August 10, 2020

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Viking artifacts proved divisive

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/10/2018 (674 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For centuries, the mention of Vinland in the Norse sagas had fired the imaginations of researchers and historians. The stories told of great adventures to the West, centuries before the earliest European explorers arrived.

In the early 1930s, James (Eddy) Dodd, a prospector working near Beardmore, Ont., said he found a broken Viking sword and an axe head after blasting a tree stump from the ground. Some thought they were undeniable proof Vikings had travelled through the Great Lakes and into the heart of the continent. These relics were considered one of the greatest North American archeological finds — until they weren’t.

In Beardmore: The Viking Hoax That Rewrote History, Canadian historian Douglas Hunter looks of one of archeology’s most complex hoaxes. While an interesting topic supported by impeccable research, the information is dense, overly detailed and complicated, making it a challenging read.

"The Beardmore scandal had something of the quality of a runaway train, answerable only to its irresistible momentum, impossible to stop once it had gathered a sufficient head of steam," Hunter wrote.

"But the fact was that the people could have stopped it had no interest in doing so, or at least believed it could not be stopped unless they threw themselves under its wheels."

Dodd showed his findings to many, but few took his claims seriously — that is, until word reached Charles Currelly, head of the Royal Ontario Museum. Currelly purchased the items, which were deemed authentic, then set out to confirm their provenance.

But more and more people were noticing inconsistencies and problems. One of those was high school teacher Teddy Elliot, who initially believed Dodd and brought the items to Currelly’s attention. He later suspected it might be a hoax and began to compile evidence to the contrary. Another doubter was Thomas Tanton, a geologist who had mapped the area where Dodd said he had found his relics.

However, the extensive cast of characters on both sides of the issue further muddied the waters. Hunter examines the implications of social class, power struggles and professional infighting on the fight to prove the find real or a hoax. Those with power and influence (such as Currelly) were believed easily and often, while those without had to work twice as hard to prove their ideas and research.

Some of the advocates came up with even wilder stories based on the three worn pieces of metal. One was that the wandering Norse warriors had been absorbed into the local Indigenous populations, the racist and colonial undertones being that the European genes somehow "improved" Indigenous bloodlines.

In the mid-1950s, the find was finally disproven and the case closed. Most of those involved continued on with their careers while others faded from the limelight.

History is never clean and simple, and Beardmore: The Viking Hoax That Rewrote History proves it. While well-written and deeply researched, the sheer number of characters, the complex nature of the hoax and the vast amount of information is daunting in a popular history.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

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