The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE DIGHTON WRITING ROCK.
Some remarkable monuments and inscriptions have been found on the eastern shores of North America, which bear testimony to the voyages and settlements recorded in the preceding narratives, and complete the, mass of evidence that has been so ably brought forward by Professor Rafn, upon this interesting subject. The Rhode Island Historical Society have applied themselves to the examination of these remains, with a degree of zeal and ability worthy of the occasion, and details of high interest and value have been made known to the corresponding Danish members, through the medium of the distinguished American secretary, Dr. Webb. From these communications it appears that in the western part
of the county of Bristol in the State of Massachusetts may still be seen numerous and extensive mounds, similar to the tumuli that are so often met with in Scandinavia, Tartary, and Russia; "also the remains of fortifications that must have required for their construction a degree of industry, labour, and skill, as well as an advancement in the arts, that never characterized any of the Indian tribes. Various articles of pottery are found in them, with the method of manufacturing which they were entirely unacquainted. But above all, many rocks, inscribed with unknown characters, apparently of very ancient origin, have been discovered scattered through different parts of the country: rocks, the constituent parts of which are such as to render it almost impossible to engrave on them such writings without the aid of iron, or other hard metallic instrument. The Indians were ignorant of the existence of these rocks; and the manner of working with iron they learned from the Europeans, after the settlement of the country by the English."
Of such remains, the most important that has yet been discovered is the Assonet rock, or "Dighton writing rock," which is thus described in the Report of a Committee that was appointed by the Rhode Island Historical Society, to examine and report upon this remarkable stone, and who visited it in the month of February, 1830--
"It is situated six and a half miles south of Taunton, on the east side of Taunton river, a few feet from the shore, and on the west side of Assonet neck, in the town of Berkely, county of Bristol, and Commonwealth of
[paragraph continues] Massachusetts; although, probably from the fact of its being generally visited from the other side of the river, which is in Dighton, it has always been known by the name of the 'Dighton Writing Rock.' It faces northwest, towards the bed of the river, and is covered by the water two or three feet at the highest, and is left ten or twelve feet from it at the lowest tides: it is also completely immersed twice in twenty-four hours. The rock does not occur in situ, but shews indubitable evidence of having occupied the spot where it now rests, since the period of that great and extensive disruption, which was followed by the transportation of immense boulders to, and a deposit of them in places at a vast distance from their original beds. It is a mass of well characterized fine grained greywacke. Its true colour, as exhibited by a fresh fracture, is a bluish grey. There is no rock in the immediate neighbourhood that would at all answer as a substitute for the purpose for which the one bearing the inscription was selected, as they are aggregates of the large conglomerate variety. Its face, measured at the base, is eleven feet and a half; and in height, it is a little rising five feet. The upper surface forms, with the horizon, an inclined plane of about sixty degrees. The whole of the face is covered, to, within a few inches of the ground, with unknown hieroglyphics. There appears little or no method in the arrangement of them. The lines are from half an inch to an inch in width; and in depth sometimes one-third of an inch, though generally very superficial. They were, inferring from the rounded elevations, and intervening depressions, picked
in upon the rock, and not chiselled or smoothly cut out. The marks of human power, and manual labour are indelibly stamped upon it. No one who examines attentively the workmanship, will believe it to have been done by the Indians. Moreover, it is a well attested fact, that nowhere, throughout our wide-spread domain, is there a single instance of their recording, or having recorded, their deeds or history on stone."
This remarkable monument had long been an object of interest to American antiquaries, and several drawings and examinations were made of the rock and inscription, at various periods, beginning in the year 1680, but without any satisfactory result; and it remained for Professors Finn Magnusen and Rafn to shew that the whole was a Runic inscription, containing various cryptographs, and rude combinations of figures illustrative of the settlements of the Northmen, among which devices may be yet traced the name of THORFINN, and the figures CXXXI. being the number of Karlsefni's associates (151), 1 which after the departure of Thorhall, accompanied him to Hope. 2
A perspective representation of this remarkable rock, together with fac-similes of the several drawings that have been made of the inscription, ending with the most recent and accurate, made by the Committee of the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1830, are appended to the Antiquitates Americanæ; and the analogy between these and inscriptions which have been found both in Sweden and Iceland is shewn by contiguous representations of the Scandinavian remains. The same plate contains also the delineation of a curious fragment of metallic tessera, found near Dublin, upon which is inscribed a monogram similar to that seen upon the Assonet Rock, as well as the Runic letter Þ (th), shewing the Scandinavian origin of the fragment, which may be ascribed to the 9th or 10th century.
