whole life.

Wolter invites me to peer inside the case, like a magician pleased with his illusion: ta-da! Inside, black as dirt and big as a sled, rests the rock from the mural: the notorious Kensington Runestone.

It was Olof Ohman, Darwin Ohman’s grandfather, who came forward with the stone in 1898, claiming he and his sons were clearing land near Kensington, a few miles from Alexandria, when they found it lodged in the roots of a poplar tree. To rock-heads, the runestone is a 202-pound rectangle of Minnesota graywacke. To scholars, it’s clearly inscribed in the ancient Norse alphabet of runes, reporting the travails of Scandinavian explorers in 1362. To historians, it’s inexplicable: what would these guys have been doing in America’s heartland 130 years before Columbus?

According to the inscription, they were fishing. “Eight Götalanders and 22 Norwegians on [this] reclaiming/acquisition journey far to the west from Vinland,” reads one translation. “We had a camp by two [shelters?] one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and death. Ave Maria. Save from evil. There are 10 men by the sea to look after our ships 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362.”

To Olof Ohman, a Swedish-American farmer with a push-broom mustache and close-set eyes, the runestone was just another thing in his way. He cleaned it up and got on with his plowing until finally sending a handwritten copy of the runes to a Swedish-American newspaper in Minneapolis, asking for a translation. The discovery sparked Nordic pride and ignited Minnesotans’ obsession with Vikings. From the start, it also attracted bright men looking to make their mark.

After the initial round of examiners took it for a fake, Ohman stowed the stone in his barn. There it sat until 1907, when a Wisconsin graduate student named Hjalmar Holand asked to borrow it. Holand, a believer, became the stone’s foremost evangelist, hauling it to Europe, displaying it at the Smithsonian Institution, and, yes, making his mark: he carved a large “H,” ostensibly to test the stone’s surface, on the side of the rock. Ohman never got his stone back—it wound up in the hands of businessmen from Alexandria, who built the museum around it.

Next came Johan Holvik, a professor at Concordia University in Moorhead, who spent much of his life trying to discredit the stone. In the 1940s, shortly after Olof’s death, he persuaded the Ohman family to let him look at books in the home and discovered a tome containing a runic alphabet. It was the property of a family acquaintance who reportedly shared Ohman’s dislike of academics, so Holvik postulated that the men had collaborated on the stone as a hoax. He thought the family would be happy to hear this—after all, their clever paterfamilias had fooled everyone (except Holvik). “I am working for you and the Ohman name,” he wrote Olof’s daughter Amanda. “It would be a mistake not to believe me.”

The family refused. “Ye gods!” Holvik blasted them. “Don’t you folks care?” Holvik would push the Ohmans over the edge. Amanda, driven mad by his antagonism, hung herself in the family farmhouse.

Holvik never understood the family’s rebuff. But he was wise to question the motives of Scandinavian immigrants. By the 1890s, having heard tales of Leif Ericson’s adventuring, they were rightly certain that their forebears had discovered the New World long before Columbus, but no one else was ready to bail on the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. When the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago took Columbus’s voyage as its theme, a group of ticked-off Swedes sailed a replica longboat from the motherland to Lake Michigan and cruised menacingly just outside the exposition. The feat prompted a Swedish-American writer to publish a book that same year called The Norsemen in America, or America’s Discovery, in which he posited that there might be artifacts in the United States verifying the presence of Norse explorers. Five years later, the runestone surfaced on Ohman’s farm.

One morning in his Chanhassen home, Wolter hands me a coffee mug stamped with the slogan, “The truth is out there, way out there.” Wolter doesn’t need coffee. He was a star linebacker at the University of Minnesota–Duluth and still possesses the pantherish alertness of one used to defending his turf. In a corner of the living room sits an exercise machine, in another rests a chalky cast of
the runestone.

Wolter had never heard of the stone when, in 2000, the Runestone Museum asked him to examine it—the first plumbing of its mysteries with modern technology. “I was a runestone virgin,” he says. He told the museum, “Just give me the rock. Let it talk.”

The rock, based on Wolter’s forensic analysis of weathering patterns, told him this: the inscription was no less than 200 years old, exonerating Ohman. Wolter turned in his report and figured he’d seen the last of the artifact. But runestone aficionados began calling him. One of them was Richard Nielsen, a loquacious, bow-tie-wearing oil engineer from Houston, who had been studying the runestone on his own for years.

