rocky trivia roundup

Rounding up some obliquely geological trivia, featuring runes, volcanoes, artifacts, roads, and unbelief…

• • •

1. The first full history of Denmark, a sixteen-volume admixture of Norse mythology, folklore, and fact, was completed in the early 13th century by Saxo Grammaticus. Grammaticus was notable for his awesome beard and his great name; the book—Gesta Danorum—was notable for other reasons. First, because it was written from a Scandinavian perspective, historians view it as a valuable and all too rare counterweight to Eurocentric histories that make up the majority of surviving documents. Second, it features the story of Amleth, a tale supposedly based on an old Icelandic poem. Amleth is a Danish prince who seeks revenge for the murder of his father, the king; it would later be rewritten as Hamlet.

Saxo Grammaticus
Saxo Grammaticus

Finally, though, it’s notable for Saxo’s description of Runamo, a stone dike in southern Sweden featuring a large runic inscription. Unfortunately, it was so weathered in the 12th century that it could not be read; Grammaticus more or less took an educated guess that the inscription was a memorial made by the king Harald Wartooth, to honor his father’s accomplishments.

Fast forward now to the 17th century and the Danish polymath Ole Worm (aka Olaus Wormus). Worm’s beard was likewise notable, as were his contributions to embryology (the Wormian bones), and study of runestones. His other scientific contributions and exploits are rather more motley and spurious. He, for example, demonstrated that so-called “unicorn horns” were really from the narwhal, yet also still felt it necessary to empirically test their supposed curative properties. I can find precious little confirmation of these next two, but they’re better without context: he conclusively demonstrated that lemmings were rodents, not magical creatures that appeared out of thin air, and he demonstrated conclusively that birds of paradise had normal bird feet. Apparently “magic lemmings” and “weird birds of paradise feet” were common enough beliefs to require disconfirmation at the time?

Anyways, Worm put on his rune-ologist cap, carefully studied the Runamo, and claimed to decipher but a single word from it: “Lund” (a Swedish town). [Side note: I’m sort of poking fun at Worm, but he’s genuinely regarded as a hugely important figure in European intellectual history. Read more here.]

The runamo
The runamo

Fast forward now to 1833, when debate was raging—well, let’s be honest, it was simmering, at best; is “tepid-ing” a word?—over whether the lines in the rock were runes, or natural cracks. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters sent Finnur Magnusson, an Icelandic archaeologist, to investigate. He peered at the weathered lines and faults and considered various interpretations. He then declared that he had solved it: the runes were a poem, describing Harald Wartooth’s victory at the battle of Bravellir in the mid-8th century. Yes, it was a poem, said Magnusson—as long as you read the runes backwards.

Fast forward one final time to 1836, with Magnusson still claiming the runes were real but for some reason written backwards. Jons-Jacob Berzelius, one of the “four fathers” of modern chemistry, the creator of stoichiometry, was sent in to make his own assessment. He saw nothing but natural rock fractures, and given the imprimatur of the nation’s premiere celebrity scientist—Berzelius has his own holiday in Sweden—the debate was over. (Should it have been? What actual expertise to Berzelius have in runic inscriptions?)

Is there a lesson in this story about the perils of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias? Sure, but mostly I like it because it involves Saxo Grammaticus and Ole Worm and that thing about lemmings. I’m hoping the Runamo is the macguffin in Dan Brown’s next book, but in the meantime I’m developing a grammar-correcting robot called Grammaticus whose AI will be trained on nothing but the entire anthology of William Safire’s On Language column, and will violently turn against humans after encountering one too many elided Oxford commas.


2. Then, of course, there’s the converse of the Runamo: the Coso artifact. The Coso was a geode picked up in the mountains of California in 1961. When split open, the interior contained an obviously man-made object fixed in a crystalline-rock encasement. A geologist examined it and claimed that the crystal structure would have required at least 500,000 years to develop. Which, of course, suggested that the apparently man-made artifact inside was at least that old. Was it an artifact left behind by aliens, time travelers, or alien time travelers? Was Atlantis somehow involved?

the Coso artifact
the Coso artifact

No. That object, which bore a striking resemblance to a spark plug, turned out to be…a spark plug. In fact, the Spark Plug Collectors of America—an actual group—examined it and said it was a 1920s Champion, used in Model Ts and As. The metal parts had rusted and formed a concretion, yielding this supposedly impossible object. More here.

So the natural can appear manmade and the manmade can appear natural, but are we to make of the deeply unsettling large stone spheres of Costa Rica?


3. May 22 marks the 100th anniversary of the eruption—or, more accurately, the biggest eruption—of Lassen Peak in northern California. Along with Mt. St. Helens, it is one of only two volcanoes to erupt in the 20th century in the lower 48 states.

After nearly 30,000 years of dormancy (the last eruption created the peak as it is today), the volcano began rumbling in May 1914. A year later, the more than 180 subsequent steam explosions had carved out a 100+ foot crater on the side of the mountain. Then came the lava, which melted the snowpack and created a mudflow which tore through and flooded the valley below. Then came the “great explosion” of May 22, which fired a column of gassy ash (ashy gas?) more than 30,000 feet into the air, visible from near 200 miles away, which is also about how far the ash cloud traveled. The pyroclastic flow rushed down the side of the mountain and destroyed a roughly three-square-mile area around it; in vulcanology parlance, this location is called the “Devastated Area”. One could find steam vents on the mountain until the 1950s, though now it’s a national park and you can hike there. But the volcano is still active…waiting. More on Lassen here.

Lassen's "eruption column"
Lassen’s “eruption column”

As a lover of words, volcanoes are a terminological gold mine: pyroclastic flow, lahar, dacite lava flows, phreatic eruptions, mudpots, fumaroles, tephra cones, “Devastated Area,” and the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The Lassen eruption barely moved the needle, on an eruption scale, but if you go just a few miles northwest, you’ll find a group of six peaks (technically lava domes) called—I love this—the Chaos Crags; they were created by a massive eruption about 1100 years ago.


4. There’s a road that runs near Lassen Peak, and it’s part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, a 500-mile drive providing scenic views of, well, volcanoes. “Scenic Byway,” it turns out, is a very official phrase: to be designated as such, a road must have at least one of six intrinsic qualities which include scenic, natural, historical, cultural, archaeological, and recreational value. All-American Roads must have at least two such qualities; sadly there are no higher designations. If you’re a fan of dizzying, sterile bureaucratic language, I suggest you read the actual descriptions of each of those intrinsic qualities here. The cognomenic lunacy does not stop there: there are also Bureau of Land Management Back Country Byways and National Forest Scenic Byways and National Parkways, and may god help you if mix them up.

Some personal favorites on the scenic byway list include Historic National Road (rather broadly named); Religious Freedom Byway (historic churches of Maryland); Journey Through Hallowed Ground Byway (near Gettysburg; as if the official name weren’t haughty enough, it immodestly and perversely bills itself as “Where America Happened”); and Utah’s Scenic Byway 12: A Journey Through Time (but what really isn’t a journey through time, though?).


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