Axe of Iron series

stacks_image_507 stacks_image_443 Assimilation

Magical Viking stone may be real

Our penchant to know how the medieval Vikings navigated the North Atlantic to Greenland and North America 500-years before Columbus was born continue with this article on the rediscovery of sunstone.
If you have an interest, click the links to my novels, where I refer to the stone's use, or sunstone for another good article on an old subject.
Telegraph UK

November 03, 2011

A Viking legend which tells of a glowing "sunstone" that, when held up to the sky, disclosed the position of the Sun on a cloudy day may have some basis in truth, scientists believe.

The ancient race is believed to have discovered North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus.

Now experiments have shown that a crystal, called an Iceland spar, could detect the sun with an accuracy within a degree allowing the legendary seafarers to navigate thousands of miles on cloudy days and during short Nordic nights.

Dr Guy Ropars, of the University of Rennes, and colleagues said "a precision of a few degrees could be reached" even when the sun was below the horizon.

An Iceland spar, which is transparent and made of calcite, was found in the wreck of an Elizabethan ship discovered thirty years ago off the coast of Alderney in the Channel Islands after it sank in 1592 just four years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Viking legend tells of an enigmatic sunstone or sólarsteinn that, when held up to the sky, revealed the position of the sun, even on overcast days or below the horizon, the study reveals.

One Icelandic saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the Sun. To check Sigurd's answer, Olaf "grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun"

Using the polarisation of the skylight, as many animals like bees do, the Vikings could have used to give them true bearings.

The Viking routes in the North Atlantic were often subject to dense fog and the stone could also be used to locate the sun on very cloudy days.

The researchers said such sunstones could have helped the Vikings in their navigation from Norway to America before the discovery of the magnetic compass in Europe.

They would have relied upon the sun's piercing rays reflected through a piece of the calcite. The trick is that light coming from 90 degrees opposite the sun will be polarised so even when the sun is below the horizon it is possible to tell where it is.

They used the double refraction of calcite to pinpoint the sun by rotating the crystals until both sides of the double image are of equal intensity.

Navigation was based on tables showing the position of the sun in the sky at various times of year, prior to the use of the compass by Europeans, around the 12th century.

Added the researchers: "The Alderney discovery opens new possibilities as it looks very promising to find Iceland spars in other ancient shipwrecks, or in archaeological sites located on the seaside such as the Viking settlement with ship repair recently discovered in Ireland."

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

More on Ardnamurchan (Scotland) Viking boat burial discovery a first

October 22, 2011


The UK mainland's first fully intact Viking boat burial site has been uncovered in the west Highlands, archaeologists have said.

The site, at Ardnamurchan, is thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Artefacts buried alongside the Viking in his boat suggest he was a high-ranking warrior.

Archaeologist Dr Hannah Cobb said the "artefacts and preservation make this one of the most important Norse graves ever excavated in Britain". Dr Cobb, from the University of Manchester, a co-director of the project, said: "This is a very exciting find." She has been excavating artefacts in Ardnamurchan for six years.

The universities of Manchester, Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow worked on, identified, or funded the excavation.

Archaeology Scotland and East Lothian-based CFA Archaeology have also been involved in the project which led to the find.

The term "fully-intact", used to describe the find, means the remains of the body along with objects buried with it and evidence of the boat used were found and recovered.

The Ardnamurchan Viking was found buried with an axe, a sword with a decorated hilt, a spear, a shield boss and a bronze ring pin.

About 200 rivets - the remains of the boat he was laid in - were also found.

Previously, boat burials in such a condition have been excavated at sites on Orkney.

Until now mainland excavations were only partially successful and had been carried out before more careful and accurate methods were introduced.

Other finds in the 5m-long (16ft) grave in Ardnamurchan included a knife, what could be the tip of a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, a ring pin from Ireland and Viking pottery.

'The icing'

Dozens of pieces of iron yet to be identified were also found at the site.

The finds were made as part of the Ardnamurchan Transition Project (ATP) which has been examining social change in the area from the first farmers 6,000 years ago to the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Viking specialist Dr Colleen Batey, from the University of Glasgow, has said the boat was likely to be from the 10th Century AD.

