Riding the wave of a sudden renewed interest in a possibly ignored chapter of Vineyard history, an expedition made up of researchers, diving experts and history buffs plans to travel to Noman's Land this summer to help determine if Vikings visited here around the year 1000 A.D.
The researchers are investigating the possibility that Vikings journeyed to the Vineyard hundreds of years before English settlers. The group plans to travel to Noman's Land, a small island south of Chilmark, to recover a mysterious rune stone reportedly inscribed with the name of famous Viking Leif Eriksson.
The group of fact-finders includes John Alden of the Historical Maritime Group of New England, dive and salvage expert H. Arnold Carr, Island resident and Viking researcher William (Bill) Brine, author Kenneth M. Jungersen and Robert Wallace, captain of the Auk research vessel.
The group hopes to recover and study the rock, and then donate it to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, where it could be placed on public display.
Speaking by phone from his Virginia home earlier this week, Mr. Jungersen said he was reluctant to provide details about when the expedition was planned or where it might focus its search. He did say the group hopes to make their trip to Noman's Land sometime this summer.
It is still unclear how many types of approvals the group needs for its expedition. The group already has filed a reconnaissance permit application with the state Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources to excavate the rock.
In that application, the group said the stone weighs about four tons and is near the island's shore. Members say the stone is about the size of an antique desk.
Group members also will need permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has owned the island since 1975. The small, uninhabited island, about three miles off the southwest corner of the Vineyard, is used as a wildlife refuge, primarily for migratory birds.
The U.S. Navy previously owned the island, which it used for bombing practice. Unexploded ordnance likely remains there today.
Just this week, Chilmark selectmen referred a request from the group to locate and excavate the rock to the town historical commission.
The request came in the form of a letter from Mr. Carr, which said the group hopes to "keep [selectmen] informed with the hopes the effort would meet with the approval of the board."
During the meeting, selectmen debated what type of jurisdiction they had over an expedition to Noman's Land, and decided to refer the matter to the commission. Yesterday, historic commission member Jane Slater said the group would discuss the request at its June 20 meeting, and would then provide some type of report on the subject to selectmen.
Mrs. Slater said she did not know if the expedition needs permission from the town, but said the state Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources does solicit input from the town or city in which an object is located while considering an excavation application.
Mrs. Slater said she hopes any future exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum would denote that the rock was found in the town of Chilmark, and that the town retains ownership of it.
The application to the state board of Underwater Archeological Resources states that on the south slope of the rock is 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.
The next lines, the application says, have had several interpretations, although their meaning remains unclear. One theory is that the last word is Vinland, a reference to an almost mythical land in Viking history reputed to be a long-lost civilization somewhere in North America.
The story of Vinland was outlined in the Vinland Sagas, which represent the most complete information historians have about the Norse exploration of the Americas. They were written at least 200 years after the original voyages and some of the accounts are contradictory, but historians believe they contain substantial evidence of Viking exploration of North America.
While some theorize that the alleged rune stone on Noman's Land is proof that 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 been quick to dismiss the rock as a hoax.
Joshua Crane, the former owner of Noman's Land, first discovered the strange lettering on the large black rock late one afternoon when the setting sun sank low on the horizon one afternoon in 1926.
Mr. Crane took the oldest known photographs of the inscription in 1926, which were published in a book by Edward Gray titled Leif Eriksson, Discoverer of America. The stone was later examined by E.B. Delbarre in the New England Quarterly in 1935 and again by Hjamar P. Holland in the same publication in 1944, both of whom dismissed the rock as a hoax.
Both scholars found it highly unlikely that an engraving could withstand the constant wave action and erosion of the ocean, and questioned the use of the Roman numerals because such enumeration was not used for dating until the 14th or 15th centuries in Scandinavia.
But perhaps the most damning report of the authenticity of the rune stone came on August 31, 1954, when the Gazette reported that "over the past weekend Capt. Martin Dahl said he saw a Norwegian cook chisel the message into the rock in 1913."
Still, after an article about Vikings on the Vineyard appeared in Tuesday's edition of the Gazette, many people got in touch with the newspaper to dispute that the rock was a hoax.
Edgartown resident Bruce Nevin, whose great-grandfather William Channing Nevin published a poem in 1894 titled The Norseman and the Vineyard Maid, sent a letter disputing the idea that Roman numerals were not used at the time of the alleged Viking visit.
Mr. Channing said that Eriksson had his childhood teacher on the voyage, a learned man from southern Germany named Tyker Southman, who was likely familiar with Roman numerals. He also said that Eriksson also converted to Christianity and received some related instruction the year before his voyage.
Mr. Channing also notes that the translation of "Liif Iriksson" is significant because there was no letter for the vowel e in the futhark, or runic alphabet, until well after that era. The little-known fact that would seem to cast doubt on the notion that a fisherman chiseled the inscription in 1913.
Members of the planned expedition to Noman's Land also disputed the idea that the inscription would have eroded by now after years of wave action.
Mr. Jungersen said a Norse expedition would likely leave a marker on the highest possible point, and theorized the stone slid down a nearby ten-meter bluff on Noman's southern shore around the year 1875. Hence, it has only been part of the surf zone for about a hundred years, he said, which would likely lead to only partial erosion.
Mr. Jungersen noted that the southern shore of the island has been eroding at an approximate rate of one foot per year based on data recorded over the past 100 years. "It is almost certain the rock where it lays today was located in a very different type of location on [Noman's] several hundred years ago," he said.
Mr. Jungersen, who has been trying to recover the stone for years, only recently joined forces with many of the other members of the planned expedition. He is one of few people to have seen the rock up close. In his opinion, there is a good chance it is authentic.
"I cannot say for sure one way or other, but I would tend to believe that the Vinland as described in the Sagas was actually located in an area largely made up of the Cape and Islands," he said. "If you read the Sagas, they describe a land similar in nature to an area near the Bass River on Cape Cod."
But Mr. Jungersen also conceded that excavating the rock probably will not provide definitive proof the Vikings were here.
"It's probably too weathered by now. To be honest I don't think the question of Vikings coming to Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard will ever be proven without a doubt, one way or the other. It's been too long," Mr. Jungersen said.
But Mr. Brine, another member of the group planning the expedition to Noman's Land, said the rock has historic value either way.
"If it's still there, and you can still read the inscription, then someone ought to go out there and get it. Even if its a total fake it is still an interesting story - it still has historic value," he said.