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Mythical Viking Sunstone Found
by Bob Brooke

For centuries, a myth has existed about a special stone used by the Vikings to navigate their maritime empire. In fact, many historians believe that such a stone may have helped Erik the Red discover the coast of Newfoundland in the New World, several centuries before Columbus cited land in the Caribbean. But alas, for a long time, the sunstone remained nothing more than a myth. That was until marine archaeologists discovered one.

Marine archaeologists from the University of Rennes in France discovered what they believed to be an ancient sunstone while exploring the wreckage of the Alderney, an Elizabethan warship that sank near the Channel Islands in 1592.

Scholars have long disputed the existence of sunstones because they're mentioned in the Saga of Saint Olaf, a tale with many magical elements. Marine archaeologists found the stone in the shipwreck not more than three feet from other navigation tools, offering proof that it had indeed been part of some navigatorís tool kit. Researchers in a previous study proved that a fragment of calcite crystal could be used to orient themselves within a few degrees of the sun, even after the sun had dipped below the horizon. However,
The crystal found in the English Channel would be useless for navigation today, as it has been abraded by centuries of sand and salt.

The researchers theorized that the stone, a piece of Icelandic Spar, would have been used because of its unique refractive qualities. Normally, sunstone has been found in Southern Norway and Sweden, as well as Iceland. Calcite crystals like Icelandic Spar create a double image, splitting light into two rays. If a seaman held the crystal east-west, the double image becomes a single image and thus allows a sailor to locate the sun. The crystal's refractive qualities continue to be useful even in low light, on a cloudy day, or for a while after the sun has set.

That they discovered the crystal aboard an Elizabethan era ship shows that it had long been used in navigation. By the 16th century, European navigators had compasses, but the sunstone would have been a reliable backup. Stones like the one found aboard the shipwreck have yet to be found in Viking settlements, though recent excavations have found fragments.

It's unlikely archaeologists will ever discover a complete crystal in a Viking site because the Vikings preferred to cremate their dead on funeral pyres, along with their worldly possessions.

Learn the science behind Viking sunstones.

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Every year about 95 000 people die in Sweden and, according to the law, everyone must be buried. There must be room for everyone in the cemeteries, therefore the future needs of space have to be predicted. Because of this funerals must be part of the planning process.

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In the early Middle Ages, driven by famine at home and the promise of wealth to be had in other lands, the Vikings set out from Scandinavia to conquer parts of England, Ireland, France, Russia, and even Turkey. Bolstered by their successes, the Vikings pushed westward, eventually crossing the North Atlantic and founding settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland in Canada.
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