The mystery of the sunstone
If you have been watching the History Channel the past few weeks, there is a series currently running on Sunday evenings called "The Vikings". It is a fictional account of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking warrior and farmer who believes there is much to plunder to the west of his tribe's homeland, but is at odds with the chieftan for his group. He is currently building a boat to make the voyage he thinks will lead him to the rich lands he has heard of in legend.
The Vikings were marauders and conquerors of the northern oceans dominated the northern part of Europe from the eighth to the eleventh century raiding kingdoms, pillaging villages and engaging in the slave trade. They traveled from eastern Europe to Canada and there is strong evidence the Vikings even made their way into the Americas. In the book "Unearthing Ancient America", the author discusses possible evidence of the Vikings' exploration of America mentioning a rune stone found in Minnesota that bears some striking similarities to stones found in known Viking encampments.
One of the most popular legends that has been rumored for centuries is the Vikings had a special treasure which aided them in navigating. This device referred to as a Viking sunstone supposedly allowed them to find the sun even if the sky was overcast or the sun was just setting. This device enabled them to navigate the seas by locating east and west which enabled them to find their way to their destination. While this sunstone was a rumored myth, there is now evidence of the possibility the sunstone was not just legend.
According to a news story this week In LiveScience, archaeologists may have recovered a crystal in a British shipwreck which offers evidence the sunstone may have been real. In 1592, an Elizabethan warship called the "Alderney" was sunk off the Channel Islands. This was about four years after the famed battle with the Spanish Armada.
In 1588, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was determined to dethrone Queen Elizabeth and sent the Spanish Armada to force her from the throne. He believed this would remove the threat England posed to Spanish interests. Unfortunately an English fire ship put the end to the Armada's advance when it disrupted the Navy and destroyed its chance of rendezvous with the Spanish army. In the ensuing retreat, severe storms sunk several more of the ships. Between the fire ship and the storms, almost half of the ships were lost.
When the wreckage of the Alderney was discovered this year, a block of crystal was found near the navigation instruments that were still on the wreck. Upon analysis, the mineral was determined to be an aged and clouded piece of calcite crystal called Icelandic Spar. While the block found was cloudy, the sunstone of legend was believed to have originally been clear and to have polarizing qualities that refracted light in a special way. If the stone was held up to the sky and turned it would gather the sun's rays and when it was aligned east and west, the stone would gather and direct the beam of light. It worked whether the sun was visible or hidden behind clouds or even below the horizon by using the available light in the sky.
How it truly worked is still a mystery as there have been no sunstones found in any archaeological Viking site, but this discovery in the Alderney is the first evidence that a crystal like the Viking sunstone existed and may have been used in this manner. According to Wikipedia, the sunstone is listed in the inventories of several medieval churches as well. What became of these valuable crystals is a mystery to this day. In 2007 however, a team of scientists were able to use an Iceland spar crystal to polarize light in a fashion attributed to the Viking sunstone which further lends credence to this mineral being the one of the legends. They experimented near the Arctic on a cloudy day as well as after sunset and discovered as they moved the crystal through the air it eventually collected sunlight and created a beam of light due to its double refracting nature.
Using that light they were able to find the sun's location in the sky within a few degrees.
Whether the Iceland spar is the sunstone of Viking lore or just a lucky coincidence will most likely be a mystery until one is actually discovered among Viking ruins, but it is an example of how truly amazing our planet's resources can be. As I heard someone say once, this planet is a miracle in the sense that the solution for every problem, the cure for every disease is provided here on this planet. It's just up to someone to discover the missing links. What do you think?
Til next time…