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]

Brittany Ferries Strike Affects Travel, Business In Three Countries

A strike by the employees of Brittany Ferries is disrupting the movement of travelers and goods between England, France and Spain.

The BBC reports the French union that staffs the ferry service is striking in protest of cuts by the company, which is deeply in the red. Brittany Ferries operates several lines from England to various ports in northern France and Spain. In addition to travelers using the service to bring their cars across the water, about 3,000 commercial trucks use the service.

In a press release, the company stated that because of repeated wildcat strikes, they’ve made the decision to suspend almost all service: “The only route which will be unaffected is the Poole-Cherbourg passenger service which is operated on our behalf by Condor Ferries … Because of this indefinite stoppage we are recommending customers to travel to Dover where we currently have special arrangements in place with P&O Ferries and MyFerryLink to accept Brittany Ferries tickets [see website for details]. Unused Brittany Ferries crossings will be refunded.”

One of Brittany Ferries’ destinations is Santander in Spain, where I live part time. Port fees, customers using local businesses, and the shipment of goods all bring an injection of much-needed money into an economy in recession. Local paper El Diario Montañes reports that the ship Cap Finistère has been stuck here since September 20, with 500 passengers and 100 vehicles. Most have made their way to other ferries in France.

[Photo of the Cap Finistère courtesy George Hutchinson]

Eurostar to suspend Channel train service indefinitely

Most people think “airlines” when the topic turns to the misery of holiday travel. Well, the trains are getting in on the action now. European railway Eurostar‘s Channel Tunnel train, which connects England and France, is being shut down indefinitely. It’s a natural side-effect of having more than 2,000 passengers trapped inside the tunnel for several hours because of technical glitches.

Several hours? Try 15 of ’em! Sans food, water or information, passengers had no relief from a truly miserable situation.

Eurostar has promised that it won’t send any more trains into the tunnel until the problem has been identified and resolved. On Sunday, it said that the malfunction was related to “acute weather conditions in northern France,” according to a report by The Associated Press. The area is suffering its worst winter in recent memory.

The suspension of train service under the English Channel forced 31,000 people in Great Britain, France and Belgium to cancel their travel plans on Saturday, with another 26,000 estimated to have been impacted on Sunday. The backlog is still building, and Eurostar isn’t planning to start selling tickets again until after Christmas.
So, time to hop on a flight, right? Not quite.

The winter storm conditions that Eurostar is blaming for the train’s being trapped in the tunnel forced air carriers to cut almost half the flights departing from both airports in Paris through the middle of Sunday afternoon. More are expected for Monday. Lines were long at the airport in Brussels, as well.

[Photo by OliverN5 via Flickr]

Fire in tunnel under the English Channel halts Eurostar traffic

When my six-year old son and I pulled into Manhattan on the Amtrak train, and again on a Trailways bus last month, we went underground. I’m not sure where Amtrak goes, but Trailways goes through the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River in order to deposit passengers into Port Authority terminal.

As we passed through the tunnel, –the Holland Tunnel, he wondered why the river didn’t come caving in on us. Because the tunnel is well lit, you can see the inside of the tunnel perfectly. On the train, it’s dark outside the train’s window for the most part. Looking out the window means looking at your own reflection.

My son’s question was one of those moments when I realized I really didn’t have a clue. Kind of know, but don’t really know, but willing to trust engineering and the principles of physics. As I explained the safety of such a tunnel, I looked at all that expanse of tile and wondered a bit. Actually, I thought of how awful it would be to be stuck in it for any length of time with exhaust fumes spewing if there was a car wreck. That’s when you say to yourself, “Stay in our own lanes, people, and don’t go too fast. Pay attention.”

In the tunnel going under the English Channel yesterday, a wreck didn’t cause the travel snafu, but a fire on a train going between England and France. According to this article, the train was carrying trucks and only 32 people–mostly drivers of those trucks.

For passengers hoping to go through the tunnel on the train, they had to find alternative ways to get to France or stay where they were. Just like weather is something that airlines say they have no control over and won’t fork over assistance, so are fires in train tunnels. Eurostar said that because they have no control over fires they won’t help with plane tickets or hotel rooms. You can, however, get a refund or exchange tickets for another time. (I found this out on the Eurostar Web site.)

Because the fire is still going, trains are not heading through that tunnel today. I bet the ferries are packed with people lucky to snag a ticket. For the rest of the stuck people, lots of luck. (The photo by OliverN5 is of Eurostar trains at the Gard du Nord in Paris, France.)