A planned expedition to recover a mysterious rune stone on Noman's Land reportedly inscribed with the name of famous Viking Leif Eriksson has hit a snag. The state historical commission questions the plan and the Chilmark historical commission has recommended against removal of the stone.
Led by John Alden of the Historical Maritime Group of New England and dive and salvage expert H. Arnold Carr, the expedition team wants to travel to Noman's to recover and then study the rock. They then plan to donate the rock to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, where it would be placed on public display.
The rock is reportedly on the south slope of Noman's Land and almost entirely under water.
The rock has an inscription about 5 to 10 centimeters long made up of Latin letters and numerals that has been translated to say "Liif Iriksson MI (the roman numeral for the year 1001)" from the first two lines. Some have speculated that the third line is the word Vinland, a reference to a mythical land in Viking history reputed to be a long-lost civilization somewhere in North America.
While some believe the rune stone is proof the Vikings - perhaps even Leif Eriksson himself - visited the Vineyard nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus and 600 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, others have dismissed it as a hoax.
Either way, the stone is likely the most talked about and debated rock in the history of the Vineyard. Scholars from across the country have debated its authenticity since it was first discovered by Joshua Crane, the former owner of Noman's, back in 1926.
Many scholars say it is highly unlikely that an engraving could withstand the constant wave action and erosion of the ocean; the same scholars also point out that Roman numerals were not used to depict dates until the 14th or 15th centuries in Scandinavia.
But other scholars have suggested the Vikings left their marker on the highest possible point, and suggest that the stone slid down a nearby 10-meter bluff on Noman's southern shore around the year 1875. The rock then would only have been part of the surf zone for about 100 years.
When the group seeking to recover the rock filed an application earlier this year with the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, the rock again became the center of controversy.
Brona Simon, a state historic preservation officer for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, sent a letter to Mr. Alden earlier this month raising a number of concerns. Although Ms. Simon does not formally recommend against the expedition, she requested more information about the plan.
She wrote in the letter that the biggest potential obstacle might be getting approval from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which has indicated in the past the rock could have cultural and historical significance for the tribe.
"Native American petroglyphs would be highly likely at this waterside location," Ms. Simon wrote. "It is possible that the readable carved characters are later additions to an ancient Native American petroglyph, not yet recognized. Noman's Land was long-occupied by Wampanoag people."
Ms. Simon also disputed the group's claim in its application that no excavation of the rock is necessary.
"The approximately four-ton rock is likely embedded in the substrate and removal would appear to require excavation and the displacement of surrounding cobble and soil matrix . . . it is possible the proposed activity could disturb or damage other cultural resources in and beyond this dynamic zone," she wrote.
Ms. Simon went on to question the validity of claims that the stone has archeological or historical significance.
"It is notable that the inscription of the stone is interpreted to contain both Latin characters and runes, with an apparent date - perhaps 1001 - rendered in the Christian convention, curious in an object supposed to be carved in the name of Leif Eriksson, according to one interpretation," she wrote.
At a Chilmark selectmen's meeting last month, the town historical commission submitted a strongly worded letter recommending against the removal of the rock.
"The commission is extremely reluctant to permit anyone to remove artifacts of the town - including natural formations - especially for private use or gain," the commission wrote. "The project would diminish the historical and cultural heritage of the town."
The commission also questioned the professional qualifications of the group and its purpose.
"[The group] does not seem to be ‘theoretically neutral' in advance of making the study, and generally fail to make a sound case for their proposal," it wrote.
Jane Slater, chairman of the town commission, recently reiterated her strong position against the project.
"This could establish a precedent from which it would be hard to turn back, and which could do irreparable harm to the integrity of Chilmark's heritage," she said.
But Mr. Alden said he is undaunted by the reaction and is busy preparing a new package of information for the state historical commission. He said the expedition, which had been planned for sometime this summer, will likely need to be pushed back, but he reiterated that the group is willing to do whatever it takes to recover the rock.
"We don't feel there is anything in the letter from [the Massachusetts Historical Commission] that is a deal breaker. We will keep plugging away. This makes it more difficult, but not impossible," Mr. Alden said.
Island resident and part-time Viking researcher William Brine questioned why the state historical commission appears to be against recovering something with historical significance.
"The alternative is to allow it to sit there underwater and be slowly eroded away," Mr. Brine said. "Even if the rock is a hoax, it still has some historical significance; there is still a valid reason for taking steps to prevent it from being lost forever."
In a letter to the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archeological Resources dated May 22, Matthew Stackpole, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Museum, agreed the rock is significant whether or not it is authentic.
"[The museum] would be happy to be the repository of this rock if it can be successfully moved here, and to preserve it for study, interpretation and public display. Whatever the origins of the inscriptions, the rock is embedded in local history and if it is lost its true story may never be known," Mr. Stackpole wrote.