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Vikings were once known as the best sailors in Europe and navigated to the Americas even before Christopher Columbus. (Ted Spiegel / National Geographic / Getty Images)

Viking Mystery Solved

Archaeologists uncover the secret stone that Vikings used to navigate the seas

By Zach Jones | March 22 , 2013
<p>PHOTO: When a sunstone is held toward the sky, a yellowish line of light points to the sun. (Guy Ropars / AP Images)</p><p> MAP: Archaeologists found the shipwreck with the sunstone near the Channel Islands. (Jim McMahon)</p>

PHOTO: When a sunstone is held toward the sky, a yellowish line of light points to the sun. (Guy Ropars / AP Images)

MAP: Archaeologists found the shipwreck with the sunstone near the Channel Islands. (Jim McMahon)

Centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed toward North America, Vikings had already made the voyage. From the 8th to the 13th centuries, these seafaring explorers sailed from northern Europe to Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Vikings were once known as the best sailors in Europe, and now scientists may have found out why.

Legends from the time say that Viking sailors used a magical rock called a sunstone to help navigate (plan a path across) oceans and seas. But for hundreds of years, no one knew whether or not these rocks were real—until now.

A gem thought to be a sunstone was recently found in a British ship that sank near the Channel Islands in 1592 after a battle with a Spanish warship. What archaeologists found might not be magical, but it was certainly high-tech science for its time.

A GUIDING LIGHT

Long before Google Maps, GPS, or even compasses, ancient sailors used the sun and stars to determine their whereabouts while on open water. If stormy waters turned a ship around, the captain could guess where the ship should be pointing, based on where the sun was rising or setting.

But how can you tell which way is north or south when it’s night, or when clouds blanket the sky? Use a sunstone!

Sunstones allowed sailors to determine the exact location of a light source at any time. The stones were made from a type of crystal called Iceland spar, which is translucent. Something that is translucent is mostly see-through, allowing light to travel through the object.

Because of the shape in which Vikings cut the crystal, a yellowish line of light is visible when the stone is held toward the sky. Even when the sun has set or is hidden behind clouds, the yellow line will point to the sun’s exact location. This would allow sailors to tell which direction is north, south, east, or west and point their ship in the right direction.

“You don’t have to understand how it works,” says French researcher Albert Le Floch. “Using it is basically easy.”

The recently discovered sunstone was being used on the British ship even though the magnetic compass had been invented hundreds of years earlier. Le Floch believes sunstones were still being used throughout Europe long after the Viking age, because compasses often did not work correctly.

A recent study proved that people using a sunstone today could correctly predict where the sun was on a cloudy day. Le Floch now plans to combine a sunstone and a compass into a single gadget to help modern-day sailors navigate the seas without modern-day technology.

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