Before we begin today, some good news: I’m mentioned in the Washington Post! And of course the writer gets a few details wrong. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wants to build a mosque in Cuba because he wrongly believes Columbus sighted one there in 1492. The Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, a former senior editor for Time, cites my blog in noting that the actual textual support for this claim, Bartolomé de Las Casas’s transcription-summary of Columbus’s journal, clearly states that Columbus saw a hill that looked “like a graceful mosque”—a metaphorical description. But Tharoor mistakes Las Casas’s work as Las Casas’s journal rather than Columbus’s, and he spells Las Casas’s name wrong.
On this edition of Expedition Unknown, Josh Gates goes in search of the Viking sunstones in an episode conveniently named “Viking Sunstone” (S01E06). It is refreshing in that it does not involve any conspiracy theories or imaginary expeditions to Minnesota. Gates begins by explaining that the Vikings were masters of sailing, establishing colonies across the North. It’s a bit odd though that he says such colonies “maybe” included North America, as though L’Anse-aux-Meadows didn’t exist and hasn’t been accepted as proof of a Norse presence in North America for half a century.
The sunstone is known from a few Icelandic texts, of which the twelfth or thirteenth century Rauðúlfs þáttr describes how King Olav Haraldsson II (St. Olav) used a crystal to locate the sun behind a thick layer of clouds to verify a prediction made by a man named Sigurður about the sun’s location: “Then the king made them fetch the solar stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður's prediction” (trans. Thorsteinn Vilhjalmsson).
Because the medieval texts mentioning the stone are allegorical in nature, many have dismissed the stones as fictional. But in 2013, a crystal was found in a sixteenth century English shipwreck near Alderney, which some have interpreted as evidence that sunstones were both real and in used six centuries earlier by a completely different culture. According to the Alderney museum official Gates interviewed, the only connection between the Elizabethan shipwreck and the Vikings is speculation that the crystal found in the 1592 wreck was a sunstone and not, say, intended for jewelry, magical rituals, etc. The stone was found close to a navigational instrument, but this doesn’t imply that the stone was used this way. Some suggest that it may have been used as a portable sundial. It’s a bit challenging to believe that sunstones were used for navigation for six centuries and produced a grand total of two or three mentions in all of medieval literature, and not a lick of notice from anyone in England where the only existing stone was found. Stranger things have happened, but it is a bit unusual.
Interestingly, the medieval texts do not specify that the sunstones, should they have existed, were used in navigation. That conclusion came from the Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou, who in the 1960s postulated that polarized stones could have been used to keep track of the sun while sailing through cloudy weather. It’s a reasonable conclusion, but not one explicitly supported by the texts, which do not imply that the sunstone was necessary for the coast-hugging sailing described in the voyage of St. Olav.
Gates visits the shipwreck and dives into the waters, but of course he doesn’t find any more sunstones. Gates then travels to Norway in search of more information about St. Olav. At a medieval cathedral, Gates is shown the crypts where the medieval king may be buried. His exact place of entombment within the catacombs is unknown. Gates moves on to Oslo, where he eats reindeer. I wonder if it tastes like venison, which I’ve had. Anyway, he moves on to a museum where the largest intact Viking ship ever found is on display. There, he meets with Dr. Jan Brill, who tells Gates that the crystal found in Alderney is a polarized form of calcite. He sends Gates to a closed Norwegian mine to excavate a piece of calcite, though this is more an excuse to take a trip into the mine than it is a necessity to get calcite. But as they say, getting there is half the fun. This leads into a long segment of descending into tunnels that date back to the seventeenth century.
After chipping a piece of clear calcite out of rock a thousand feet below ground, Gates meets with an expert in light polarization, Balázs Bernáth, who explains how one might use a polarized stone to find the location of the sun. Bernáth then explains how one might use a “twilight board,” or sun compass, which uses the angle of the sun to deduce direction with the help of a shadow stick. By combining the two, the sun stone could therefore be used to determine the location of the sun and aim the sun compass when the sun wasn’t visible. Bernáth published a paper about this last year.
Gates next travels to a reconstruction of a Viking village to learn about medieval Norse life, and then in the last minutes of the show, he and Bernáth are on board a reconstruction of a Viking ship to test whether the presumed sunstone and the twilight board actually work. Gates determines the presumed direction based on the medieval technology, and then Bernáth compares the direction to a modern compass reading. They are close, though not exact; but it does not prove as Gates thinks that the sunstone is “real.” There are two factors not considered: A magnetic compass finds magnetic north, while the sunstone should, in theory, find geographic north. At Oslo, I believe the magnetic declination is about 2.5 degrees east, which is likely not enough to be significant and probably accounts for the variation seen on screen. Second, just because this reconstructed and back-formed system works does not imply that the Vikings used it. There remains no textual evidence that the sunstone was ever used for navigation, nor that it was ever combined with the sun compass, which had its own independent uses.