The Rhode Island Historical Society have also forwarded to Professor Rafn descriptions and delineations of several other remains which bear a striking analogy to that at Dighton; among these the Portsmouth and Tiverton Rocks form interesting subjects for examination and comparison. 1
BUT traces of the adventurous spirit, and early voyages of the Northmen are to be found in much higher, and far less inviting latitudes, shewing the progress of their course through regions, which even in the present age of high scientific advancement, and maritime enterprise, have tested, and not unfrequently baffled the skill and hardihood of our most distinguished navigators.
In the year 1824, a remarkable Runic stone was found upon the island of Kingiktorsoak, lying in 72° 55' north latitude and 56° 5' west longitude.
The following is a representation of this remarkable monument which was transported to Copenhagen, and found on examination, to present a complete inscription in Runic characters:--
which in modern Icelandic orthography would run thus --
ELLIGR · SIGVATHS: SON : R · OK : BJANNE : TORTARSON : OK : ENRITHI · ODSSON : LAUKARDAK : IN : FYRIRGAKNDAG HLOTHU ·VARDATE ·OKRYDU :MCXXXV.
Erling Sighvatsson and Biarni Thordarsson, and Eindrid Oddsson, on the seventh day, 1 before the day of Victory, 2 erected these stones, and explored. MCXXXV.
Some doubts have been expressed by Runic scholars as to the signification of the characters representing the date, but the peculiar formation of the Runes, and other unerring indications shew that the inscription cannot be later than the 12th century.
It appears from various Icelandic documents given in Professor Rafn's work, that the Northmen had two principal stations in the Arctic regions, the one called Greipar, lying immediately south of the island of Disco, in Davis' Straits, and the other called Kroksfjardarheidi, situated on the north-side of Lancaster's sound. Their general name for these regions was Nordrsetur, to which vessels were dispatched from Greenland for the purpose of carrying on the operations of hunting and fishing. But voyages of discovery were also made in this direction; and a clear account of such an expedition, undertaken in the year 1266, follows the narratives which have been given in the preceding pages. It is contained in a letter addressed by a clergyman named Halldor, to a brother ecclesiastic named Arnold, who, after having lived in Greenland, had become chaplain to king Magnus Lagabæter in Norway; and the voyage appears to have been made under the auspices of some clergymen of the
[paragraph continues] Bishopric of Gardar in Greenland. The object of the expedition is stated to have been, to explore regions lying more to the northward than those which they had been hitherto accustomed to frequent, consequently further north than Lancaster's sound. They sailed from Kroksfjardarheidi, but meeting with southerly winds, and thick weather, were obliged to let the vessel run before the wind; on the fogs clearing off they described several islands, and saw many seals, whales, and bears. They penetrated into the innermost part of the gulf, and saw icebergs lying to the southward, as far as the eye could reach; they observed traces of the Skrælings having inhabited these regions in former times, but were unable to land, in consequence of the bears. They, therefore, went about, and sailed back for three days, when they again found traces of the Esquimaux, upon some islands lying to the southward of a mountain, which they call Snæfell. After this, on St. James's Day (25th July), they proceeded southwards, a long day's rowing (einn mikin dagrodr). It froze during the night, but the sun was above the horizon both night and day; and "it was not higher when on the meridian than that when a man lay across a six oared boat, towards the gunwale, the shade of that side of the boat which was nearest the sun fell on his face; but at midnight was it as high as at home in the settlement, when it is in the northwest." The expedition afterwards returned to Gardar.