Early researchers, unable to find some of the runes on the stone in other ancient contexts, dismissed the carving as Ohman’s own inventive handiwork. But Nielsen, digging deeper, had found similar runes in medieval manuscripts. Intrigued, Wolter began collaborating with the elder scholar. They made an odd pair, the jock and the nerd. But, talking as much as five times a day, the men discovered mistakes in early translations of the inscription and decided some indents around the runes were intentional alphabetic marks, placing the inscription more definitively in medieval times.

By November 2000, Wolter was confident enough in his findings to present them to the wonky types attending the Joint Midwest Archaeological and Plains Anthropological Conference, held at the Radisson Hotel in St. Paul. “I was thinking, ‘This is great!’” Wolter recalls. “These people will be happy to hear what I’ve learned.” Instead, an organizer pulled him aside. “If you turn this into a circus,” the man warned him, “I’ll shut this whole thing down.” Wolter gave his talk anyway, and afterward, he says, many in the audience snidely told him, “Well, it’s a fake, dontcha know.”

Wolter grimaces. “I now know that there’s been a deliberate attempt by academics—right from the beginning—to smear the runestone,” he says. “But at the time, I was surprised and confused. And then I got pissed.”

Wolter has never been to graduate school. After college, he took up a solitary study of Lake Superior agates, a kind of therapy after his father died in a scuba-diving accident. He eventually wrote several popular guides for agate collectors and amassed a small fortune in stones. People love shiny rocks. But mostly, he realized, they love the notion of finding treasure just lying on the ground.

After getting the cold shoulder at the Radisson conference, Wolter bolstered himself for a fight. “I put my helmet on,” he told me. “I said, ‘I’m gonna know this rock better than anyone.’”  He spent two-and-a-half years studying related documents at the Minnesota Historical Society, like the affidavits signed by Ohman, his sons, and a neighbor, describing the day the stone was found. He befriended Darwin, who showed him boxes full of Olof’s personal papers, never seen by previous investigators. And, of course, Wolter gleaned all he could about runes from Richard Nielsen.

In 2003, Wolter and Nielsen hauled the stone to Sweden, where they were feted by media and greeted warmly at museums. In the evenings, they addressed packed lecture halls, declaring that Olof Ohman lacked the knowledge and motivation to carve the runes himself, and, in any case, the inscription was too old. Shortly after returning, they published their research in a weighty book, The Kensington Runestone: Compelling New Evidence.

By then, Wolter was already running down “Templar road,” as he calls it. Sparked by Nielsen’s speculation that several letters on the runestone might form a code spelling “Gral” or grail, Wolter wondered if the stone wasn’t connected to the Knights Templar—legendary protectors of the Holy Grail—last seen skulking around in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Wolter read everything he could about the shadowy religious order, which served in the Crusades before being banned by the pope. And then Wolter discovered that one of the runes, an “X” with a little hook on it, turned up on other disputed runestones found in North America and in carvings at Rosslyn Chapel, a church in Scotland made famous by The Da Vinci Code and associated with legends about the Knights Templar.

Wolter and Nielsen had already determined that the runestone inscription referred specifically to explorers from Gotland, Sweden’s largest island. So Wolter traveled there and noted what he calls Templar-like crosses inside the island’s churches. When he learned that the churches were affiliated with monks believed by some to be descended from the outlawed Knights Templar, his theory solidified: seeking religious freedom, the Swedish warrior-monks voyaged to the New World, where they eventually carved the runestone. He expounded this theory in his 2009 book, The Hooked X: Key to the Secret History of North America and again in his first History Channel documentary, Holy Grail in America, which became one of the cable network’s most-watched programs.

“I don’t know who gets to make the call, if it’s the Minnesota Historical Society, or the media, or President Obama,” Wolter says, “but in my mind the question is settled.”

Wolter credits Nielsen for pointing him in the right direction. But they didn’t collaborate on The Hooked X or the documentary. In his kitchen one day, Wolter starts to explain: “Dick and I…,” he says, before trailing off. “Well, again, more problems with the human condition. He’s now saying I’m wrong about this and I’m wrong about that. He’s renounced all this work we did together.”

On the phone from his Houston home, Nielsen asks genially, “How much do you know about me?” Then he says, “I’m 77. I speak Danish and read Norwegian, Swedish, and Old Swedish. I’m proficient in the runes. I’ve lived in Scandinavia. Scott Wolter doesn’t read any Scandinavian language. He doesn’t know any Scandinavian history. He used me, you see? He intended to do this to me from day one.”

