Feature

The Great Narragansett Rune Stone Debate

Decoding the message of North Kingtown’s mysterious rock

So Rhode Island Magazine ·

There are famous rocks all over the world: Plymouth Rock, the Rock of Gibraltar and WWE’s wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. What they have in common is that they are solid, are nice to look at and have great back-stories.

South County has its own rock legend: The Narragansett Rune Stone. This seven-foot-long by five-foot-high stone has two rows of Runic letters on it, and it is unclear where the markings came from. Traditionally, a rune stone is a large stone marked with Runic symbols, typically of Scandinavian origin. The Narragansett rune stone’s widely accepted story starts with a quahogger discovering it off of Pojac Point in December of 1984. Many came to the conclusion that the inscriptions were of Nordic origin. Nevertheless, wherever it came from and whoever carved it is still up for debate.

After going missing in the summer of 2012 when an irate property owner sunk it somewhere in Narragansett Bay to ward off curious rune stone visitors, it was recovered in the summer of 2013, stored at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, and finally found a permanent home in Wickford’s Old Library Park this past October.

“The Old Library Park was chosen because it is a very secure location, which is attractive and adjacent to convenient parking,” says Wickford Town Historian G. Tim Cranston who helps out town elected officials and staff with history questions. He also helps any town residents or visitors with any questions that they might have. “Wickford is one of the state’s premier historic locations and is a natural choice for the stone’s new home. The rune stone is attractive to people because of the mystery surrounding it and all the incredible ‘what if’ possibilities that it possesses.”

Although the rune stone was first discovered in the tidal zone in 1984, aerial photographs show that it was once on land. A 2012 report by the Coastal Resources Management Council shows that in 1939 the stone was upland, most likely buried and subject to the effects of the elements like freezing and thawing. This means that the original location of the stone was not in the tidal zone. Since Pojac Point has taken significant storm damage over the years, by 1975 the surrounding land had eroded, and the stone became subject to tidal effect.

Over the years, there have been many attempts at translating the two lines of text on the stone, dating the stone and establishing who carved it. In 1986, Paul Chapman posits a translation for the suspected Norse carvings in the New England Antiquities Research Association (REARA) Journal to be roughly “(Beware), in this area are terrible bears.” According to him, this inscription would make sense, seeing as bears were historically in this area, and a threat to humans.

In spring of 1991, Suzanne O. Carlson reconsiders the rune stone in her REARA Journal article, mentioning that O.G. Landsverk, author of Runic Records of the Norsemen in North America came to the conclusion that the “inscription appears to be a genuine Norse Runic carving. [However], I have been unable to find a hidden date in your inscription. It is my belief that it was carved by someone who tried to imitate similar runic inscriptions which do not have concealed dates.” Suzanne comes to the conclusion that there are pros, cons, unknowns and conclusive evidence for and against the authenticity of the stone. She also translates the carvings and comes up with the word Skraumligr, which means something akin to “in a screaming state river,” or “screaming river.”

In 2010, the mystery of the rune stone piqued the interest of an engineer by the name of Valdimar Samuelsonn. According to the research he’s done, he thinks there’s a strong possibility that some of the New England rune stones – yes there are more than one – have Icelandic origin. Suzanne’s translation of the Narragansett rune stone correlates with an Icelandic river named Skraumligr, which “comes down from a steep mountain valley into a narrow canyon.” In the springtime during snow melt or heavy rains, the water apparently gushes out of the canyon, which would make the translation of a screaming river accurate. This leads Vladimar to think that the scribe of the Narragansett rune stone could have come from the vicinity of the Skraumigr river in Iceland.

A man by the name of Everett C. Brown Jr. even claimed that as a teenage boy he carved the rune stone in 1964. Everett’s family vacationed at Pojac Point, and he asserts that during the summer of 1964, and only during low tide, he used a sledgehammer and an awl or punch to carve Runic characters that he had read about in an encyclopedia into the stone. He also contends that he was trying to spell out the Viking word for “Indians” phonetically. A criminal investigation performed by the RI Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Law Enforcement produced an alternative story. Former residents of the area came forward to speak out against this claim, citing that they have seen the markings prior to the alleged carvings by Everett.

“I’m interested in [the rune stone] because I do believe that Europeans came to the new world earlier than we generally think and this stone may be proof positive of that possibility,” says Tim. “If it is indeed a marker from Icelandic or Norse explorers, it really helps to rewrite history in some respects. Folks should come by and not only see the rune stone and decide for themselves what it might be, they should also check out historic Wickford. Lots of people have spoken to me over the last few months about new and intriguing methods to date the stone’s carvings. So lets hope someone comes up with a way to clear up some of the mystery.”

Imagine the possibility of Nordic explorers coming to North Kingstown long before anyone thought possible. Instead of Columbus Day, perhaps we’ll start celebrating a new discovery day. We’ll never know, however, until the Narragansett rune stone can be conclusively dated and a translation be given that multiple sources can agree upon. 

This story was originally posted by So Rhode Island Magazine. Click here to view the original story in its entirety.

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