The Controversial Origins of the Maine Penny

The Controversial Origins of the Maine Penny, A Norse Coin found in a Native American Settlement

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Christopher Columbus is often remembered as the first European to discover the Americas, eventually leading to the colonization of these two continents by European powers. It is undeniable that Columbus’ voyage has earned him a place in history, however, he was not the first European to set foot in the New World. Such a title belongs to the Vikings who explored part of North America several centuries before Columbus.

The Maine Penny

The Maine Penny. Credit:

Literary evidence for the Viking exploration of North America can be found in the Vinland Sagas . These were two Icelandic sagas written in the 13 th century regarding the Norse exploration of North America undertaken about two centuries earlier. As for archaeological evidence, the Norse presence in North America is perhaps best seen in the Viking settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Regarding Norse artifacts, it has been claimed that of the two dozen or so objects found in North America, only one can be securely dated. This is the Maine Penny.

The Maine Penny was discovered on 18 of August 1957 by an amateur archaeologist by the name of Guy Mellgren. Mellgren found the coin at the Goddard prehistoric archaeological site, which contained the remains of an old Native American settlement, at Naskeag Point, Brooklin, Maine. It was only about 20 years later, however, that the significance of the coin was revealed. In 1974, the Maine Penny, along with 20,000 (or 30,000) other artifacts discovered at the Goddard archaeological site were donated to the Maine State Museum.


Initially, the Maine Penny was identified as an English penny from the 12 th century, perhaps brought to Maine by English colonists. In 1978, the artifact was examined by experts from London, who speculated that the coin might have been Norse. Subsequently, an expert on Norse coins from the University of Oslo, Kolbjorn Skaare, confirmed that the Maine Penny was indeed a genuine coin from the Norse world. Furthermore, it was established that the coin was struck sometime between 1065 and 1080 during the reign of King Olaf III. The occupation of the Goddard site, however, has been dated to between 1180 and 1235. Nevertheless, the type of coin struck by Olaf III was circulating widely during the 12 th and 13 th centuries, thus placing the Maine Penny within the circulation period of such coins.

Coin cited as similar to the Maine Penny.

Coin cited as similar to the Maine Penny. (Coin of Olaf III of Norway) Public Domain

Given that the Goddard site was occupied by a Native American settlement, the presence of this Norse artifact is indeed odd. Despite the presence of the Maine Penny, subsequent excavations at the site in the 1970s failed to yield any additional Norse artifacts. This suggests that it is unlikely that the coin was brought by Vikings who travelled all the way to Maine. One plausible explanation for the presence of the coin at the Goddard site is that it was a traded object.

Other artifacts from the site, such as one identified as a Dorset Eskimo burin, suggests that the Goddard site was a hub in a large Native American trade network. The Maine Penny also had a perforation for use as a pendant, perhaps indicating that the Native Americans who possessed the coin transformed its function from a form of currency to an exotic ornamental object. 

The lack of proper archaeological recording, however, has led some to question the provenance of the coin, believing that the Maine Penny is a hoax, perhaps deliberately planted at the site to create confusion. The experts, however, are adamant that the Maine Penny is authentic, citing the fact that this type of coin is extremely rare and valuable, and that Mellgren paid no special attention to it when he found the object. Considering the information available at present, it may perhaps never be known whether the Maine Penny found its way to the Goddard site through Viking explorers or Native American trade networks.

Featured image: Painting detail, Nicholas Roerich "Guests from Overseas". Public Domain, and, Maine Penny, Credit: Deriv.


Bourque, B. J., 2011. Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Brown, D. O., 1979, 'Expert Confirms Authenticity of Norse Penny Found in Maine’,  Florence Times – Tri Cities Daily 8 February, p. 8.


I have been researching for the past two years the viable possibility that the Norse headed up the St. Lawrence River, not anywhere - down the east coast. My ongoing findings - including deciphering most of The Greenlanders Sagas - can be found on my blog:, on my Facebook page: or if you prefer, on Twitter: Enjoy!

It does annoy me intensely when people still say Columbus discovered America. He did not - he never set foot in America. The nearest he came was the Bahamas - most likely the island of San Salvador. It still bemuses me in this respect that the United States has Columbus Day.