These observations are of course very loose and uncertain; the relative depth of the man's position with regard to the gunwale of the boat, would be necessary in
Click to enlarge
General Chart Exhibiting Discoveries of the Northmen in the Arctic Regions And America
order to be able to make anything of the first observation, and the result of the other can only be deduced by presuming the day of the summer solstice to bc implied. This, however, is not an unreasonable supposition, more particularly when we find so many other circumstances corroborative of the locality which is thence determined, and Professor Rafn, proceeding upon this assumption, draws out the following result:--
"In the 13th century, on the 25th July, the Sun's declination was 17° 54' North Inclination of the Ecliptic, 23° 32'."
If we now assume that the colony, and particularly the episcopal seat of Gardar, was situated on the north side of Igaliko frith, where the ruins of a large church, and of many other buildings, indicate the site of a principal settlement of the ancient colony, consequently in 60° 55' N. lat. then at the summer solstice, the height of the sun there, when in the N. W. was 3° 40', which is equivalent to the midnight altitude of the sun on St. James's day (25th July) in the parallel of 75° 46'." Now the parallel of 75° 46' north latitude, would fall to the northward of Wellington Channel, the highest latitude reached by Parry in his most favourable expedition in search of a North-west passage; and the description of the land seen, and objects met with on the voyage, corresponds well with the characteristics of these regions, as given by the distinguished English navigator. The Northmen sail from Kroksfjardarheidi, a name implying a frith bounded by barren highlands (heidi), and known to be
on the north side of Lancaster's sound; this frith must have been of considerable extent, as three days sailing are specifically mentioned in that part of the narrative describing their return;--they descry several islands, and meet with many seals, whales, and bears;--they see icebergs lying to the southward, as far as the eye can reach;--they observe traces of the Esquimaux (Skrælings) in various directions; the sun was above the horizon both night and day, and although in the month of July, it froze during the night. There is little doubt, therefore, that these early explorers of the arctic regions, starting from Lancaster's sound, were driven through Barrow's straits, and Wellington Channel, into the Polar sea, from whence they saw the North Georgian Islands, and where they naturally fell in with a multitude of seals, whales, and bears.
It is a startling conclusion, and somewhat mortifying to national pride, to find that these simple navigators of the 13th century, in their humble barks, rivalled the most distinguished arctic explorers of the present day; but however unwilling we may be to admit the evidence of a progress in maritime discovery, which tends to dim the lustre of our own enterprising age, the simple documents in support of these early voyages carry a degree of conviction to the mind which disarms scepticism, and compels us to admit their credibility.
It is a great mistake, however, to suppose that the Northmen of this period were altogether ignorant of astronomical science, and still greater, as some writers have done, to confound them with the Vikings or Pirates
of a more barbarous age. The discoverers of America were Merchants, their ships were called trading ships [Kaupskip]; sea-roving had been almost altogether discontinued by the Northmen before the voyages of Bjarne Herjulfson and the descendants of Erik; and all the expeditions which are related in these Sagas were undertaken either for the purposes of discovering new countries, or making settlements in, or trading with, countries that had been already discovered. In the ancient Icelandic work called Rimbegla, which has been before quoted, many rules are given for the measurement of time, the study of astronomy, geometry, etc., and although these are probably translations or compilations from foreign works, they correspond with what the Icelandic clergy taught their people, after the introduction of Christianity. Among these are found scientific rules for finding the course of the sun, moon, and stars, also the division of time thereon depending; information respecting the astronomical quadrant, and its proper use; different methods for ascertaining the spherical figure of the earth; the longitude and latitude of places, and of calculating their distances from each other; the sun's declination; the earth's magnitude and circumference, the times when the ocean could best be navigated, etc.
Early in the eleventh century (1018-1026) the rich chieftain Raudulf, of Oesterdal, in Norway, taught his son Sigurd the science of computing the course of the sun and moon, and other visible celestial bodies, and particularly to know the stars which mark the lapse of time, that he might be able to ascertain the time both by
day and by night, when neither the sun nor moon was visible. Even in heathen times we have similar accounts of Icelandic chieftains and their sons, nay even of simple peasants, who paid sedulous attention to the motions of the heavenly bodies, in order from thence to ascertain the true lapse of time; also of their belief in astrology, which was intimately connected with old Scandinavian mythology. Olaus Magnus said that in his time (about 1520) it was generally acknowledged in Sweden that the common people in ancient times had more knowledge of the stars than they possessed in his days.
