An e-mail from Nick Jainschigg pointed me to this page (“5 Huge Mistakes Nobody Noticed for a Shockingly Long Time,” by Evan V. Symon for Cracked.com); it was headed “#1,” which sent me down the page to “#1. Scholars Mistake Random Cracks in a Rock for an Epic Poem”:
In the 12th century, a rock bearing what appeared to be slowly fading runic symbols was discovered in Blekinge, Sweden, because ancient Norsemen just wrote shit down wherever they could. The king of Denmark sent a team of skilled translators to figure out what it said, but they were all stumped, claiming that the Runamo Inscription (as it would come to be called) was written in a form of Viking that was just too obscure for them to read. The actual reason they were unable to decipher the inscription is because it isn’t an inscription at all — it’s just a bunch of random fissures in the surface of the rock.
[…]Then, in the early 1800s, an Icelandic scholar named Finnur Magnusson, who would eventually become famous for habitually identifying meaningless naturally occurring bullshit as authentic runic writing, translated the Runamo Inscription as an epic poem about warrior chieftain Harald Wartooth defeating the Swedish king in the eighth century. This was a potentially huge discovery, because at the time little was known about the famous battle, and the rock would serve as a genuine historical record. … Sweden sent its own scientists to verify Magnusson’s story, which they determined to be categorically false, much to the chagrin of hopeful historians and terrible Icelandic rune experts everywhere.
Not only was this amusing for its own sake, it immediately explained where Osip Senkovsky got the inspiration for the long Bear Island section of “The fantastic journeys of Baron Brambeus” that I described here; what I didn’t mention in that post is that the long hieroglyphic cave inscription Brambeus and his pal deciphered turned out to be natural outgrowths on the rock faces that they had mistaken for writing. Ripped from the headlines!