No Vikings at the Peabody

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology is not known for its Viking collections, or are we?

Vikings shopping in York. Bryan Ledgard, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One object, donated to the Institute by Dr. C.A. Kershaw in the early twentieth century, is repeatedly cited as evidence for Viking visitors to Massachusetts long before the days of the Pilgrims.

The object in question is a copper dagger or knife and is pictured in Frederick Pohl’s 1961 book Atlantic Crossings before Columbus. Barry Fell also discussed the piece in his popular 1976 book America BC: Ancient Settlers in the New World. Both authors contributed extensively to the literature on connections between Europe and the Americas, often featuring Vikings; mainstream archaeology has dubbed Pohl, Fell, and allied writers as pseudoscientists who offer provocative theories, but little concrete or testable evidence.

Copper dagger or knife blade from Merrimacport, Massachusetts in the collection of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, catalog # 90.5.1.

Regarding the dagger, here is what Pohl has to say:

Arthur Petzold (of Andover, MA) recently called my attention to a heavily-patinated copper “spearhead or knife” found many years ago by Dr. C.A. Kershaw of Merrimacport, Massachusetts, on Indian Flat near his home. A drawing of it showing two large and two small rivet holes for hafting was published by Warren King Moorehead in 1931. Benjamin L. Smith, who wrote “Supplementary Notes” to the Moorehead volume, says he has always been “troubled” by the copper artifact because its unusual form suggests it may not be Indian. Dr. Gad Rausing of Lund, Sweden, thinks that the general outline and size agree quite closely with the very early Bronze Age daggers of Northern Europe—but he has never seen one with two big and two small rivet holes arranged in such a manner, and so he says he “cannot claim to recognize it at all.” It may be, as he suggests, that the four rivet holes were not made at the same time, but that the small ones were added when one of the large ones got broken. A distinguished archaeologist, a specialist in European pre-history, has written me that the copper object is doubtless a dagger and, he believes, a very old one, from the mid-European early Bronze Age, presumably about 1300 B.C. But, he says, “How could it have found its way to Massachusetts, I wonder. Perhaps brought by some collector, and lost. Who can tell?” On the other hand, Dr. William Ritchie, New York State Archaeologist, assures me that prehistoric Indians of the Upper Great Lakes area riveted some of their spear points to the shaft, and so he says of the Merrimacport specimen that it may or may not be prehistoric. Spectrum analysis should determine its place of origin; for North American Indian copper is quite pure, having only slight traces of silver and iron, while European smelted copper contains antimony, bismuth, lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, Sulphur, gold, silver, arsenic and oxygen. In view of the possibility that the Merrimacport artifact may be early European, it is interesting that it was found only thirteen miles from North Salem and near the river used by boats approaching the North Salem site. [Pohl 1961:15-16]

Pohl’s argument is characteristic of many pseudoscientific claims—two competing ideas about an artifact or site are presented as equivalent—in this case, the Merrimacport artifact is offered as potentially Native American and potentially Bronze Age. The Native American origin of the dagger, however, is much more likely, especially as archaeologists like Ritchie noted similarities to copper artifacts from the Great Lakes. The North Salem site that Pohl mentions is now known as America’s Stonehenge and is located in North Salem, New Hampshire.

Barry Fell, building on Pohl’s arguments, illustrates a photograph of the Merrimacport artifact and cites ongoing research (mid-1970s) by James Whittall. Fell says that museums housing these copper artifacts, which he identifies as Celtic, believed they were from the European Bronze Age, but that they had been recently lost (see Fell 1976:127-128). Interestingly, James P. Whittall Jr., who wrote about the copper object in the December 1970 issue of the New England Antiquities Research Association newsletter, compares the piece to a Bronze Age dagger from Spain—a comparison that is echoed by Fell. And, despite that comparison, Whittall remains undecided about the origins and significance of the artifact, saying, “The dagger does not prove cultural contact between Western Europe and New England in the late Bronze Period, but the fact remains that the dagger was found here. This should be kept on record. When and if more evidence is recovered in this area, this singular artifact becomes more important. For the present it rests in a cultural void.” Writing a few years later, Whittall (1975:4) is more decisive, stating that “copper celts in Vermont and rivet copper daggers in Massachusetts are typical examples of middle bronze age European artifacts.”

Moorehead (1931:13), as noted by Pohl, includes an illustration in his Merrimack Archaeological Survey, though does not comment on the artifact other than to describe it as a “copper spearhead or knife,” while Charles S. Willoughby (1936:114-115) includes the piece with other Native American copper objects in his Antiquities of the New England Indians, saying:

The unique specimen figured in g [referring to Figure 59g], is from an old site on the bank of the Merrimack, at Merrimackport, Massachusetts. It is probably a knife, and was lashed to its handle through two perforations near its base, one of which has been torn out. In repairing this damage two more perforations were made just above the others. This is now in the Andover Museum. In all of the above [copper] specimens one side is flat. On the opposite side the blade is beveled from a central strengthening ridge to either edge.

Copper objects from Wisconsin in the collection of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

So, you might ask, “what’s the harm in all this?” We do know that the Norse settled in Greenland, at least for a while, and that one Norse site has been confirmed in Labrador, so it’s not impossible that other sites or objects could be found. Ken Feder (2020:131), in his great book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, notes that “a growing number of native sites in Arctic Canada show evidence of widespread, occasional, but sometimes intimate contact for centuries between local people and Norse visitors.” Every year in my fall Human Origins course, we discuss the distinction between science and pseudoscience. We learn that science relies on falsifiability, where proving a hypothesis true is less important than the ability to prove it false. Possibilities and probabilities often fail to meet the falsifiability test—could Vikings have been in Massachusetts and neighboring states? Yes, but those possibilities must be subject to testing. Also, there’s a darker side to these Viking stories, which negate the long land tenure, accomplishments, and technology of Native Americans. As archaeologist William Ritchie reported to Frederick Pohl in the 1960s, Native Americans worked Great Lakes copper into an array of tools and ornaments thousands of years ago, and these objects were transported by travelers and through exchange networks. Before conjuring Celts, Vikings, Irish monks, or other trans-Atlantic European travelers, Native Americans are much more likely to have fashioned artifacts like the Merrimacport dagger.

References Cited

Feder, Kenneth L. 2020. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fell, Barry. 1976. American B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World. New York: Pocket Books.

Moorehead, Warren K. 1931. The Merrimack Archaeological Survey: A Preliminary Paper. Salem, MA: Peabody Museum.

Pohl, Frederick J. 1961. Atlantic Crossings Before Columbus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Whittall, James P. Jr. 1970. An Unique Dagger. New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) Newsletter 5(4, Issue #19):77.

___. 1975. Precolumbian Parallels between Mediterranean and New England Archaeology. Occasional Publications of the Epigraphic Society 3(52):1-5.

Willoughby, Charles C. 1935. Antiquities of the New England Indians, with Notes on the Ancient Cultures of the Adjacent Territory. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.