An ancient sundial discovered in Greenland could be a secret Viking navigation tool, according to new research.
The sundial could have helped the ancient mariners sail at the same north-south latitude across the Atlantic Ocean. The Vikings were known for their sea prowess, though archaeologists have yet to discover exactly how the ancient mariners were so precise with their navigation.
The study was published on Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society A Mathematical and Physical Sciences and suggests that the Norsemen could have been even more impressive on the high seas than previously thought.
Researchers believe that the Vikings used a sophisticated sun compass to find true north and even relied on a supposedly “magic” crystal on cloudy days. Study co-author Balázs Bernáth, a researcher at Eötvös University in Hungary explained:
“It is widely accepted that Norse people were excellent mariners. Now it seems they used much more sophisticated navigational instruments than we thought before.”
Archaeologists discovered a strange wooden artifact in 1948 under the ruins of a Benedictine monastery in a Greenland fjord. The fjord was settled by Norse farmers during the 10th century. The artifact was shaped into a half-circle, had a center hole, and boasted a zigzag engraving along its perimeter. There were also several lines scratched onto the plate’s interior.
While some skeptics of the find argued that it was a household decoration, most researchers believed it to be an elusive Viking sun compass. But the ancient sundial wouldn’t have been good at finding north, because its markings were incomplete. But instead of being disappointed, the team wondered if the compass had a more sophisticated function — determining latitude.
Bernáth explained that the Vikings often sailed along latitude lines, such as the 61st latitude between Norway and Greenland. But wind and currents would have easily blown the smaller Viking ships off course. To test their theories, the team studied the sundial. They found that a dial at the center of the compass would have cast a shadow between two lines on the plate at noon every day.
The ancient mariners could have taken that noon shadow’s length and used scaling lines on the dial to determine what latitude they were at. But while the calculations of latitude and longitude on the sundial may be correct, there is no way of knowing for sure what the mysterious sundial’s use was.
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