I have just watched an episode (series 1, episode 5) of the Mysteries of the Missing documentary series. Half of this one dealt with the mysterious sunstones of the Vikings, by which they are believed to have navigated the Atlantic. They also used wooden sundials (hand-held) that worked when the sun was out, but what about when it was cloudy? It wasn’t really explained how the sunstones worked after dark . . . but then we’re talking the midnight sun in the North Atlantic, so there was always sun. So I guess the sunstone was only useless further south if the weather was overcast or after dark. To read more about sunstones, go to this article which is very informative about how the sunstone worked and was used.
Anyway, it was believed for a long time that the sunstone was mythical, and invention for the magical Norse sagas, until an amazing discovery was made in 2011, when one of these sunstones was discovered and its use realised. Where was it found? Off Alderney in the Channel Islands. How? Because divers were exploring an Elizabethan warship and found an unusual crystal with dividers and other navigation instruments.
Does this mean the Elizabethans knew all about sunstones and used them? If so, were they resorted to regularly? Or was this a chance in a million discovery? Was the ship’s captain of Viking descent and just happened to have a family heirloom with him? Unlikely.
My next question is . . . if the Vikings used them and the Elizabethans knew about/used them too, surely they were also known to the centuries in between? Surely they had to be? So did our medieval merchantmen and warships sally forth with these invaluable, almost magical tools?
Our medieval sailors didn’t only nip across the Channel to beat seven shades out of the French (or try to!) they also traded far and wide. Did they have sunstones as well? After all, the ubiquitous cog is first mentioned in the 10th century, off Amsterdam and is believed to have originated in Jutland. See this article
If that one example of a sunstone hadn’t been found off Alderney, we’d still think it was solely Viking knowledge. But it wasn’t. Might it be that the Armada was driven to defeat by Drake’s fleet that although smaller had an unseen advantage? Or that Raleigh crossed the Atlantic with a little help?
Last question. If in modern times we believed the sunstone was a fairy tale, what happened to it? Why, if the Elizabethans knew of it, didn’t subsequent generations carry the knowledge—and the invaluable tool—with them too? From Elizabeth’s time, was there suddenly such a huge advance in navigation that it was rendered superfluous?
OK, more than one question, I know, but really, it boils down to only one: how/why did we lose the sunstone?
🎄 And the compliments of our modern Christmas to you all! May you navigate your way home with complete success and have a truly wonderful season.