Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Viking Sunstones

Possible Viking Sunstone
Even though text books and history classes still generally give credit to Christopher Columbus for being the first European to sail from Europe to North America, the more recent editions of texts are now at least hinting at the possibility of earlier Norse settlements and visitations to our area.

According to the Icelandic Sagas and most historians, Erik the Red settled on Greenland around AD 980. There are, in fact, Norse settlements still visible on Greenland. Furthermore, there seem to have been at least exploratory trips to Newfoundland. The sagas go further, making the claim that the Norse also visited areas further to the west.

Perhaps, they even visited Yankee territory. There are several oddities in New England, like the Bourne Stone and Dighton Rock, which at least suggest a Norse visit.

One of the issues some theorists have with considering Scandinavian settlement in North America is the problem of navigation. This was well before the European use of the magnetic compass. Certainly experienced sailors could navigate using the sun and stars, but what about on cloudy or stormy days?

 In the Sagas, the writings indicate that the Scandinavian explorers used something called a sunstone to plot the position of a hidden sun on stormy days or long northern twilight nights, thus solving the navigation issue. However, historians have been confused as to what a sunstone actually was.

Recent articles from Wired News and Discovery News state that researchers have solved the mystery of the sunstone. According to the articles, Icelandic spar, a type of crystal Norseman would have been familiar with acts as a polarizer and de-polarizer of light.

The Norse explorers could have used a piece of this crystal in two ways. First, if the crystal is held up to one’s line of sight and pulled away suddenly, one should catch a glimpse of a yellowish pattern called a Haidinger’s Brush. The ends of the yellow pattern should point toward the sun. When tested, this method was found to be within 5 degrees of the true orientation of the sun.

The second method required Scandinavian explorers to observe the pattern of the light witch passed through the Icelandic spar. This crystal has a property called birefringence, which allows light passing through the crystal to form a double image.

By changing the orientation of the crystal one changes the brightness of each image. If the crystal is oriented in such a way that each image is equal in shade, it is possible to locate the position of the sun to within a single degree of accuracy.

The articles also state that there have yet to be any sunstones found in any Norse settlements or ship wrecks.

There is still no real uncontested proof that Norse people settled in areas in New England, but its becoming clear that it was absolutely possible. Perhaps, more study into things like Dighton rock, the Bourne Stone, or the New England Stonehenge will yield additional evidence. So, look for future pots on Dighton Rock and the Bourne Stone.

If you're curious about how the sunstone works, check out the following video.

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