Mythical Viking treasure - legendary 'Sunstone' believed found
Magical crystal was used for navigation in Viking's travels
Salvaged from the depths of Alderney, third largest of the Channel Islands, there lies the wreck of an Elizabethan warship sunken in 1592. Many treasures were pulled form the depths there in the years after 2002. Amidst many ancient treasures, a rather inelegant object that "looks like a bar of soap and is just as opaque," is believed to be the mythical and magical "Sunstone," a navigational tool that helped the Vikings in their pillages and plunder.
Essential to the Vikings' navigation was there place in relation to the sun. Historians have long wondered how they navigated on the days when weather conditions or the time of the day meant that the sun was out of sight.
The Alderney crystal could be the world's first known specimen is likely to cause almost as big a stir as might the capture of a leprechaun, or the discovery of King Arthur's sword.
As published in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society, physicists at the University of Rennes in Brittany say that the Alderney crystal remains one of the great maritime mysteries: how to explain the nautical prowess of the Vikings in an age long before the invention of reliable magnetic compasses.
Vikings raped and pillaged their way from Scandinavia to reach not just British shores but also those of North America, where they are believed to have set up colonies in the 10th century. One of the great mysteries was as to how they were able to accurately navigate to foreign lands. Their vessels held up to 120 men and crashing through the waves at up to 15 knots - almost 20 miles per hour. An error of just a few degrees could take them rapidly off course
Essential to their navigation was there place in relation to the sun. Historians have long wondered how they navigated on the days when weather conditions or the time of the day meant that the sun was out of sight.
An Icelandic legend about the travels of the Norwegian king Olaf in the 11th century refers to sunstones.
One winter's day, Olaf met a farmer's son named Sigurour, who boasted that he could sense the position of the sun even in a snowy sky. According to legend, the assembled company looked out of the window but "could nowhere see a clear sky." After asking Sigurour to tell him where the sun was, the king ordered his minions to fetch "the solar stone" to test the young man's claims.
'He held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurour's prediction.'
Sunstones are also found in the inventories of several churches and one monastery in 14th-century Iceland. No official sunstones have ever been found, until scientists began to investigate a crystal called Icelandic spar, which would have been quite common in the Vikings' homelands.
The crystal has a peculiar molecular structure, which means that light passing through it is split into two. Rotating the crystal eventually exposes the point where the two beams converge, and it is this angle that indicates the direction of the sun.
The jury is still out. Left languishing in a wooden box with only a purple velvet lining to dignify it as anything other than a nondescript piece of rock, the Alderney crystal may soon be retrieved from the storeroom and honored with its own display cabinet.
© 2013, Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
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