The story that Guy Mellgren told about the curious silver coin began on the shores of Maine, where he met a stranger named Goddard. In the fall of 1956, Mellgren and Ed Runge, a pair of amateur archaeologists, had come in search of the most basic of coastal dig sitesâ€”a shell middenâ€”when they happened onto a more unusual discovery.
Goddard had invited them to explore his shoreline property, and there, on a natural terrace about eight feet above the high tide line, they found stone chips, knives, and fire pits, along with an abundance of other unexpected artifacts. Each summer for many years, Mellgren and Runge returned to excavate the â€œGoddard Site,â€ with little help from professional archaeologists. In the second summer, they produced the coin.
For two decades, based on an analysis by a friend in a numismatics club, Mellgren described it as a coin minted in 12th-century England, and no one questioned that identification. The discovery should have been noteworthyâ€”thereâ€™s no good explanation for how a medieval English coin could have crossed the Atlanticâ€”but Mellgren never sought wider attention for the find. It was a curiosity to show off to friends and his sonâ€™s classmates, until, in 1978, a scrappy regional bulletin published a picture of the coin and an article titled, â€œWere the English the First to Discover America?â€
That picture found its way to a well-known London dealer, who recognized at once that the coin could not have come from England. Two weeks after Mellgren died, the coinâ€™s reidentification swept into the news. It was a Norse penny, made between 1065 and 1093â€”evidence for Viking contact with North America centuries before Columbus.
All of sudden, experts from around the world began taking a careful look at the details of Mellgrenâ€™s story. Of many objects purported to prove a Viking presence in North America, only the artifacts painstakingly excavated at Lâ€™Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, have stood up to investigation. The restâ€”the Beardmore relics, the Vinland Map, the notorious Kensington Rune Stoneâ€”are all considered hoaxes.
Since 1978, no one has questioned that the Mellgren coin is an authentic Norse penny, made in medieval Scandinavia. But 60 years after Mellgrenâ€™s find, archaeologists and numismatic experts are still asking how in the world this small, worn coin got to Maine.
Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.