Viking sagas - ancient stories, first handed down orally from generation to generation -
may have been more truthful than we realized.
According to these sagas, the Vikings used whales, swells, birds, the stars and the wind
as clues to aid in navigation.
Crystal "sunstones" could have helped Viking sailors to navigate even when cloud or fog hid the sun.
A special crystal discovered with the wreckage of the Alderney, an Elizabethan
warship that sank near the Channel Islands in 1592, suggests legendary Viking sunstones
did exists in reality.
This crystal found at the Alderney shipwreck. Image credit & copyright: Alderney Museum
It is believed that Vikings used so-called sunstones as a compass to find their way in arctic waters.
A certain passage in a thirteenth-century manuscript called St Olaf’s Saga, informs that the Icelandic
hero Sigurd tells King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway where the sun is on a cloudy day.
Olaf checks Sigurd's claim using a mysterious sunstone:
'Olaf grabbed a Sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light
came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun...'.
Now, the research shows that sunstones (like the one discovered at the Alderney shipwreck)
could have been held up toward the center of the sky, allowing sunlight to hit it and get
polarized and broken into an "ordinary" and an "extraordinary" beam.
On a clear not cloudy day, they could have rotated the crystal until the pair of beams
lined up. By noting where the sun was when this happened, navigators could make a
reference point to use even when the Sun was obscured by clouds or twilight.
Secrets Of Legendary Viking Crystal Sunstones And The Mysterious Uunartoq Artifact Unraveled
If the crystal is held east-west, the double image becomes a single image and thus
allows a sailor to locate the Sun.
According to the study published in the journal
Proceedings of the Royal Society A "such a crystal immersed in sea water
play a crucial role by limiting the solubility, strengthening the mechanical properties
of the calcite, while the sand abrasion alters the crystal by inducing roughness of its surface.
Although both phenomena have reduced the transparency of the Alderney calcite crystal,
we demonstrate that Alderney-like crystals could really have been used as an accurate
optical sun compass as an aid to ancient navigation, when the Sun was hidden by clouds or below the horizon.
To avoid the possibility of large magnetic errors, not understood before 1600, an
optical compass could have helped in providing the sailors with an absolute reference.
An Alderney-like crystal permits the observer to follow the azimuth of the Sun, far
below the horizon," the research team writes in the science paper.
It is doubtful archaeologists will ever uncover a complete crystal in a Viking site
because Vikings preferred to commit their dead to funeral pyres, cremating them and
their grave goods.
One of the reasons why the existences of sunstones have long been disputed is
because they are contained in the saga of Saint Olaf, a tale with many magical elements.
However, this latest discovery offers evidence magical Viking sunstones were real.
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