Dr Oliver Harris, project co-director from the University of Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, reinforced the importance of the burial site.

He said: "In previous seasons our work has examined evidence of changing beliefs and life styles in the area through a study of burial practices in the Neolithic and Bronze age periods 6,000-4,500 years ago and 4,500 to 2,800 years ago respectively.

"It has also yielded evidence for what will be one of the best-dated Neolithic chambered cairns in Scotland when all of our post-excavation work is complete.

"But the find we reveal today has got to be the icing on the cake."

Viking chieftain's burial ship excavated in Scotland after 1,000 years

An excellent article from the Guardian, UK, on this very important archaeological discovery of the first undisturbed burial of a Viking chieftain on the British mainland.
Timber fragments and rivets of vessel, and deceased's sword and shield, unearthed undisturbed on Ardnamurchan peninsula.

By Maev Kennedy

The Guardian

Tuesday 18 October 2011

An intact axe is lifted in a soil block from the site of a boat burial of a Viking chief. Video: Charlotte Tooze/University of Manchester Link to this video

A Viking ship, which for 1,000 years has held the body of a chieftain, with his shield on his chest and his sword and spear by his side, has been excavated on a remote Scottish peninsula – the first undisturbed Viking ship burial found on the British mainland.

The timbers of the ship found on the Ardnamurchan peninsula – the mainland's most westerly point – rotted into the soil centuries ago, like most of the bones of the man whose coffin it became.

However the outline of the classic Viking boat, with its pointed prow and stern, remained. Its form is pressed into the soil and its lines traced by hundreds of rivets, some still attached to scraps of wood.

An expert on Viking boats, Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow, dates it to the 10th century.

At just 5m long and 1.5m wide, it would have been a perilously small vessel for crossing the stormy seas between Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland. But the possessions buried with him suggest the Viking was a considerable traveller.

They include a whetstone from Norway, a bronze ringpin from Ireland, his sword with beautifully decorated hilt, a spear and a shield which survive only as metal fittings, and pottery.

He also had a knife, an axe, and a bronze object thought to be part of a drinking horn. Dozens of iron fragments, still being analysed, were also found in the boat.

The peninsula in the Highlands is still easier to reach by sea than along the single narrow road.

But with its magnificent mountain, sea and sunset views, it was a special place for burials for thousands of years.

The oldest, excavated by the same team three years ago, was a 6,000-year-old neolithic grave, and a bronze age burial mound is nearby.

Hannah Cobb, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester who is co-director of the excavation, said: "We had spotted this low mound the previous year, but said firmly that it was probably just a pile of field clearance rocks from comparatively recent farming.

"When we uncovered the whole mound, the team digging came back the first night and said it looked quite like a boat.

"The second night they said: 'It really does look like a boat.' The third night they said: 'We think we really do have a boat'. It was so exciting, we could hardly believe it."

They recovered fragments of an arm bone and several teeth, which should allow analysis of radioactive isotopes and reveal where the man came from.

The fragments of wood clinging to the rivets should reveal what trees were felled for his ship, and possibly where it was built.

"Such burials were reserved for high status individuals," Cobb said. "He may have been a chieftain, a famous navigator, or renowned for his wisdom, but this man was clearly special to his people."

The boat had been almost filled with stones and Cobb believes these must have had meaning for the Vikings.

"Rocks are obviously significant as they also appear in other Viking burials," she said.

"Building a lasting monument to the dead for the living may well be an important factor, and also rooting people in with landscape traditions, given the proximity to the neolithic and bronze age cairns.

"We don't think the association with the older monuments can be a coincidence – this was a place which was very important to people over an extraordinarily long period of time."

No trace of a settlement site has been found, but the team will be returning to the peninsula next summer.

The Ardnamurchan Transitions Project brings together students and academics from several universities working with CFA Archaeology and Archaeology Scotland.

The most famous ship burial in Britain, Sutton Hoo – found heaped with treasure and excavated in Suffolk in the shadow of the second world war – looks like anyone's idea of a Viking burial but proved to be Anglo-Saxon, centuries older than the seafaring Scandinavians.

When overcrowding or yearning for adventure and wealth sent the Vikings overseas in the late eighth century, the sight of their long narrow ships on the horizon struck dread.

