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'Near-mythical' Viking navigational aid found in shipwreck

By Leigh Goessl     Mar 6, 2013 in Science
Researchers believe they have found a sunstone in a 16th century shipwreck. This oblong shaped crystal is described as having been used by Viking mariners.
A "near-mythical" navigational aid has been found in the remains of a 1592 shipwreck that was discovered about 30 years ago. According to Agence France-Presse (courtesy Raw Story), the ship had been dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I, but before it could reach its destination it sank near the island of Alderney.
The navigational aid is an oblong crystal that some researchers suggest was used centuries ago by Norsemen. Over the years no firm evidence of this tool had ever surfaced, but scientists have indicated there is a "sketchy" reference in ancient Norse literature that mentions a “solarsteinn." The Telegraph reported the legend told of a "glowing 'sunstone'" that was used to find the sun on a cloudy day.
This has been a debate for a long time amongst researchers.
Digital Journal had reported on this topic in Feb. 2011 describing how it was theorized Vikings could have navigated in fog and mist.
The crystal was found in the shipwreck alongside a pair of navigational dividers. Scientists believe the crystal was possibly used as a backup to a magnetic compass; however, the crystals were reportedly used long before compasses were invented.
“Although easy to use, the magnetic compass was not always reliable in the 16th century, as most of the magnetic phenomena were not understood,” the scientists said in the study. "As the magnetic compass on a ship can be perturbed for various reasons, the optical compass giving an absolute reference may be used when the Sun is hidden."
For decades there has been no proof of this, however now scientists say they have confirmed the stone was a calcite; known as an Iceland spar. The original crystal is discolored from sitting beneath the sea for so many years, but researchers tested the crystal's abilities on a similar crystal. They found they were able to locate the sun both in poor light and after sunset with remarkable accuracy.
"The Alderney discovery opens new possibilities as it looks very promising to find Iceland spars in other ancient shipwrecks, or in archaeological sites located on the seaside such as the Viking settlement with ship repair recently discovered in Ireland," said the researchers.
In addition to the Viking settlement in Ireland, last summer a Viking-era 800-year-old shipwreck was found off the coast of Sweden.
Full details have been published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.
Note: This article was updated to correct an error that said the ship was a Viking shipwreck, it was on a 16th century English warship the crystal was found.
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