Ancient Runes in Oklahoma; Did Vikings Row Longships Up the Arkansas?


Heavener Runestone craftmaking

Well over a decade ago, Mike and I made a startling discovery following a weekend-long SHORE(S) Family Reunion in Arkansas. It was the best clan gathering either of us had ever attended, with great music by relatives we’d never met and hazardous treks to old ancestral homes and grave sites. I traveled in the back of a truck filled with middle-aged cousins over rough terrain through the Quachita National Forest to view one ancient cemetery, while Mike rode on the back of a four-wheeler flying along like a bat out of hell with a wild man who knew the woods and hills like his own heartbeat. It was an adrenaline charged escapade, Mike said. But he was glad to be alive to tell about it.

We had so much adolescent fun with like-minded people that when it was over, Mike and I were still pumped and needed at least one more off-the-beaten-path magic moment before we turned back into stodgy, boring, responsible adults. When we got to a crossroads down from the old home place in Harvey, Arkansas, Mike pulled over to consult a map.

“You know,” he said, “we are only about six miles from the Oklahoma line. We’ve never been to Oklahoma. It would be a shame to miss it when we’re this close.”

“Do it,” I said. And we rubbernecked our way across the state line.

Having no idea where we were, Mike consulted the map again and found there was a place called Heavener Runestone State Park nearby. We turned in that direction — and went up and up and up. We both thought of Oklahoma as flat, but, apparently, being next door to the Arkansas mountains, this section had a nice sized one of its own. The park was located on Poteau Mountain just outside the town limits of Heavener, Oklahoma.

It was a scenic, gorgeous drive, and the name of the park intrigued us. When we found that the park existed to preserve ancient Viking runes, we knew our magic moment had arrived. Mike and I are both fans of the master of historic fiction, Bernard Cornwell, who wrote the saxon tales and warlord chronicles, and even of John Flanagan’s youth series called the Brotherband Chronicles about the warrior training of Scandian youth.

The runestone is hidden in a deep ravine on top of Poteau Mountain. It was the early forced removal of Indians to Oklahoma in the 1830s that led to the discovery of the runes. The subsequent tales carried by the Native Americans caused the place to be misnamed “Indian Rock”, even though the carvings had nothing to do with their culture. Copies of the runes were sent to the Smithsonian in 1923 and the park opened in 1970.

A lot of controversy about the originality of the runestone has surfaced since then, and more than a few crackpots have had their say on You Tube. Anybody with a moniker like “Redneck Archaeologist” with non-existing credentials is not someone I give a lot of credence to.

Though I haven’t read it yet, there have been some good reviews of Gloria Stewart Farley’s book, “In Plain Sight”. Mrs. Farley first visited the runes as a child with her father, and made it her life’s work to unravel the mystery of the letters carved in stone. This massive boulder measures 12 feet tall, 10 wide, and 16 inches thick and some archaeologists have dated it between 800 and 1000 A.D., about 500 years before Columbus. And if I’m remembering correctly, I believe the author, Bernard Cornwell, may have hinted as much in his Viking tales. I know there has been much speculation about it.

These Norsemen may have traveled from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi, and into the Arkansas River. Their long, shallow draft “dragonships” as easily plied the riverways as the oceans. But be that as it may, the thought of Vikings in America sets many an imagination on fire, and the runes are the fuel that keeps it going.

Due to budget cuts, Heavener Runestone is no longer a state park, but was turned over to the small town of Heavener, which gets help from the Friends of Heavener Runestone Society, who assist with the upkeep through hard work, donations, and tourists.

The yearly Viking/Celtic Folk Festival is coming up Saturday and Sunday April 11-12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors and locals alike are encouraged to dress in period costume. This fundraising event will cost $10 per carload to step back in time with your family and friends. The phone number is 918-653-2241 and the GPS coordinates are  34 53 56.44 N, 94 34 43.09 W. Address 18365 Runestone Rd. Heavener Oklahoma 74937.