Thorvald's Tombstone is a Hoax
We called Iceland to crush the
Thorvald's Rock in Hampton is a fake. The famous old rock never marked the grave of Thorval, brother of Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and son of Erik the Red. For a century now local historians and reporters have tiptoed around the truth. I'm compelled to be a little bolder -- and simply call a stone a stone. One good hoax, however, can tell us more about human nature than a boatload of facts.
The rock sits today on the campus of Hampton's Tuck Museum, just across the street from a lot more rocks in Founder's Park. It is encased in a concrete well beneath a row of iron bars to protect the famous stone from pickaxe-wielding tourists. Thorval's monument is not quite as pitiful a sight as Plymouth Rock where the Pilgrims didn't land in Massachusetts. The faint gouges on the surface of the stone are likely manmade, maybe even old. Early in the 20th century some scholar said they might indeed be ancient runes, letters from the Viking alphabet. That report made its way into a lot of tourist brochures, books and magazine articles. What didn't get reported is that most scholars since say the claim that Thorvald was buried near Boar's Head, New Hampshire in 1004 AD is hogwash. Truth, however, has a lousy press agent.
I'm picking on Thorvald's Rock this week because the real Vikings are on their way. They arrive soon at Portsmouth in a 75-foot longboat during an epic journey from Iceland to the New World. The Icelander is a replica of a Viking ship from 870 AD. The journey is a millennium celebration of Leif Eriksson's visit to this region in 1,000 AD. The current crew of 13 has braved harsh weather, ravenous insects and killer whales to remind us that Columbus was a Johnny-Come-Lately.
Scholars almost universally agree that Vikings were the first Europeans to colonize North America, a place they called Vinland. They traveled in open boats with a central blazing fire pit, livestock and dozens of oarsmen through impossible seas. From Russia to Great Britain, past Iceland and Greenland they came. Exactly where in America they landed is the question. Vinland, researchers tell us, was likely Nova Scotia, maybe Quebec and as far south as New York City.
Everybody, it seems, wants to get into the Viking act. Claims of Viking artifacts have come from across the United States and as far south as Florida. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts, my cousins and I used to play in a "Viking" cave. At least that's what grown-ups said it was. This underground stone igloo was probably a colonial root cellar, but not to us. Being a Viking, especially for a blonde little kid, was a license to commit mayhem. None of us ever wanted to be Pilgrims.
That's likely how Hampton district court judge Charles A. Lamprey felt when, as a child, he heard stirring tales of brave and ferocious Vikings. The legend of Thorvald especially intrigued him. According to the saga, Thorvald was retracing his brother's discovery of Vinland when he found a stunning rock outcropping that reminded him of the fiords back home. Those rocks, Lamprey reasoned, must be Boar's Head New Hampshire, not far from Hampton Beach. According to the saga, Thorvald and his men came ashore and found three canoes owned by "skerlings" or Native Americans. The Vikings slaughtered eight Indians, then were pursued back to their longboat. In the ensuing sea battle, Thorvald took an arrow in the armpit and, dying, requested to be buried ashore with a cross at his head and a cross at his feet.
On July 4, 1902 Lamprey submitted a piece to the local Hampton newspaper explaining his theory about Thorvald's death site. As proof of his claim, he pointed to markings on an old stone that had been on his family's land since the mid 1600s. The land, now Surfside Park just shy of Boar's Head, was also being considered for development into beach cottages. The colonists had called the amazing stone Witch's Rock and Indian legends reported the stone marked the grave of a white god. No evidence was offered for these legends besides the mysterious markings themselves.
Watch closely now, because this is how history is born. Without a shred of proof, other publications picked up the tale of the Hampton judge's Norse Boulder. A developer wanted to build a park around the rock and charge admission to the growing number of Hampton Beach tourists. New housing cropped up on what is now Thorvald Ave., just shy of Viking Road. Seacoast real estate prices began to climb. Hampton's "rock star" got a public relations boost in the mid-Thirties when a group of local citizens decided to do a little amateur excavation. According to local legend as later reported in the Hampton Union, the diggers were about to unearth the boulder. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the rock, "wrenching the tools from the volunteers' hands and cause a general retreat."
The Viking boulder was featured, along with Hampton "witch" Goody Cole, in the old town's 300th anniversary guide book in 1938. In 1948 a runic expert, Olaf Strandwold, said he could read a message in the rock and listed it among a catalog of Norse artifacts in North America. New Hampshire writer Eva Speare popularized it in her books of Granite State lore. Yale scholars suddenly came up with a medieval map, still a source of great controversy, that identified the continent of Vinland. The legend was unstoppable. If Thorvald wasn't buried in this tourist town, he should have been.
