Fabled Sunstone Discovered In English Shipwreck

sunstone
A team of French archaeologists believe they have found a sunstone, a strange crystal that was said to help mariners locate the sun even on overcast days.

Some of the medieval Norse Sagas mention this device. In “Rauðúlfs þáttr,” King Olaf asks the hero Sigurður to point out the sun in the middle of a snowstorm. Sigurður points to where it is behind the gray sky. To test him, the king had a follower “fetch the sunstone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’s prediction.”

One recent study suggests the “sunstone” was a double-refracting crystal, which allows light through when the light is polarized in certain directions. They brighten or darken depending on the polarization of the light behind it. Clouds block the sun’s visible light but let through a concentration of polarized light that can be detected by the crystal as it’s moved around. Double-refracting crystals such as cordierite, tourmaline and calcite are common in Scandinavia.

Some scholars have expressed doubts about the sunstone’s existence because “Rauðúlfs þáttr” is a highly allegorical tale full of magical events.

Now it appears the tale may not be all that fantastic after all. Archaeologists from the University of Rennes have been studying finds from a British ship that sunk in 1592 near the island of Alderney in the English Channel. They found a rectangular block of Iceland spar calcite crystal, a type known for its double-refracting properties. The crystal was found next to a pair of dividers that may have been used for navigation.

The researchers suggest that their discovery shows the use of sunstones lasted well beyond the Viking era.

The team’s results appear in the latest issue of the “Proceedings of the Royal Society.”

[Photo courtesy Alderney Society Museum]

National Museum Of Scotland Takes New Look At Vikings

Vikings
How much do we really know about the Vikings? A new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh asks this question and comes up with some interesting answers.

Vikings!” collects more than 500 objects from the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm to show a side to Scandinavia’s most famous culture that most people don’t know.

While most of the public is aware (hopefully) that those horned helmets are a product of Victorian imagination, some other facts about the Vikings may come as a surprise. For example, we tend to think of them as fierce pagans bellowing war chants to Odin and Thor as they cleaved their battle-axes through the skulls of whimpering Irish monks. As appealing as that image may be, in fact the Vikings converted to Christianity before much of the rest of Europe. There’s a beautiful ninth century silver cross pendant on display, and a house key with a crucified Christ on the handle.

Even the term Viking itself isn’t accurate. They were Norsemen who occasionally went “on a viking,” which means setting sail to trade or loot while the majority of the population stayed where they always did – at home fishing or growing crops.

There are also objects revealing their home life, like a folding bone comb and a little cat carved out of amber that some Norse kid probably used to play with. I’ve seen many of these objects at their permanent home at the Swedish History Museum (formerly the National Historical Museum) and can say that they are some of the best preserved and finest objects of medieval Norse culture you’ll see anywhere.

Visitors will get to some in-depth knowledge of Norse religion, shipbuilding, art, politics, the role of women and storytelling. A series of lectures are open to people who want to learn more. The exhibition is kid-friendly with lots of interactive displays. They can learn to spell their names with runes, dress up in period gear, or play Hnefatafl, a Viking board game of military strategy. If you can’t make it to Edinburgh, check out their online Viking Training School.

“Vikings!” runs until May 12.

[Image courtesy Swedish History Museum]

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Reassembling The Skeletons Of Medieval Royalty

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A team of scientists from Bristol University are using DNA analysis to identify the remains of early medieval English royalty.

The bones are kept in several mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral and include the remains of King Cnut, a Norse ruler who conquered England and ruled it from 1016-1035. The other remains are of Emma, his queen, and later kings Harthacnut, Egbert, Ethelwulf and William Rufus.

During the English Civil War the cathedral was looted by the supporters of Parliament, who disliked the “Popish” trappings of the elegant house of worship. In addition to stealing everything of value, they opened the mortuary chests and scattered their contents. The bones were replaced but of course are now mixed up.

The Daily Mail reports that the team will use DNA matching to determine which bones belong to which person. One of the DNA matches they will use will be from a recently excavated 10th century queen from Saxony named Eadgyth, who was related to some of the royals kept at the cathedral. The team is working within the cathedral so as not to remove the bones from hallowed ground.

Winchester Cathedral is the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe and dates to 1079. Like most historic churches in England, there was an earlier church on this site and many later changes to the present structure. The nave has a beautiful vaulted ceiling and some very nice stained glass, as well as an interesting museum. The town of Winchester boasts not only the cathedral, but also some other fine medieval buildings. It’s an hour by rail from London and makes a good day trip.

