Fabled Sunstone Discovered In English Shipwreck

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]

Stick, Stone and Bone: Good karma in New York City

Yesterday, when I was typing away on the post on “Bizarre Foods,” the Bolivia edition, I heard a voice say my brother’s name followed by “Christopher Street” on my answering machine. I bounded downstairs. “Hello?” I half expected a telemarketer.

Heather at Stick, Stone & Bone, was calling to let someone know that my brother had left his wallet behind. My phone number was in it. Since I live in Columbus, Ohio and my brother lives in Manhattan, I thought this was above and beyond excellent customer service. “Would you let him know we have it?” Heather wanted to know. My phone number was the only one she saw, therefore I got the call.

Turns out, Stick, Stone and Bone is one of those shops in a brownstone building that has loads of anything spiritually geared. Statues, jewelry, crystals, amulets, whatever you need for a safe journey, I bet you can find here. Just ask. The staff is among the most helpful. We already know that if you leave something behind, they’ll do what they can to reunite you with your baggage. Airlines take note. It’s good karma. It’s also a reminder to make sure there is someone’s name and phone number in your belongings.

Christopher Street is one of my favorites in the West Village. Along with Stick, Stone and Bone there are shops and eateries for browsing, perfect for a spring afternoon. One of my most favorite Letterman episodes was when the show was taped in the middle of the night and Amy Sedaris, David Sedaris’s sister gave a tour of the neighborhood (she lives here) at 2 a.m.