The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
Volume 18 • Number 2 • Summer 2001

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Romance of the Stones
A UMD alumnus shares his quest for fossils, agates and an ancient stone.

Examining the Kensington Runestone are: (front left) Dick Ojakangas, (front right) Paul Weiblen, (top row, left to right) John Green, Ken Harris, Gerard Moulzolf, Scott Wolter, Charlie Matsch, Barry Hanson, and Robert Johnson.

Scott Wolter, ’82, is passionate about rocks. Each year he works in Wyoming in a quarry formed from sediment deposited on the bottom of an ancient freshwater lake. There he splits stone to uncover Green River fossils. The Green River formation yields reptiles, fish and birds that dropped to lake bottom approximately 50 million years ago, in an era once dominated by dinosaurs. Wolter has worked the quarry himself, slicing the one-inch thick slabs, uncovering treasures. After he brought the tan-colored slabs back home, he fired up the generator, filling the basement with dust in search of treasure. He has carefully sandblasted away eons of river mud to reveal the ancient drama of a captured moment as a fish dies while eating another. His home is filled with dozens of finished and rough prehistoric creatures frozen in rock. He stuns his visitors with one of his most striking fossils, a nearly complete, six-foot long alligator.

Wolter shares his Wyoming haven. Every year he sponsors a field camp visit to the quarry for geology students from UMD and four other universities.

Wolter’s mentor is Geology Professor Charlie Matsch, who is retiring from teaching this year. While Wolter was still playing football at UMD, Matsch encouraged him to major in geology. Matsch said, “We are proud of the career Scott has made. He inspires the students at the field camp and we have watched his business grow. All of the geology students and faculty know about Scott because of the incredible fossil fish specimens that he gave to UMD.” Matsch and Wolter, who both share a love of geology, stay in touch, keeping up with developments in research and the UMD department.

Wolter asserts that the Lake Superior agate is the oldest and perhaps the most beautiful agate in the world. He should know: he wrote one of the most popular reference books on the topic, The Lake Superior Agate, which is now in its third edition. For the beginning collector or veteran picker, The Lake Superior Agate is enjoyable because it includes a clear explanation about how these eye catching gems were formed over one billion years ago. It contains practical information too, like tips on collecting, where to look for agates and what can be done with them once they are found. Outernet Publishing publishes both of the books.

The ink is still wet on his newest book, a collection of whimsical essays, The Lake Superior Agate, One Man’s Journey. Journey takes up where his first book left off. In it we find personal stories relating past agate-picking successes and the stories of rock hounds that are nearly as colorful as the gemstones themselves.

Row after row of the largest Lake Superior agates in the world sit on Wolter’s shelves in his home. Each jewel tells a story and many of those stories are included in Wolter’s new book. Wrapped in each rock is a history: how it was made, where it was found, who found it first and where it has traveled. The big ones have names, The Minnehaha Falls Agate, The Royal Flaim, the Ham Agate, and the Baron of Beef.

Inside the book are other stories that weave in and out of the agate adventures. These are more personal and involve the loss of Wolter’s father, his marriage to Janet and adventures that include his children, Grant and Amanda. There are even stories about the UMD geology department.

Agates excite Wolter but recently a new fervor has been aroused by another rock — the Kensington Runestone. In fact, there are few topics that raise Wolter’s passion as high as the Kensington Runestone does.

The debate over the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone is a great Minnesota mystery. The controversy has been discussed since farmer Olaf Ohman unearthed a 200-plus pound slab of graywacke stone entwined in the roots of an aspen. The year was 1898. The place was Kensington, west of the Twin Cities. Ohman wasn’t alone when he discovered the stone and his neighbors and sons verified that the root was flattened by the stone.

It is a grey stone, about 36 inches long, 16 inches wide, and 6 inches thick and it was found face down in the soil, about six inches below the ground. It contains runic writing along the face of the stone and along one edge.

The stone, which now resides in the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, has been examined by many runic scholars, who discovered that the runes claimed to be an account of Norse explorers in the 14th century.

Here is a translation of the writing: “8 Goths (Swedes) and 22 Norwegians on a voyage of discovery from Vinland (of) the West. We had a camp by 2 skerries one day journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM (Ave Virgin Mary) save (us) from evil. (We) have 10 men of (ours) by the sea to look after our ships 14 day journeys north from this island. Year 1362.”
Many scholars have claimed it a forgery while some have testified to its authenticity.

Enter Barry Hanson and Scott Wolter. Semi-retired chemist Barry Hanson from Maple, Wisconsin, once acting for Runestone Foundation, hired Wolter to investigate the rock. Wolter’s firm, American Petrographic Services of St. Paul, Minnesota is a scientific testing firm. They most often perform a type of “autopsy on concrete” by examining failed concrete roads and buildings to determine were the fault lies for the flaw. Wolter’s company is used to conflict. They investigate over 500 projects per year, often testifying on their findings in court.

But the Runestone isn’t made of concrete and when Wolter agreed to conduct tests, he needed some advice.

Enter the UMD geology department. Wolter gathered his former professors, Charlie Matsch, John Green, and Dick Ojakangas from UMD. He also brought in additional experts including Ken Harris from the Minnesota Geological Survey, Paul Weiblen, a retired University of Minnesota geology professor, and Robert Johnson, a University of Minnesota adjunct professor Department of Geologist and Geophysics for the UM. They met at the American Petrographic lab to examine the physical features and recommend a series of tests. The tests included obtaining a small core sample, performing reflected and transmitted light microscopy, as well as scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive analysis. These were the first modern scientific tests conducted and it was a monumental step in the history of the stone. Later, in November, stone letter carver and sculptor Janey Westin examined the stone.

After the tests were complete, Wolter shared his findings. “The stone was carved into a tombstone-shaped form at the same time the runes were carved. We tested those areas and determined a clear pattern of mica degradation on the surface of the man-made features of the stone.” He says that two conditions make the findings significant, “Mica degradation of this nature would take considerable time to manifest itself and would require a moist soil environment.” According to Wolter, the tests indicates that the stone was buried after it was carved for at least decades and probably for centuries.

So, while Wolter hasn’t proved the authenticity, his findings certainly are consistent with an authentic stone. “This is preliminary research. We need to conduct more studies, but I am sure of one thing. That stone was carved long before 1898,” he said.

So does the Kensington Runestone tell the story of a lone party of thirty Norse explorers in the middle of North America in 1362? Did they really come to Minnesota 130 years before Columbus left Spain? If it is true, it is a fantastic, adventurous journey. We are drawn to those conclusions with almost as much force as we are drawn to Scott Wolter’s life story. They both make fascinating tales.

by Cheryl Reitan

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