Some idea may be formed of the character and acquirements of the Scandinavian merchants in the 11th and 12th centuries from the Speculum Regale, a work written in the latter period. Here the merchant is exhorted to make himself acquainted with the laws of all countries, especially those regarding commerce and navigation, as well as with foreign languages, particularly the Italian and Latin, which were then in more general use. He was also enjoined to obtain a complete knowledge of the places and motions of the heavenly bodies, the times of the day, the division of the horizon according to the cardinal and minor points, the movement of the sea, the climates, the seasons best adapted for navigation, the equipping and rigging of vessels, arithmetical calculation, etc. Moreover, to distinguish himself by a becoming and decorous way of living, both as to moral conduct, manners, and attire, etc.: and thus it may be safely inferred that the better educated of the northern merchants in the tenth and eleventh centuries were not so inferior
to their southern neighbours, as may be generally supposed.
The extended voyages and commercial intercourse of the Northmen must have also contributed to the amelioration of their habits and character. From the 8th to the 11th centuries they carried on a more active commerce, and a more extensive maritime communication with foreign countries than any other nation in Europe. Such intercourse appears quite incompatible with that extreme degree of ignorance and barbarity in which so many writers would clothe all their actions and enterprises. England, Ireland, Italy, Sicily, France, Spain--were visited by these daring adventurers; true, in the character, and with the spirit, for the most part, of reckless invaders, but that they should have continued to return from such enterprises without exhibiting some modification of that ferocity, which might be expected to yield to the salutary influence of association with more civilized countries, seems scarcely credible. Their long continued intercourse of more than 200 years, with Ireland alone, a country which in the 8th century enjoyed a European reputation for intellectual eminence, 1 cannot but have had a beneficial influence upon their character and habits, and we should receive with caution all statements
upon a subject to which national or religious feeling is likely to have given an exaggerated colouring. Our knowledge of the excesses of the northern invaders is chiefly derived from the evidence of monkish chroniclers, whose Christian faith and feelings were no less outraged by the deeds than the infidelity of the Pagan ravagers, and who, writing in many cases long after the events, would naturally aid defective evidence with a fervid zeal and fertile imagination. The particular periods, also, and tribes to which this brutal ferocity of the Northmen is referred, should he more clearly distinguished. The peaceful Norwegian settlers in Iceland, for instance, in the 9th century were very different from those fierce invaders, who, in the same age, shook the kingdoms of Edmund and of Alfred to their centre, and committed barbarities which have called forth the just animadversions of the distinguished historian of the Anglo-Saxons. Flying from the despotic rule of Harald Haarfager, the Norwegian emigrants sought peace and freedom in a remote and sterile island, where the labours of the field, and the trading intercourse necessary to their isolated position were relieved by the relaxation of innocent domestic reunions, and intellectual pursuits; and although some ardent spirit, greedy of fame or plunder, or stimulated by the more honourable ambition of acquiring knowledge and experience by intercourse with foreign lands, might occasionally join the fierce band of the reckless viking, the voyages of the Icelandic Northmen were almost exclusively confined to trade, or discovery, or the formation of peaceful settlements on those
shores, which their own enterprise, perseverance, and skill had opened to their connection.
It may, perhaps, be urged in disparagement of the early voyagers in the Polar Seas, that the seasons were then more favourable to arctic discoveries than they have been in later ages, and that therefore the difficulties encountered by modern navigators were unknown to their predecessors; but the popular belief of a milder and more genial climate having formerly prevailed in Europe, is not supported by any satisfactory evidence: indeed the opinions of scientific enquirers would lead to a directly opposite conclusion, and there is, at least, every reason to believe that the periodical changes, which so often call forth complaints, and retrospective comparisons from the aged and infirm, respecting the altered condition of the seasons in the present day, were not less frequent or severe in those favoured periods on which their praises are bestowed.
