Low-Tech Vikings May Have Used Mineral With Funky Optics to Reach New World

By Douglas Main | November 4, 2011 1:40 pm

What’s the news: Viking legend has it that sailors could hold up crystal sunstones to the sky to help them find their way. Turns out the legend could be true. In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of researchers found that a type of crystal called an Icelandic spar commonly found in that country could accurately reveal the position of the sun in cloudy or near-dark conditions. How Vikings Got Around:

  • Researchers have long wondered and argued about how the Vikings were able to successfully navigate their way around the Northern Hemisphere in the late eighth to 11th centuries, hundreds of years before the magnetic compass reached Europe around 1300. Besides the direction of the wind, waves, and swell, the only way to navigate during the day away from shore is by knowing the sun’s direction. But that’s not so easy on a foggy or stormy day, or during the long twilight of Northern summers.
  • Historians have speculated that, due to their optical properties, crystals of calcite (a common form of calcium carbonate) could have been used to tell direction, but until now the theory hadn’t been tested.

The Magic of Calcite:

  • Icelandic spars are crystals of calcium carbonate which have a special property called birefringence: light hitting the mineral is split and follows two parallel paths through it, which explains how calcite makes objects look doubled. The relative brightness of the two images—the amount of light following the two different paths—depends on the light’s orientation to the crystal. The researchers showed that this can be used to locate a hard-to-find light source, like the sun on a cloudy day.
  • The basic idea is that at a certain orientation to a light source, the crystal produces two light beams of equal brightness, a contrast the eye can measure surprisingly well. If you figure out what orientation of the crystal produces this effect when the sun is visible, you can repeat the procedure in the fog to find the sun.
  • Testing the method with various Icelandic spars, the researchers were able to establish the direction of the sun to within 5 degrees.

Is This the Vikings’ Secret?

  • So far no crystals have been found in known Viking settlements or artifacts. But one such crystal was recently found in the 1592 shipwreck of an Elizabethan vessel in the English channel. The researchers think its likely to have been used to aid navigation, due to its shape and their calculation that the presence of even the one large cannon found aboard would interfere with compass readings. This suggests these types of sunstones were in use more than 200 years before polarized light was first discovered, and possibly used even earlier by the Vikings to navigate the open seas.

Reference: Guy Ropars, Gabriel Gorre, Albert Le Floch, Jay Enoch, and Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan. A depolarizer as a possible precise sunstone for Viking navigation by polarized skylight. Proceedings of the Royal Society A. Published online 2 November 2011. DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2011.0369 Image credit: WikiMedia Commons 

  • Kevin Johnson

    The ancient Clovis peoples may have used calcite to traverse the American Southwest. There is no evidence of it, but yet it is highly plausible.

  • Christina Viering

    Go Vikings!

  • Laurie

    Thomas Pynchon had a bit to say about this.

  • Brent

    Why would the clovis need such a device in the mostly cloudless south west?

  • blindboy

    Ah yes “Against The Day” one of Pynchon’s finest. Contains many references to Icelandic spar.

  • floodmouse

    I need a sunstone today, it is kind of cloudy here.

  • Michael Swanson

    1. Kevin Johnson Says:

    “The ancient Clovis peoples may have used calcite to traverse the American Southwest. There is no evidence of it, but yet it is highly plausible.”

    Replace “plausible” with “possible” and I can accept that with another type of crystal — a large grain of salt.

  • Jonathan

    I recall taking a biology 300 cphysics and chemistry of the environment course in the 70’s where this hypothesis was brought up with respect to polarized light.

    Good to see more confirmation of an hold hypothesis.

  • Brian Too

    I’m sure the “low-tech Vikings” would have considered this the height of technology and sophistication in their day!

  • Philippa Doran

    The Vikings also used a raven to find land.

    So did Noah!

  • http://www.a2q.com Jay Warner

    Consider the other means for navigation in this period – type of sand dredged up, depth of water, type of flotsam, etc., – and you realize that a sun stone would be a most valuable item. I’d hate to think so valuable an item would get tossed into a privy pit (a usual source of artifacts), or left behind when a place was abandoned. Only if a ship was lost at sea, with the captain, and the captain’s clothes containing the sunstone preserved as well, are we likely to find one in an archeological site.


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