Wednesday 17 April 2013

A Prism Into The Past

The trouble with the past is often how little evidence there is of much of it, the implications of what we do know and what we don’t, and the inevitable attempts to make judgements or theories on the basis of current notions and prejudices.

On of the fascinating items recently is about the discovery of the Alderney Sunstone in a recently discovered wreck which underwent underwater archaeology.  It has had intensive scientific examination at the University of Rennes and is a block of Icelandic spar crystal. 

It can be used by someone with the skill and expertise to work out the position of the sun even when the sky is clouded or at twilight.  There are only scanty references to the existence of such stones in the records and none have been found before.  Even these did not describe how they were used or how they worked.

In the film “The Vikings” from the mid 1950’s which attempted to use some of the known sources on Viking life and times, it was supposed that the stone must have been purely one with magnetic properties on the basis of the theory at that time. 

But the issue with pure magnetism was its variability and margin of error, notably in vessels with any amounts of iron in the structure, nails and fittings, or on board, especially later when cannon came into use.

If the Vikings, one of whose fiefs was Iceland, did come to have access to sunstones and knew how to use them effectively it is one of those times when, to borrow from all those documentaries “the course of history changed” or “history has been re-written”.  Suddenly, we know just why their navigation was so good.

It is also possible.  In my possession there is an original document written and illustrated by a mariner who went to sea at twelve years and went on to be a Master by thirty.  It is quite astonishing in its detail, mathematical capability and the ability to draw accurate maps. 

It is concerned directly with the science of navigation in the 1840’s, according to what was known at the time.  Allowing for him to be exceptional in his calculating and design skills it still means that in both the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine there were many men able to work to these standards never having been near either school or university etc. from an early age.

So why do we know so little about the sunstones of the past?  Why to all intents and purposes did their use become something secret and private to be handed down perhaps in families and seemingly almost hidden away.  Perhaps there were problems.

The is the obvious one that if God is light etc. then things like sunstones, especially if they derive from Pagan origins are something magical and if they confer the ability to do something that is within the discretion of God their use could be heretical. 

Moreover when the first scraps of ancient knowledge were rediscovered what they had to say on the properties of light may well simply not have fitted what sunstones did.  In short their use indicated magicians or necromancers etc. because it went against the received thought and learning at the time. 

If the researchers at Rennes are right and around the museums there is now some searching to be done around the stores of bits and pieces of ancient artefacts previously put to one side as scraps more may be learned.

But it might tell us more about how good the Viking navigators were, how their ships operated and how or why voyages of which knowledge has been lost from the past could have happened.  If they did and they depended on the sunstones there might be all the more reason to say little about them on arrival back.

It is beginning to dawn on me that our ancient ancestors were much brighter and better than we think and we really do stand on the shoulders of giants.


  1. I think you are right. The bare bones of historical evidence don't tell us about intelligence and resourcefulness, but we know our ancestors had to be intelligent and resourceful merely to survive.

    I have a quote coming up as a post tomorrow on similar lines. We have to use our own intelligence to flesh out the historical evidence, going beyond the hard facts because they don't tell us everything.

  2. An account of the use of calcite sunstones in navigation appeared in the regular scientific literature within the past 2 or so years. Unfortunately I did not make a note of it. But the basic facts are well known to navigational experts I believe.