It shouldn’t annoy you too much; in a very real way, his discovery of the Bahamas was the discovery of the entire New World.

Having said that, in his own way, Columbus was somewhat of a lunatic. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval Europeans were very aware that the world was round – but simply believed that there was a vast ocean instead of the Western continents. Columbus was actually wrong, his belief was that the world was much smaller than it is (he didn’t think there were Western continents either).

In other words, it was the equivalent of a motorcyclist going to jump the Grand Canyon claiming ‘it’s not as wide as everyone says.’

Greyface lives!

Hah - it does still annoy me, though. You can't discover anything if someone has not only been there before you, but someone else also lives there. It's therefore doubly worse when you do say you've discovered America, when in fact you didn't actually see the damn place. The New World ? Okay, at a push.

The Beringians, the Polynesians, the Chinese, the Phoenicians, the Irish, the Vikings, most likely the Basques and quite possibly the Egyptians and the Guanche all set foot on America before Columbus was even born. By most standards, perhaps more than 50 million people lived there, too. I'm all for giving credit where credit is due but Columbus did not discover America.

Tsurugi's picture

"You can't discover anything if someone has not only been there before you, but someone else also lives there."

I have to disagree with this. "Discovery" is relative, and the scope of the relation is implicit in the context in which the word is used.
The scope can be as narrow as a single person, such as, "Little Jonny discovered an odd-looking box tucked away in the back of the closet," or as wide as the whole human race, as in "Scientists announce the discovery of liquid water on Mars."
Between those two extremes are any number of different sizes of groups of people. A family can discover they can get along on holidays if they try. A tribe can discover a new source of water. A society can discover a new method of governance, a civilization can discover a new landmass.

The point is, "discovering" something means finding something previously unknown, and as such it applies only to those doing the discovering--so in the case of Columbus and the Americas, we're talking about "Western Civilization" or "European Civilization" "discovering" the American continent. To say that was a discovery does not imply that no other human had previous knowledge of the Americas.

That said I generally agree with you that Columbus never actually set foot on the main landmass, plus he thought he was in India(or Asia somewhere) and basically was totally wrong in so many ways.

But discoveries can be bumbling and accidental and even unrealized at the time. Most big ones are, actually.

Agree about Beringians, Vikings. Polynesians in theory could have just traded with South American seafarers but actual landing is far more likely. Chinese, Egyptians and Phoenicians are not supported by real evidence. Irish are doubtful but it's possible. Basque I don't know much about. English (Bristol fishermen, predecessors of Cabot) are the only probable I know that you missed.

Ludvik's picture

I have readed about this coin before, and even if there are no proofs of viking presence in such lands, does not means that vikings never went there. There was also a curious discovery in Cuban north coast, in the 1950 decade, archaeologists discovered the remains of a wooden ship. By its shape, seemed to be a viking ship. The place was lost and has never been found again, although some pieces of wood were conserved, and were sent to study at Kon-Tiki museum. You can read an article about this here:

the Hittites were definitely in contact with the ancient pre-Incan civilization in Peru and Bolivia

The Vikings inhabited Greenland for quite some time-
Technically speaking,
Greenland is less than 20 miles from Canada,
at their closest point.

Greenland IS part of North America.

Columbus did not discover "AMERICA",
for America the country did not exist yet.

He was the first European ACKNOWLEDGED
to have arrived in the continent that is
called North America.

The Vikings lived in Greenland for CENTURIES.

They were leaving Greenland and moving Eastward about the time Columbus was arriving.

It is obvious that they were active in Canada-
Columbus' spot in the Bahamas and
Greenland are
ALL part of North America.

The funniest thing is that it is widely accepted
that the first explorers of Greenland were the aboriginal people from what is now called Canada.

you could just as well say that
"Canadians" discovered Greenland before
the "Europeans" did....

One of the silliest "and saddest" ones is about Peary being the
"First Man to the North Pole".

If anything,his black assistant,
Matthew Henson,
probably got there before he did.

Peary stole his journals and wouldn't give them back for 10 years or so.

Henson took the higher ground,though,
and never stooped to his level.

There are many such stories,
good and bad,
about discovery.

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