So, overall, this was an interesting experiment and a possibility in terms of Viking navigation, but one that requires more archaeological evidence to fully prove.
2/13/2015 04:03:50 am
I've had reindeer only once or twice, but I recall it being less flavorful than venison
2/13/2015 06:08:48 am
I expect it would be less gamy than venison, if the reindeer were farmed as they often are.
2/13/2015 05:20:56 am
Did Josh find any evidence of vikings throwing M-shaped gang signs?
2/13/2015 05:26:42 am
2/13/2015 06:28:36 am
Better than AU but still pretty thin on real information. What I found amusing was that Gates went to such lengths to "find " a sunstone when in the first minutes of the program he'd bought a half dozen of them (small ones) in a gift shop!
2/13/2015 10:40:35 am
And I'll remind you once again that there is significant if not conclusive evidence that the Norse reached Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic and also likely reached Labrador.
2/13/2015 10:35:17 pm
I find this program entertaining. It is pretty thin on information and pretty long on travel/adventure/local culture, but I think it kind of works for this show because of the host and the tone. It has a comical "fish out of water" approach to travel that I think more-or-less works with the host - I wish I could go to all these places and eat some of the food and have a beer. He's not going to solve any mysteries, but that doesn't really seem to be the point of the show. If you put Scott Wolter in this same program it would be terrible and grating.
The Other J.
2/16/2015 04:19:28 pm
Andy White said: "I find this program entertaining. It is pretty thin on information and pretty long on travel/adventure/local culture, but I think it kind of works for this show because of the host and the tone."
2/14/2015 03:55:13 am
I have a 2" long calcite crystal which I taped over to make the slits as shown on the program. I definitely get the two-slit effect and the stone polarizes light as demonstrated by rotating my polarized sunglasses in front of it (first one slit goes dark and then, by rotating the glasses 90 degrees, it clears and the other slit goes dark). Today is nicely overcast with no apparent direction for the sun but no matter how I point and turn the stone there is absolutely no difference between the slits. Any suggestions?
William M Smith
2/15/2015 05:22:49 am
Uncle Ron - The best way to highlight the sun on a cloudy day is to use 1/2 of a geode that has calcite crystal on its inner surface. Note: You must have some of the calcite exposed to the back side of the geode. By placing this geode over the eye on a cloudy day you can locate the sun. You also can locate the moon at times when you are using lunar navigation to maintain a heading. Other reported use of the seer stone was made by Joseph Smith when he reportedly translated the plates that form the foundation of the Mormon faith. You can view his seer stone in a small museum in Utah. Keep in mind that the sun dial was used before the magnetic compass, If you study the technology of navigational tools and their developement you will see the sun dial as an intregal part of the compass. A good navigator used the sun at mid day (shadow is the shortest) to pointto true north, at this time his compass would point to magnetic north and the difference was magnetic declination. This technology started in Arabia in 1250 AD and became a common navigational practice taught at The School of Navigation by Henry the Navigator in Portugal.
2/15/2015 03:26:11 am
Washington Post...nice. Now if only Tharoor were completely accurate... Erdogan for that matter too.
The Other J.
2/16/2015 04:44:55 pm
There was a line in last week's episode that really seemed to sum up Gates' ethic when it comes to his approach to archaeology, pseudo or otherwise:
2/17/2015 04:09:13 am
L'Anse aux Meadows....http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anse_aux_Meadows
1/7/2016 07:10:28 pm
I've watched 4 of these, but Josh never gets the target. Never completes the task, and we are left hanging. Why bother?
10/15/2016 04:20:54 am
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1/12/2017 04:01:42 am
You need to realize that it's a tv show meant to entertain. I think Josh does a great job of introducing beginners history while maintaining entertainment. Not all of the topics have an answer, and some are pure entertainment. It was refreshing, on this episode, that he had an answer and it proved how close to north you could find. Obviously, episodes such as the "true cross", or where is Columbus buried will never be proven. I found the Wooly Mammoth 2 part episode very interesting. I don't think cloning a mammoth will ever be possible, but it does make you think. His show is good at making people think.
5/13/2017 01:18:40 pm
Excellent blog.. Thank you for sharing..
Sonny J Osteen
9/8/2017 08:17:42 pm
Just watched a rerun of the Sunstones.. they said the Sunstone an the compass were very close. I was Recondo (Reconnaissance Commando) 2074 and a LRRP... on who used compasses to exactness, so... I think the Sunstone could actually be more accurate as it is based on the sun and the fact that they made no attempt to add/subtract the annual Magnetic Declination which is required to correct a magnetic compass.
11/10/2017 02:19:00 am
This review is required to judge decision.
2/4/2020 06:38:13 am
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2/9/2020 12:23:11 pm
Err . . . "not a lick of notice from anyone in England where the only existing stone was found".
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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