New study reveals Vikings could navigate after dark using sun-compass and mythical sunstone
The Vikings have been reputed to be remarkable seafarers who would confidently head into unexplored waters. Now a team of researchers from Hungary and Sweden claim to have a clue as to how the Norse warriors managed to fearlessly navigate their way through unknown oceans to invade unsuspecting communities along the North Sea and Atlantic Sea coasts of Europe – it is believed that they combined the power of a sun-compass, with that of a sunstone to navigate their ships after dark.
A well-known ancient Norse myth describing a magical gem which could reveal the position of the sun when hidden behind clouds or even after sunset, was the subject of intrigue for many years, until researchers found a unique crystal in the wreck of an Elizabethan ship sunk off the coast of the Channel Islands. In March, 2013, a team of scientists announced that the crystal made of a calcite substance could have indeed acted as a remarkably precise navigational aid.
The calcite crystal found on an Elizabethan ship. Photo source. The Natural History Museum / ALA
In the latest study, researchers examined a fragment of an 11th-century dial found in Uunartoq, Greenland, and attempted to extrapolate its features into something that would allow Viking navigators to detect the position of the sun from the twilight glow on the horizon passing through two calcite sunstones. The results found that when used in combination, the dial and the sunstones could find the position of the sun even after it had passed below the twilight horizon. This means that the Vikings could have navigated their ships well after sunset, since the twilight glow can last all night long at high latitudes in summer
"Sunstones are mentioned in written sources and they could be used during civil twilight, although it is not trivial how one can accurately estimate the position of the sun with them," said Balázs Bernáth and his colleagues in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.
Sunstones are said to have helped the great Norse mariners to navigate their way to Iceland and even as far as North America during the Viking heyday of 900 to 1200 AD, long before the magnetic compass was introduced in Europe in the 13th century. Scholars have speculated that even in the era of the compass, crews might have kept such stones on hand as backup.
The findings challenge the stereotypical view of Vikings as mere war-hungry brutes and reflects their ingenuity and advanced knowledge employed in successfully navigating the seas over 1,000 years ago.
Featured image: Wooden fragment discovered in Uunartoq, Greenland, in 1948, which is believed to be a sun-compass used to determine direction. Image credit: Soren Thirslund.