New Research Suggests Vikings May Have Used Mysterious Sunstones For Navigating The Seas

New research suggests Vikings may have used sunstones to navigate the seas.

For a long time there has been a belief in ancient legends which spoke of Vikings using sunstones to help them navigate the seas on their long voyages, and now new research suggests that this belief may indeed be correct. The new study that was conducted seeks to understand what the conditions might have been like for Vikings who sought out these sunstones and has shown that they would have been able to sail fairly easily through foggy conditions armed with nothing but a sunstone and a little bit of practical mathematical knowledge.

Icelandic sagas which date all the way back to the 10th century relate poetic tales of voyages filled with adventure and battles and mention this mysterious sunstone as a wondrous Viking tool that helped them immensely. Rauðúlfs þáttr is one such Icelandic story and describes light which emanates from a stone, according to News Corp Australia.

“The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurður had predicted. Then the king summoned Sigurður and Dagur (Rauðúlfur’s sons) to him. The king made people look out and they could nowhere see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurður to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them fetch the solar stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’s prediction.”

A new study suggests that the sunstone that was mentioned in Norse and Icelandic stories may have been a real tool to help Vikings navigate the seas.

The great Sigurd of the Norse Völsunga Saga also describes how Sigurd was able to successfully navigate his way out of something which may have been fog and into the direction of sunlight. Viking legends of this sunstone being used for navigational purposes abound in ancient literature, as the Daily Mail report.

“The weather was very cloudy, it was snowing. Holy Olaf the king sent out somebody to look around, but there was no clear point in the sky. Then he asked Sigurd to tell him where the Sun was. After Sigurd complied, he grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun. It turned out that Sigurd was right.”

Vikings would have used all the tools of their time when voyaging over the high seas, which would have included using the North Star as a compass point. Yet Vikings would have had great difficulty when encountering bad weather. At times, it would be cloudy or foggy for days, making it cumbersome to sail without much sunlight. This is when the sunstone is purported to have helped the Vikings. While much has been written about this strange sunstone, is there any physical evidence that such a tool really existed? As it happens, the answer to this is yes.

Live Science noted that a crystal believed to be one of these ancient sunstones was recovered from a ship that sunk close to the Channel Islands in 1592. The crystal was found a mere three feet away from navigational dividers, and research from the University of Rennes in France points out that this is a clear sign that the crystal was being used for navigational purposes. A chemical analysis of the crystal concluded that it was Icelandic Spar, also known as calcite crystal, and would have been one of the Viking sunstones mentioned in ancient legends.

A scene from Fritz Lang's 'Die Nibelungen' which tells the story of Siegried, a mythical warrior who used sunstones on his Viking sea voyages.

New research undertaken by Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University has studied various kinds of polarizing crystals under a whole host of different meteorological conditions in order to see if a hypothesis by archaeologist Thorhild Ramskou in 1967 held up to scientific scrutiny. It was Ramskou’s assertion that Vikings were able to spot the sun even when hidden by cloud cover by using some sort of birefringent material like a sunstone, or crystallized calcium carbonate, so that they would be able to filter the light when holding it up.

It was said that when the light of the sun passed through this sunstone it could then be paired with a solar compass so that sailors could figure out the general direction and time, which would help the Vikings to obtain a reasonably accurate position of where they were on a map, according to ScienceAlert.

Hungarian scientists wanted to test out Thorhild Ramskou’s theory and in their new study set in a planetarium conducted tests on several birefringent crystals, including tourmaline, calcite and cordierite. They then researched as many as 1,080 different variations of cloud cover and sun angles on these three types of crystals.

In a new study designed to test the use of sunstones as Viking navigational tools, calcite crystal was found to be the most useful.

Out of the crystals used, calcite was the one that was found to be the most useful and accurate as a tool. Further, it was shown that these sunstones would have worked best for Vikings when used close to the summer solstice, when the sun was still quite low, and early in the day.

Even though only one such physical sunstone has ever been recovered from a ship, this latest research shows that it is very likely that sunstones were used by Vikings for navigational purposes just as the ancient Norse and Icelandic sagas spoke of.

[Featured Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]