History is as much about fame as fact. Write and talk about something a lot and it becomes famous. Write and talk about something famous long enough, and it becomes historic. By the 50's it had been moved to make way for a sewer main for a housing site. Now it was an endangered rock. Tourists began chipping off pieces for souvenirs. A Massachusetts man attempted to carry the whole thing away in a truck. In 1973 local amateur archeologists searched for Thorvald's burial remains and came up empty. Finally, in 1989 Thorvald's Rock was moved to the Tuck Museum where I visited it last week.
Members of the Hampton Historical Society that run the wonderful little museum have begun to soft pedal the Viking story in favor of authentic facts about this amazing old puritan town.
"It's a fake," says Elizabeth Ackroyd, head of the museum's collections committee. "You know that don't you? Apparently Mr. Lamprey thought this up on his own. Various people have looked at it since, and you can safely say they did not come away impressed."
Despite the vivid imaginations of Hampton real estate agents and beach promoters, it seems unlikely that Thorvald died on the smallest strip of seacoast in the Americas. It seems even less likely that, in the midst of a hostile Indian attack, his crewmen would take the time to carve a farewell message onto a stone. And let's not forget that Boar's Head, scientists estimate, has eroded some 300 feet back from the Atlantic Ocean in the last millennium. Still the nagging question remains -- how far south did those darned Vikings come?
In a last ditch effort to crush the Thorvald tale forever, I called the publicist of the visiting replica ship Icelander. Magnus Bjarnason, Icelandic Consulate General, is coordinator of the millennium visit. The Icelandic sagas, he says, have proven to be very accurate historical documents. That points to the likelihood that their discovery of Vinland is also factual. But how far south? Deferring the question to a higher authority, Mr. Bjarnason passed on the phone number of Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson, the Icelandic Ambassador to the United States. I placed the call to Washington, DC.
"You want to ask the ambassador if Leif Eriksson's brother is buried in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire?" Mr. Hannibalsson's secretary seemed dubious, but admitted that the ambassador is fascinated by history, and put me through.
"History is the national past-time in Iceland," the ambassador told me enthusiastically. "Everybody has a genealogy to the year 1,000 AD and beyond." The surprise of the Icelander cruise to date, the ambassador said, is how incredibly popular Viking history is proving to be among Americans. If half the people who have requested travel information on Iceland actually visit the island nation, he noted, there won't be room to accommodate them all. A concurrent Viking exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, he said, has drawn a million visitors a month since it opened.
I explained about our Viking rock in Hampton and noted that, although fake, Icelanders should take it as a compliment. Thousands of Americans appear to be obsessed by Vikings, we agreed. I tried to pin him down as to how far south he thought the Vikings traveled, but an ambassador is a politician after all.
"You should talk to Pall Bergthorsson," Ambassador Hannibalsson said, and so I found myself dialing the author of the new book, "The Vinland Millennium." I reached the 77-year old scientist at his home in Iceland and repeated my theory of the fake Viking grave stone. This whole quest for knowledge, along with my phone bill, was taking on epic proportions. But I was pleased when the scholar agreed with my theory on general principles.
"I cannot see that it is likely that Thorvlad went so far as to Hampton Beach," Bergthorsson said, and I believe he was smiling. He agreed that the carving of a rune stone under the threat of Indian attack was also unlikely. Hastily fashioned wooden crosses, he said, would have been more appropriate burial markers -- and long since washed away. The author says it is unlikely Leif's brother came this far south in such an early voyage -- and he has his own theory of Thorvald's grave site.
"I think I have found this place traveling around in Nova Scotia that matches the saga on the east coast of Cape Breton Island. The saga leads me to this," he says.
There is hope for Hampton. Pall Bergthorsson is convinced that Vikings may have passed by New Hampshire shores in other later voyages, however. A Viking coin from the appropriate era was recovered at nearby Penobscot Bay in Maine. He feels certain that the first millennium explorers found their way to New York City too, landing in Brooklyn. The first American child born of European parents, he believes, was a first millenium Viking girl, not a Pilgrim.
But it's time to put this saga to rest. The only authentic thing named Thorvald in Hampton is a little street off Surfside Park. But do not mourn, brave Seacoast tourists. Hampton may have lost a Viking gravestone, but it has regained a good-sized boulder in the bargain.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Viking and Thorvald's Rock Links
Viking Ship Spotted in Portsmouth!
Did Vikings Visit Hampton?
Vikings: The North American Saga
The Viking Longship
The Vinland Map Links
The Kensington Rune Stone
New Age Viking Rune Sites
Own Your Own Viking Tent
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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