No Vikings in Wisconsin? Prank at Spencer Lake Mounds

Prank at Spencer Lake Mounds

Edward Larsson's rune cipher resembling that found on the Kensington Runestone
Edward Larsson's rune cipher resembling that found on the Kensington Runestone. Maksim

One extremely persistent rumor in alternative archaeological circles is that there is evidence--suppressed evidence--that the Native American mounds of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa were built by Vikings. To support this premise, oddly shaped glacial erratics are thought to be "Viking mooring stones," various "rune stones" of very dubious origin are cited, and, as in the case of this story, there are rumors of horse skeletons which were found in mounds--and the evidence suppressed.

One of the funniest stories associated with these Viking legends has to do with the Spencer Lake Mound in extreme northwest Wisconsin. There was, undeniably, a horse skull found in Spencer Lake Mound. How it got there is a tale worth telling.

Spencer Lake Mound and the Clam River Focus

The Spencer Lake Mound is a large round, hemispherical burial mound, the largest of several mounds located on terraces near the shore of Spencer Lake, Burnett County, Wisconsin. During the 1935 and 1936 excavations by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, excavators found a total of 58 separate secondary burials, accounting for a total of at least 182 individuals. Artifacts recovered from the site included triangular arrow points, a shaft straightener, red ochre, a hearth, and a few sherds of Clam River pottery, which is part of the BlackDuck ceramic group. Birchbark baskets and the claws and skin of a beaver were recovered from the burials.

The Clam River Focus was established by archaeologist Will McKern, and besides Spencer Lake Mound includes the Clam Lake Mound Group. The people who built and used these mounds to bury their dead lived during the end of the Middle Woodland period, ca 500-700 AD, well before the historic period--and, for those trans-oceanic Viking aficionados, a good 300-500 years before the Viking colony in Newfoundland called L'Anse aux Meadows site was occupied.

How the Story Began

During the summers of 1935 and 1936, the University of Wisconsin excavated Spencer Lake Mound. The principal investigators were Ralph Linton and W. C. McKern; their staff of students included A.C. Spaulding, George Quimby, David Stout, and Joffre Coe--all destined to become pretty famous archaeologists in their own rights. It was in the fall of 1936, probably, when a young college student signed up for a beginning anthropology course taught by Ralph Linton. The young man, who is known in this story only as Mr. P., had been an avid artifact hunter while growing up in northwestern Wisconsin. Conversing with his classmates in 1936, Mr. P. discovered that excavations at the Spencer Lake Mound the previous summer had revealed an astonishing artifact: a horse's skull buried deep within the mound.

Mr. P's Confession

This was quite a shock to Mr. P. After gathering all of his available courage, he went into Linton's office and confessed that in 1928, the then-teen aged Mr. P. and a buddy had spent an afternoon pot-hunting the Spencer Lake Mound.

The boys dug a sizeable hole, consuming the better part of a hot afternoon, without encountering any kind of a recognizable feature. They were about to backfill the opening when one of them suggested that they bury a horse's skull that lay along the edge of a nearby field a short distance away. This seemed like a brilliant suggestion to the undisciplined minds of the boys, so the skull was retrieved and carefully laid in an oriented position at the bottom of the excavation before backfilling commenced. Anticipation of the probable results of this piece of mischief somehow eased the monotony of the backfilling, and the miscreants mutually agreed that in about two hundred years some archaeologist would dig up the skull and conclude that he had found something really worthwhile [from Mr. P., Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):120 (1964)].

Linton found the story amusing, apparently, and a mightily relieved Mr. P. went off onto a career of his own, outside of archaeology. But, either Linton didn't tell McKern about the prank or he did tell McKern but McKern didn't believe him. For whatever reason, over the next 25 years or so, at least three publications--and probably a few others--described the Spencer Lake Mound as containing an in situ horse skull.

In 1962, Mr. P., by then a college professor but still with an avocational interest in archaeology, dropped into the office of Robert Ritzenthaler at Milwaukee Public Museum, when the first major monograph for the Clam River Focus (including the Spencer Lake Mound) was being prepared. Mr. P. told Ritzenthaler about his youthful escapade, and

...he was quite contrite about it and agreed to prepare a statement of the facts as best he remembered them, after 34 years. A copy of this was sent to McKern, who responded with a statement to the effect that he was convinced that the skull he excavated was not the planted one, but as there was reasonable doubt, he would make some revisions [in the monograph] and suggested that his statement be published. Mr. P., however, requested that neither his statement nor McKern's be published, a request that was honored, until the Griffin review. [Ritzenthaler, Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):115-116 (1964)].

James B. Griffin Exposes the Prank

Enter James B. Griffin, undeniably doyen of archaeology for the American northeast. In 1964, Griffin wrote a review of the Clam River Focus monograph, and noted that despite the previous publication of a horse skull in Spencer Lake Mound, there was no mention of it in the book.

And, so, finally, notwithstanding the high level of embarrassment suffered by Mr. P., with an academic career of his own to maintain, notes by Mr. P., W. C. McKern, and Robert Ritzenthaler describing the story above were published in the Wisconsin Archeologist, and the situation was resolved.

Further evidence (beyond Mr. P.'s complete lack of motive for making this story up) was provided by Walter Pelzer, mammologist at the museum in those days, who looked at the skull and identified it as a western mustang, a horse imported for use on Wisconsin farms in the early 20th century. Pelzer also spotted rodent gnawing on all planes of the skull that suggested to him that it had been exposed to the weather for a while before being buried. Radiocarbon dates of the charcoal recovered from the mound provided a use date for the mound between circa 500-1000 AD.

At no point in these proceedings has any archaeologist ever believed the presence of the horse indicated early Viking presence in the American Midwest. The horse skull only suggested to McKern and others that the Clam River Focus sites (of which Spencer Lake Mound is one) dated to the early historic period (i.e., 1700s). But, because there are publications in dusty library stacks saying there was a horse skull in Spencer Lake Mound, the rumors continue to persist, I suppose on the principle that if it's in print it must be true.

But no! despite what you may have heard, as far as the evidence shows, the only Viking presence in the Americas was a failed 11th century colony in Newfoundland called l'Anse aux Meadows.

Griffin, James B.
1964 Review of The Clam River Focus. Wisconsin Archeologist (old series) 45(2):104-111.

McKern, W. C.
1964 The Spencer Lake horse skull, Response to Mr. P.'s letter of June 28, 1963. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):118-120

1929 Wisconsin archeology in light of recent finds in other areas. Wisconsin Archeologist 20(1):1-5.

1942 The first settlers of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Magazine of History 26(2):153-169

1963 The Clam River Focus.

Milwaukee Public Museum Publications in Anthropology No. 9. Milwaukee.

Mr. P.
1964 A Burnett County hoax. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):120-121

Ritzenthaler, Robert
1964 The riddle of the Spencer Lake horse skull. Wisconsin Archeologist 45(2):115-117

1966 Radiocarbon dates for Clam River Focus. Wisconsin Archeologist 47(4):219-220