Nielsen tells me that he began questioning Wolter’s work during their second trip to Sweden together, in 2004. Wolter had consented to an analysis by Swedish scientists of his forensic work on the runestone. At a public debate, they derided his conclusion—that the inscription had been carved at least 200 years ago—as “fantastic” and condemned his methodology as “shrouded with approximation.”

As for the notion of a grail code, Nielsen has since backed off: “I came up with that on a plane while brainstorming—I was wrong to go there.” He declined to follow Wolter down Templar road, and the pair parted ways. After their rift, he says, Wolter refused to share income from their book.

Henrik Williams, a Swedish professor known as the world’s leading runologist, had also collaborated with Wolter at one time. Now he’s fiercely critical. In a review of The Hooked X, Williams suggests that Wolter is more interested in “a good story” than evidence, and rejects his theories as “pure Dan Brown.” Last fall, Williams and Nielsen went on a lecture tour across America to, as they put it, “correct some of the recent unfounded and often sensational claims” about the runestone—a direct slap at Wolter.

At his house one day, Wolter dismisses his critics with a wave of his hand. “This is about me versus academia,” he says. “They can’t stand it that some big-mouthed American geologist, an ex-football player with only a bachelor’s degree, has figured this thing out!” Regarding the refused royalties, Wolter says he’s simply recouping his expenses, that he paid Nielsen’s share of the publishing costs by selling $40,000 worth of agates. “If I’ve done anything wrong,” Wolter says, “he can sue me.”

Wolter smiles. “This stone makes people do strange things,” he says. “Dick and Henrik are just jealous that I’m the runestone guy now. They want to be the ones who say they solved it.” He throws his hands in the air. “Listen,” he says, “the story of the runestone is not about the stone. It’s about people. Again and again and again, the ego intrudes.” Then he shouts, as he often does when talking about the runestone, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Early in the morning, Darwin Ohman pulls his Oldsmobile into the Ohman farmstead on the outskirts of Kensington and leads Wolter and me to the house. The land around here is forbidding—where it isn’t steep, it’s mucky. Only a stubborn Swede might find it rewarding. The hundred acres are now a park, and women push baby carriages past the white clapboard home where Olof Ohman and his wife raised nine children, without any idea of the wild conceptions this place has spawned.

A short drive from the house, a boulder marks the spot where Ohman dug up the runestone and, if he could have seen the future, probably would have left it. In a letter to an acquaintance, 12 years after the discovery, Ohman wrote: “The strangest rumors are circulating about this stone. The most recent is that I have brought forth the runes with black magic. I could not make the stone, nor could any other emigrant have had enough knowledge to do it.”

Ohman was certainly clever, though. Near the house is a cistern Ohman built to collect water, with a homemade charcoal filter. The Ohmans, by necessity, were terrific engineers—they could make almost anything. Most experts have been stymied by Ohman. “I cannot suggest a credible scenario for the creation of the runestone during the 1890s without implicating Olof,” Henrik Williams told me. “Yet for scientific reasons”—the use of a dialect in the runes that likely would have been foreign to Ohman—“I cannot accept that he would have been the author.”

Wolter has never doubted his theories. For a moment, standing near the farmhouse and imagining medieval men in white robes with red crosses running around these hills, he pulls back: “The Templar stuff, of course, is speculation. I think I’m right—I know I’m right—I just can’t prove it yet.” But his forensic work, he believes, is different. “Rocks don’t have agendas,” he says. “Rocks tell the truth.”

With the case closed, as far as Wolter is concerned, he’s already moved on. On the drive home from the farm, he asks me, “Have you heard of the Bat Creek Stone?” It’s another disputed artifact, found in Tennessee, that some say is a hoax and others claim, because of its paleo-Hebrew inscription, is evidence of ancient Jews in America. It will be the focus of his next television documentary. “Buckle up, baby,” Wolter tells me. “When this hits the fan, it’s going to make the runestone look like a footnote.” 

This article has been revised to reflect the following change: The original “Runestone Cowboy” article contained recollections of the events that resulted in the removal of Dr. Henrik Williams’ photograph from the Runestone Museum. Since publication of the original article, Dr. Williams and several professional colleagues have contacted Minnesota Monthly regarding their recollection of those same events. Given the disparity between the recollections of persons present at the time, the paragraph describing those events has been removed from the online version of story.

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.