Viking Sunstone and Wooden Compass Prove Vikings Were Sophisticated Mariners

In the History Channel Vikings series, Ragnar owes everything to his handy-dandy sundial and sunstone, without which he wouldn’t have been able to navigate west to earn his fame. The sunstone was thought to be a myth until just a few years ago, when a crystal matching its description was found in a shipwreck off the coast of the Channel Islands.

That same year, scientists also revealed the findings of a study that concluded that an object found  buried under a monastery in Greenland that was probably a hand-held sundial (or sun compas), another fabled navigational tool of the Vikings. In the History Channel series, Ragnar needs the sundial to keep him on course, using the sunstone crystal to find the sun through the clouds when the need arises. To many, this is a surprising discovery that proves how savvy and sophisticated Viking mariners really were.

Ragnar’s sundial, used on the History Channel series to help the Vikings find England

Vikings Were More Sophisticated Than We Thought

We know the Vikings performed latitude sailing, but we have little information on how. Now, we’re a little closer to separating fact from fiction. The team that found the wooden object discovered that at noon each day, a dial in the center would cast a shadow between two lines on the dial. It’s theorized that they measured the length of the shadow to determine their latitude as they sailed across dangerously open ocean across vast distances, much like is portrayed during Ragnar’s first journey to England in the series.

“It is widely accepted that Norse people were excellent mariners. Now it seems they used much more sophisticated navigational instruments than we thought before” – Balázs Bernáth, a researcher at Eötvös University in Hungary

While the landlocked location of the found sun compass leaves its true purpose up to speculation, the real Viking sunstone that was found aboard the shipwreck leaves little doubt that it was a navigational tool.

How Did Vikings Use the Sunstone?

It can no longer be used due to its age and cloudiness, but in its prime its prismatic shape would have bent light in such a way that it could be used to determine an east-west direction. When held up to the light, it would have shown two images of the sun, and moving the crystal in different directions to achieve one image instead of two would point in the direction of east or west.

With all of the historical inaccuracies in the History Channel series, it’s nice to know that at least one myth has been confirmed true. I wonder if modern Viking re-enactment voyages will  use a sunstone and wooden compass to navigate, given this new info?


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Viking Sunstone and Wooden Compass Prove Vikings Were Sophisticated Ma