New reports rekindle mystery of Maine’s centuries-old Viking coin

Popular online magazine Atlas Obscura recently became the latest to probe the question of how an 11th century Viking penny came to rest on the coast of Maine.

In the decades since the 1957 discovery by amateur archaeologists, it’s been denounced as a hoax, validated by scholars, denounced as a hoax again and — as recently as this past November — validated by scholars again.

According to Atlas Obscura, fresh skepticism emerged over the origins of the coin since the turn of the 21st century, but a new report by a University of Oslo numismatist — a researcher of coins and money — reinforces earlier notions that the penny is legit currency from the time of Norwegian King Olaf III.

But historians remain perplexed about how it got to Maine.

The L’Ans aux Meadows archaeological site in Newfoundland is generally regarded as proof of a Norse encampment in North America long before the time of the mysterious Maine penny. And renowned archaeologist and Bangor native Sarah Parcak led a team that discovered a second possible Viking settlement in Canada in more recent years.

But there were no other Viking artifacts at the Brooklin site where the coin was found.

In fact, the Maine location is perhaps most notable for its abrupt bounty of arrowheads. The odd penny, which is mixed in with pottery and stones from hundreds of miles away in other directions, seemed arrive around the same time as an explosion in archery.

“The site has an unspeakably dense concentration of archers,” longtime Maine State Museum archaeologist Bruce Bourque told Atlas Obscura. “It’s off the charts. The real mystery is — what the hell is going on at the site at the time?”

The mix of items from such different places, from the Great Lakes through Labrador, has led some researchers to believe the Maine site was something of regional trading hub.

An excerpt from Atlas Obscura:

“All sorts of objects that seem out of place in 12th-century Maine show up in this one spot, as if it were site of a pre-Columbian World’s Fair for northeastern coastal America, from Lake Erie to Newfoundland. … [T]his site is full of interesting evidence in search of a story.”