Mythical Viking 'Sunstone' Found in Shipwreck?

First Posted: Mar 06, 2013 09:23 PM EST

The legendary Viking “sunstone” may have existed and may have been found, French scientists announced today in the prestigious, subscription-based website of the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

The group of scientists from the University of Rennes in France examined a crystal found in the wreck of a British ship sunk off the island of Alderney – in the English Channel – in 1592.

The oblong crystal the size of a cigarette packet was found next to a pair of dividers - suggesting it was part of the navigational equipment.

After submitting it to a series of mechanical and chemical tests, the French team determined that the Alderman crystal is indeed a calcite and, therefore, could have been the ship's optical compass. And so, they concluded, they had found physical evidence of the existence of the Viking’s legendary “sunstone.”

In order words, the transparent crystal may have been used to locate the sun even on cloudy days, which could help to explain how the Vikings were able to navigate across large tracts of the sea - well before the invention of the magnetic compass.

But, of course, not everyone in the scientific community is buying it.

The stone itself is made of Iceland spar - a form of calcite known for its property of diffracting light into two separate rays.

Testing a similar crystal, the scientists proved that by rotation it was possible to find the point where the two beams converge - indicating the direction of the sun. They say it works on cloudy days, and when the sun has set.

This particular piece of Iceland spar was found on the British vessel long after the Viking heyday in the ninth and 10th Centuries.

But the scientists conjecture that use of sunstones may have persisted for many centuries as a back-up to the often unreliable magnetic compass, which was introduced in Europe in the 13th Century.

There is only a sketchy reference in the old Viking legends to the sunstone.

Viking were the North Germanic explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century. They used longships to travel as far east as modern day Istambul and Russia, and as far west as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and, some believe, even North America.

See Now: NASA's Juno Spacecraft's Rendezvous With Jupiter's Mammoth Cyclone

©2017 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission. The window to the world of science news.

Join the Conversation

Real Time Analytics