[Cathedral photo courtesy Tony Hisgett. Photo of coin bearing the inscription “Cnut King of the English” courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
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The Viking Ship Museum In Denmark

Viking, Viking ship, Denmark
The Vikings were the greatest sailors of their age. They built sturdy vessels that took them as far as Greenland and even North America. A few of these amazing craft have survived to the modern day.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has five such ships on display. Fifty years ago they were discovered at the bottom of Roskilde Fjord, where they had been deliberately sunk to create a defensive barrier in the 11th century A.D. Silt and cold temperatures kept them remarkably well preserved and archaeologists were able to restore and display them.

Walking through the main hall of the Viking Ship Museum, it’s easy to imagine you’re in a busy Viking port. The ships are of various types, such as the knarr, a broad ocean-going trading ship. These were the ships that the Vikings took on their long voyages of commerce and exploration. The famous longship was for battle only and didn’t do well on the high seas.

There’s a longship here too, a 98-foot-long beauty that was probably the warship of a chieftain. Tree-ring analysis of the timber shows it was built in or around Dublin about the year 1042. The Vikings settled in Ireland in 800 A.D. and founded several towns, Dublin being the most important.

%Gallery-174000%There’s also a smaller type of warship called a snekke. Shorter than the longship at only 57 feet, it was still a formidable vessel and remnants of the shield rack and carved decoration can be seen on the side.

The best-preserved boat is a byrding, coastal trading vessel built of Danish oak. There’s also a small boat that may have been used for fishing or whaling.

After examining the displays – very well done and with signs in English as well as Danish – walk outside to the museum harbor. Here you’ll find reconstructions of some of the ships you saw inside as well as historic vessels from later eras of Denmark’s seagoing history. At the boatyard, you can watch shipbuilders using traditional techniques. The star attraction is The Sea Stallion from Glendalough, a reconstruction of the museum’s longship. It’s seaworthy, and tests have shown it reaches an average speed of 2.5 knots and a top speed of 12 knots when under sail. There are even a few surprises, like kayaks from Greenland and Borneo.

Some ships are actually used and visitors can go on boat trips around the fjord.

If you’re heading north after your trip to Denmark, check out the excellent Viking ship museum in Oslo, Norway.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Uppsala, Sweden: A University Town With Viking Roots

Uppsala
Uppsala University in Sweden is 535 years old today, having been inaugurated on this date in 1477. As one of the older universities in Europe, it has quite a few sights to see and is located in a town of ancient importance.

The city started as a religious center for the pagan Vikings and the location of their Thing, a general assembly. An ancient temple at Uppsala was said to have had statues to Thor, Odin, and Freyr and the entire building was encircled by a golden chain hanging from the gables. While the old temple has disappeared, there are still some Viking remains in the form of runestones and three large earthen mounds. Legend has it that they’re the barrows (tombs) of the three principal Norse gods, but excavations showed them to be the resting places for three early Norse rulers.

As with many pagan sites across Europe, Uppsala was turned into a center for Christianity and became the site for the country’s first archbishopric in 1164. There’s a little medieval church dating to the 13th century and a much more elegant cathedral from the 15th century. I wish I could describe the interior of the earlier church to you, but on my visit I walked in on a wailing baby getting baptized and had to walk right out! Such are the hazards of travel.

The later house of worship still serves as the cathedral today. Its brick exterior has a warm, homey feel, but when you go inside you find the soaring arches and fine stonework that you’d expect from a European cathedral. Inside you can find the tombs of important Swedes such a King Gustav Vasa (of Vasa ship fame), scientist Carl Linnaeus and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

As for the university itself, such an old center of learning is bound to have some attractions. In good weather visit the Linnaean Garden, a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1655 and reorganized by Carl Linnaeus, who created the taxonomic system still used to categorize plants and animals today. He got in trouble with church authorities for categorizing humans as primates. Above is a view of the gardens courtesy Andreas Trepte, who caught them on one of those warm, sunny days that are so precious this far north. The gardens are an easy stroll from Uppsala Castle, complete with throne room and a rich collection of European art.

%Gallery-167737%The Gustavianum, formerly an operating theater where 17th century medical students could watch dissections, is now a museum showing off the university’s art and archaeological collections. There’s also a cool exhibit of early scientific instruments. The old operating theater still exists if you want to see what it was like to get cut up in public.

Take some time to soak up Uppsala’s atmosphere. Stroll through the narrow medieval lanes and along the riverside where the students like to lounge. Being a northern city, it changes dramatically with the seasons. My first visit was in winter and was in fact my favorite. Standing atop an old Viking barrow and looking out across the snow-covered fields as the church spire rose in the gray distance, I felt like I was seeing Sweden at its best. Sure, we all like sunshine, but biting cold wind and short, overcast days seemed more properly Scandinavian!

Uppsala makes an easy day trip from Stockholm and is one of the top places to see in Sweden. Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) with its pagan remains and early church, is just outside the more modern town.