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Viking Navigation - How Did They Know Where They Were Going?

We live in a time when it is almost impossible to imagine going on a long trip without a good navigation system. Especially when it comes to the destination we are going to for the first time.

And now imagine what a journey in the Viking Age looked like.

We are not talking about going by car from one place to another, but about transoceanic sailing on a Viking ship at a time when even the most ordinary compass was not available. It seems impossible, but since the Vikings were famous sailors, it is clear that they still found ways to sail safely.

The Vikings lived in a time when navigation methods were scarce, so they had to learn how to cope without modern navigation instruments.

Also, it is not known that the Vikings used classic maps to record the routes of their travels. However, their mental maps were even more detailed, written with senses, practical knowledge, experience, and intuition.

This may not have always been an effective Viking navigation method, still, it's certain that the Vikings, despite challenging conditions, successfully sailed the seas and oceans, explored and conquered unknown territories at a time when many other nations failed to do so.

It was certainly not easy to set sail on the unknown open sea and expose your ship and crew to the harsh sea waters. However, the courage of the Vikings and the desire for a better life were obviously great enough to overcome the fear of the unknown.

What Led the Vikings to Sea Voyages?

Old compass

We know that trade was very developed in the Viking era. The Vikings traded with countries across Europe and even Asia. It became clear that travel to certain lands could not be done by land. Therefore, sailing on Viking ships was a fundamental aspect of a successful trade.

Also, due to the poor living conditions in Scandinavia, the Vikings set out on the high seas in search of more fertile lands with a more favorable climate. On the other hand, we know that wars were also an integral part of Viking life, making sailing even more necessary.

How Did the Vikings Navigate in the Viking Age?

The voyages of these ancient sailors today seem more than mysterious. However, if we think a little better, it will become clear that life in the wild has taught the Vikings to understand the nature that surrounds them. Therefore, the assumption that the Vikings relied on celestial bodies, birds, sea animals, and their senses during their sea voyages is not so impossible.

Scientists believe that the Vikings, whenever possible, sailed following the coast. However, it is known that the Scandinavians founded colonies throughout Europe, on Iceland, and even North America, which means that at some point, they still had to go to deep waters, far from the known shores.

During the voyage at night, Viking sailors were able to orient themselves towards the stars and the moon. But, as the Vikings mostly sailed the North Atlantic Ocean, which has 24 hours of sunshine in summer, it is clear that the sun was the main landmark.

So, the sailors could determine the direction in which they should move according to where the sun rose and how high it was in the sky during the day. The instrument that the Vikings used to orient themselves with the help of the sun was called the solar compass.

What is a Viking Sun Compass & How it Works?

A kind of a solar compass

Although we know that the magnetic compass was not available as a navigational tool in the Viking Age, scientists believe that the Norse men used the Viking sun compass for orientation.

This compass is comprised of a horizontal wooden disk and a vertical pointer positioned in the center of the disc (so-called gnomon). During the day, the gnomon casts a shadow on the disk, thanks to which sailors were able to determine the direction of the north. As the rising sun approaches its zenith (at noon), the shadow becomes shorter, and as the sun approaches the horizon (sets), the shadow of the wooden disc lengthens.

One of the most significant discoveries proving Vikings used a sun compass for navigation in the Viking Age is a fragment of an ancient wooden disk dating from the 11th century. The piece was found during the excavation of the Viking settlement in Greenland. In fact, the found artifact was one half of a disk, 70 mm in diameter, which had many incised lines on it.

Scientists have concluded that the incised lines are actually curves of shadows that characterize Viking navigation with a solar compass. Two of the many lines would be gnomon lines by which the Vikings could determine the direction of their movement.

However, studying the missed part of the compass, the scientists noticed some irregularities. The thing is that the gnomon lines did not extend to the end of the dial on the wooden board, which would make it impossible to determine the path of the sun's shadow in the late afternoon.

Also, the misalignment of gnomon lines and some other lines by several degrees was noticed, which could, of course, cause serious navigation mistakes.

For that reason, scientists began to doubt the assumption that the solar compass was used exclusively to determine the north. There was a suspicion that the gnomon lines were shorter for a reason. The instrument found actually served the navigator to determine latitude (by measuring the sun's shadow exactly at noon).

Determining latitude would allow sailors to always be on a good course during their frequent voyages, especially between Greenland and Norway.

However, as accurate as the sun board navigation was, it can be said that the sun compass was useless in cloudy weather.

So, relying exclusively upon the sun would mean that the ship's crew was left to the mercy of the weather because not every day was a sunny day.

What did the Vikings do in situations when fog and dark clouds were above them and the sky couldn't be seen? How did they navigate then?

According to sagas, the Vikings used the sunstone to determine the sun's position in these conditions.

What are Sunstones?

Calcite crystal

According to research, sunstones, which are often mentioned in the Viking sagas, are, in fact, polarizing crystals. Some scientists believe that they are actually calcite crystals since they are known for their polarization properties.

It is believed that sailors used these sunstones when the weather conditions were unfavorable for sailing. Viking navigators steered the sunstone towards the sky on cloudy days and then rotated it until the polarizing light passing through it became the brightest, thus showing where the sun was at that moment.

The most impressive saga in which the sunstone is mentioned in the saga about the Nordic hero Sigurd. 

According to this saga, King Olaf demanded that Sigurd determine the sun's position through the dark clouds during one voyage on a Viking ship. After Sigurd showed where the sun was, Olaf took the crystal and aimed it at the sky. Sunlight broke through the stone, and Olaf could see the sun's rays coming right from the direction Sigurd was pointing.

Does a Sunstone Really Exist?

Although the sunstone is often mentioned in stories, none has been found at archeological sites so far.

Therefore, many scientists still believe that the sunstone is only part of the legend. However, when a crystal, along with navigation tools, was found on the wreck of a Viking ship at the bottom of the English Channel in the late 16th century, some researchers claimed that the sagas were true.

Accordingly, in 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish scientist, argued that the sunstone could actually be a crystal known as the "Icelandic spatula." It is an extremely clear type of crystal, which is calcium-carbonate in composition. This crystal is common in Iceland and other parts of Scandinavia and is characterized by extremely high polarization power.

However, there is a lack of archaeological evidence that would fully prove this claim.

What Can We Say For the End?

Despite the tireless research of archaeologists and historians and their efforts to find out all about the Vikings, some things still remain a mystery. One of those things is certainly how did the Vikings navigate back in the day.

All the claims made by scientists about Viking navigation techniques may or may not be true.

Let's not forget that these brave Norse men committed themselves to several months of sailing more than 1000 years ago. And since there are no written clues telling us how the Vikings did navigate during their naval expeditions, we can only speculate what it was like to sail the sea like a true Viking.

Did the Vikings really use the altitude of the midday sun to determine their position? Did they know nature so well that they could orient themselves to specific birds that fly over the sea, whales that migrate and feed in specific currents, or even the smell that the wind brings from the nearest land? We cannot answer any of these questions with certainty, but we can choose to believe that they could.

However, since the Vikings almost ruled the seas of medieval Europe, their navigation methods certainly worked, whatever they were.

Until our next meeting,

Skåll!

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