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]

Roman shipwreck found off Albanian coast


An underwater archaeological survey has turned up a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Albania.

As the above video shows, the remains of the ship are now little more than a heap of amphorae, the characteristic pots the Romans used to transport wine. The team hasn’t had a chance to excavate the site yet, so more finds may lie hidden beneath the bottom of the sea.

The archaeologists estimate that the ship was from the first or second century BC and was part of an extensive wine trade on the Adriatic Sea. The ship was about 30 meters long and contained an estimated 300 or more amphorae. The excavation was funded by the RPM Nautical Foundation, which has discovered numerous shipwrecks in recent years.

Shipwrecks can tell us a lot about early technology and trade. Several museums are dedicated to them. In Stockholm, Sweden, the Vasa Museum houses the well-preserved remains of a warship that sank in 1628. Despite its impressive appearance, it was badly designed and sank less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage. In Portsmouth, England, the Mary Rose Museum has a warship that sank in battle in 1545. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, houses five Viking ships dating to about 1070.

Blackbeard’s pirate ship gives up its anchor

pirate, pirates, Blackbeard
A pirate ship owned by the notorious Blackbeard is being investigated by archaeologists, who have just retrieved one of its anchors.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, was grounded in 1718 while trying to enter Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard had just come from blockading Charleston until he received a ransom. Currently the wreck lies in only 20 feet of water, as easily accessible to archaeologists as Captain Kidd’s pirate ship, which will soon become an underwater museum.

The anchor, which is 11 feet long and weighs 2,200 lbs, is only one of thousands of artifacts recovered from the ship in recent years.

While Blackbeard transferred to another of his ships and continued pirating, he didn’t survive for long. He was hunted down and killed in a fierce fight in late 1718, shown here in a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Blackbeard was decapitated and his head hung from the bowsprit.

Blackbeard was one of the kinder pirates. There’s no record that he hurt his captives or his crew. He could be violent when opposed, though, and in reality no pirate fit the heroic adventurer stereotype of Hollywood and Johnny Depp. That’s just a romanticism. One wonders what tales people will spin about the Somali pirates 300 years from now.

For more information about this amazing dig, check out The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project’s website.

Archaeologists to raise 17th century shipwreck

shipwreck, Mary Rose
The shipwreck of a 17th century merchant vessel off the coast of England is going to be raised from the sea, the BBC reports.

An armed merchant vessel that plied the high seas sank in the Swash Channel off the coast of Dorset more than 300 years ago. Underwater archaeology teams have been studying the wreck and have found cannon, pottery, and an intriguing face of a man carved into the rudder. Their work has had to speed up as sediment is eroding away, leaving the old wood exposed to decay and attack by shipworms, which cut holes into the wood.

Researchers have decided the only thing to do is to raise the ship out of the water and conserve the wood for future study. Sadly, some of the ship is so decayed that it will have to be left on the sea bottom. It will be reburied in sediment to prevent further decay.

The salvage operation planned for this summer is going to be a tricky one. A ship hasn’t been raised from UK waters since the Mary Rose was brought to the surface in 1982. This 16th century warship, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image, is now the subject of its own museum in Portsmouth, England.

While historic shipwrecks are often taken to the surface to be studied and conserved, or their locations kept secret to avoid looting, the shipwreck of Captain Kidd’s pirate ship will become an underwater museum.

Cleopatra exhibit premieres in Philadelphia

Cleopatra was the last great pharaoh of Egypt, and its most famous. Her name is synonymous with beauty, mystery, and power, yet not much is known about her. Her enemies erased most details of her life and even her tomb is lost.

Two teams of archaeologists have been searching for clues about the enigmatic woman, and the treasures they’ve found are the subject of a major exhibition opening tomorrow at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia called Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt.

Cleopatra VII, who lived from 69-30 BC, was the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals in 304 BC. She was also the last pharaoh of an independent Egypt. For a time she was the lover of Julius Caesar, but she changed allegiances (and beds) to join forces with Mark Anthony to carve out an empire of their own. Julius Caesar’s successor Octavian defeated them in battle and they took their own lives, and Egypt became part of the Roman Empire.

The exhibition showcases more than 150 artifacts never seen before in the United States, from giant statues fished from the sea to a government document that may include a note written by Cleopatra herself. The artifacts come from two different excavations. One is run by Dr. Zahi Hawass at the temple of Taposiris Magna, about 30 miles west of Alexandria. Hawass believes this may be the final resting place of the famous lovers.

The other excavation is directed by Dr. Franck Goddio, a French underwater archaeologist who has explored the harbor of Alexandria and the coast of Egypt and discovered Cleopatra’s palace and the two ancient cities of Canopus and Heracleion, which had sank into the sea after a series of earthquakes and tidal waves nearly 2,000 years ago.

The exhibition takes on an ancient subject with modern technology, including multimedia exhibits and a chance to interact with social media such as Twitter and Foursquare while seeing the displays. Following the links gives the visitor more information about Cleopatra and a discount coupon they can send to their friends.

Neither team has found solid evidence for the location of Cleopatra’s burial place, so Egypt’s most alluring woman will retain some of her mystery for the time being. Their finds, however, have thrown new light on the life and times of one of Egypt’s greatest female pharaohs.

Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt will remain at the Franklin Institute until January 2, 2011, before heading out on a tour of North America.

%Gallery-94378%