On this day in 1957, the Maine Penny, the only pre-Columbian Norse artefact found in the United States, is found. Also known as the Goddard Coin, the coin is believed to be a Norwegian silver penny dating to the reign of 11th century King of Norway Olaf Kyrre.
The story of the coin’s discovery begins in 1957 at the Goddard archaeological site on the central Maine coast, where amateur archaeologist Guy Mellgren was in his second year of excavation. The Goddard site contained extensive remains of an old Native American settlement at Naskeag Point, Brooklin, Maine on Penobscot Bay. On 18 August 1957, some weeks into his dig, a mere 12 centimetres below the surface at the center of the site, Mellgren found a small silver coin. The coin was first mis-identified as a British penny from the 12th century and much of the circumstances surrounding its discovery were not properly recorded.
In 1974, the coin, along with some 30,000 other items discovered at the site, was donated to the Maine State Museum. There, in 1978, experts from London examined the coin and proclaimed it Norse. Experts from the University of Oslo determined the coin had probably been minted between 1065 and 1080 and circulated in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Goddard site has been dated to 1180 to 1235, within the circulation period of the coin, and well within the period during which the Norse lived in Greenland and could have visited North America. In fact, the penny’s coastal origin may offer evidence that the Vikings traveled further south than Newfoundland or that the coin might have been traded locally.
However, the penny was the only Norse artefact found at the site, thought to be a large native trade network. This and other missing evidence render the coin’s provenance a mystery. Some researchers believe the Maine Penny is a hoax, planted at the site by Mellgren or someone else. Today the coin rests at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, and its true history remains unknown.