Viking ‘Sunstone’ May Have Existed

GEOGRAPHY

Famed Viking ‘sunstone’ did exist, believe scientists
Vikings were legendary navigators—using their gorgeous longships to successfully leave their Scandinavian homes and venture as far east as the rivers of Russia and as far west as the British Isles . . . and North America. For centuries, scientists, historians, and adventurers have pursued the fabled Viking ‘sunstone,’ a device that allowed sailors to navigate in any weather. Using a sunstone, Vikings could plot the position of the sun and stars even in cloudy weather. Many scientists now think they have identified a Viking sunstone, part of a medieval shipwreck discovered in 2002. The supposed sunstone is “Icelandic spar,” a type of crystal that can be rotated to calculate the position of the sun in cloudy or even twilight illumination. (Navigators would simply match up the double-reflection.)

NGS Picture ID:202683

Vikings probably used “sunstones” to navigate storms like this one.
Illustration by Louis S. Glanzman

Discussion ideas:

  • Read our encyclopedic entries on direction and navigation, especially the short section on celestial navigation. Besides the sun, what other stars do students think Vikings used to navigate the North Atlantic? (Polaris, the North Star, was probably the most important. Stars in constellations such as the Big Dipper and Orion were probably also used in celestial navigation.)
  • Scientists think the so-called Alderney Crystal (named after the island near where the shipwreck was discovered) is a Viking sunstone. However, the wreck in which it was discovered dates hundreds of years after the Viking era, and long after magnetic compasses and star charts were in regular use. Historians say the crystal was used by medieval seafarers to fine-tune these more sophisticated instruments. Other scientists are unconvinced that the Alderney Crystal is a sunstone. What sort of evidence would archaeologists need to prove the Alderney Crystal is a Viking sunstone? (Discovery of a similar crystal in an actual Viking shipwreck or burial site; a similar crystal inscribed as a sunstone; or a similar crystal identified as a sunstone in a book, illustration, or map (an authentic one) from the Viking era would all support the identification of the Alderney Crystal as a sunstone.)
  • Vikings navigated using celestial navigation and “dead reckoning” based on past experience and familiar landmarks. We have much more sophisticated navigational tools today. Name some. (Maps, sextants, charts, GPS, radio communication, compasses . . .)

Thanks to Mary Ford and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune for the heads-up on this current event connection!

Note: We’re experimenting with a new feature here on the NG Education Blog. “Current Event Connection” posts will connect educators with news stories and relevant discussion ideas featuring content from the NG Education website. 

 

One response to “Viking ‘Sunstone’ May Have Existed

  1. This is great! Remember “The Vikings” with Tony Curtis? I use it as an intro to Beowulf: A New Telling and now I’ll have a new comment to share with my students!

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