The supposed settlement on the eastern coast of Greenland (Eystribygd), now nearly inaccessible, has tended to give currency to the popular notion of a less rigorous climate prevailing in those regions, at the period of the Icelandic emigration to that coast, but the able and arduous investigation of Captain Graah has dispelled that illusion, and there is now little doubt that the so called eastern settlement extended little further than the southeastern point of the Greenland coast, the chief and almost only habitations being seated upon the western shore. Of their remains Captain Graah has given highly interesting and minute descriptions, enabling us from these
and more recent examinations of several localities on the west coast of Greenland, to trace the vestiges of the old colonies from the most southern fjord at Cape Farewell, up to the neighbourhood of Holsteinborg.
242:1 Twelve decades being reckoned to the hundred, hence, called by the Icelanders and Scandinavians stort hundrad (great hundred). Antiq. Amer. p. 385, ante, p. 88, note *.
242:2 See ante, p. 93. Professor Rafn has gone into an elaborate dissertation upon this inscription, proving by unanswerable arguments its Scandinavian origin. (Antiq. Amer. p. 378, seq.) In this he is fully borne out by the eminent Runologist Finn Magnusen, who shews that the whole of the apparently unmeaning hieroglyphics are illustrative of the Icelandic settlement in Hope:--The well known Runic letter Þ (Th) on the left hand, at once stamps its Scandinavian or Icelandic origin; the combined letters which follow the numerals may be decyphered N. M. the initials of norronir menn (Northmen); the devices above this, represent the shields (p. 95), under which lies a helmet reversed, indicative of peace. The figure below the name may be intended for a bullock, or some domestic animal, illustrative of their daily pursuits,--the outline of a ship is blended with these;--the figures of Gudrid and her child Snorri appear on the right; Karlsefni, protected by a shield from the attacks of the Skrellings, upon the left, while the bows, and missiles of their assailants, more particularly the large ball p. 243 mentioned on page 98, are clearly discernible. Altogether the analogy which this inscription presents to those upon well known Runic monuments--the facility with which the various devices may be made to apply to the incidents and circumstances connected with the Icelandic settlement, and the distinct Roman or Latin letters which form the numerals--leave no reasonable doubt as to its being the work of the Northmen.
243:1 Since the publication of the Antiquitates Americanæ, a still further addition to American monuments has been discovered in the neighborhood of Bahia, as appears from a communication made to the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries by Dr. Lund, one of its members, residing at Lagoa Santa in Brazil:--It appears, on the authority of a Journal published by a Society lately established at Rio Janeiro, under the name of Instituto Historico Braziliero, that the remains of an ancient city, built of hewn stone, have been recently discovered in the neighborhood of Bahia, and that Professor Schuck, one of the members of the Institution, guided by Professor Rafn's work, has deduced from the inscriptions, the Scandinavian origin of these remains. Among the ruins is stated to be a huge column, bearing a remarkable figure, which stretches out the right hand, and points with the fore-finger towards the north pole.
245:1 Saturday, Dies Saturni.
245:2 A festival kept by the Northmen previous to the 12th century; it fell on the 25th of April.
251:1 "In the 8th century, indeed, the high reputation of the Irish for scholarship had become established throughout Europe." Moore, Vol. I, p. 289. "As Druidism fell into disrepute, Christian seminaries multiplied . . . Soon after the first foundation, we read of a most noble city and Seminary founded at Clonard near the Boyne. In the days of St. Finanus, A. D. 500, we it sic to contain no less than 3000 scholars, among whom were some of the first eminence for piety and learning. Colgan calls it a repository of all knowledge. . . . About the same time, the academy of Ross, called Ross-Ailithri, in the county of Cork, was formed by St. Fachanus, as Ware notes, and Hanmer, in his Chronicle, tells us that here St. Brandan taught the liberal arts. . . . The schools of Clonfert, Bangor, Rathene, Cashel, etc., were not less remarkable . . . ."