Although their reputation has now been partly rehabilitated and they are recognised as traders, farmers, and brilliant shipwrights and metal and craft workers, a poem written in the margin of an Irish manuscript records a monk's relief that the wild seas that night were too rough even for Vikings.

In 793, Viking raids forced monks to abandon Lindisfarne, an island off the north-east coast of England, carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert with them.

But the raiders also struck as far inland as Lichfield and established permanent settlements including York, the Wirral and Dublin.

The most famous description of a Viking ship burial, complete with the human sacrifice of a woman who volunteered to go with the dead chieftain into the next world – with lurid details of drugged potions and ritual sexual intercourse pillaged by generations of novelists and film-makers – was left by a 10th century Arab writer, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. But archaeology has vindicated much of his account.

Fadlan's chieftain was cremated along with his ship, leaving only ashes to be buried under a mound. But many Vikings, like the man in Ardnamurchan, were laid in ships with their possessions heaped around them.

One of the best preserved, holding the remains of two women, was excavated at Oseberg in Norway in the early 20th century.

The burial dated from around 834 but the ship used was a generation older. The ship's superbly carved bow and stern are now preserved at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Most of the Viking graves found in Britain are from cemeteries, after the raiders became settled and Christianised.

There is an intriguing rumoured Viking ship under a pub car park on the Wirral, and there are many claimed earlier ship burial finds – including one almost a century ago on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

But all of these had been disturbed or were ransacked by the people who stumbled on them, so none was properly recorded by archaeologists.

Years of work will follow on the new find, and may reveal whether the man who lay quietly in his ship for 1,000 years was a local resident, a sailor taking shelter from a storm or whether his body was brought specially to the beautiful site for burial.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Notes About Swedish Viking Burial Practices and a Contemporary Film on Vikings

Two letters I submitted to the editor of the excellent Scandinavian Press magazine in rebuttal to other reader's letters in a prior edition of the magazine might be of interest because they speak to Swedish Viking burial practices and a rant about a particular contemporary film on the Vikings.
Dear Editor,

The following is in response to two Letters to the Editor in your excellent edition of the Summer 2010 edition of Scandinavian Press.

It’s the Viking Team, Ellen Boryen: while realizing that your letter is a paraphrased summation of Dr. Hale’s presentation, there are a couple points I feel compelled to make on your conclusions. I will assume that your reference to the Swedish Vikings burning their ships as the reason we have no examples of those ships, to be a reference to the 10th century writings of Ibn Fadlan, specifically his portrayal of the funeral pyre of a Rus chieftain. The Rus are thought to be Swedish Norsemen. Rus may also be the term used by the Swedish Vikings to describe the locals of present day Eastern Europe. Either contention is argumentative in some circles. Like almost everything regarding these people, we do not know for certain. Actually, several Swedish ships and boats have been found, one 20 meter example as recently as last year at the bottom of Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. To say that ‘Swedish Vikings burned their ships in burial rituals’ may not be the whole story. As you write, there are many examples of ships that have been recovered throughout Scandinavia. Every large museum that I have visited has examples of these magnificent ships. The 98’ Sea Stallion, Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DE, is a computer scale copy of one of them and at this writing the largest extant. From Sea Stallion’s voyages we now know that the square rigged Viking ship was fast and capable in all seas. You are correct in saying that the medieval Viking ships lacked a traditional keel, however; the huge steerboard, mounted on the right aft side of the ship, performed that function admirably and pivoted up and out the way to beach the ship, or row it up a shallow river. The Vikings never felt the need of a keel and as a result no ship that we are aware of constructed by them ever had a keel. The function of a traditional keel is to balance the thrust of the sail when sailing close hauled to the wind, otherwise the ship or boat would be pushed away, to leeward, from the desired course by the wind’s force, making little or no progress along the desired track. You correctly point out that the shallow, keel less hull design allowed them to sail or row over many of the rivers they encountered—that was not accidental. Their ships were also hauled overland, something that would be impossible with a keeled ship.


The Subject of the Vikings, John Houle: The Vikings, 1958, MGM, is actually a classic film and the best contemporary rendering of the Viking era that we have. Certainly artistic license was taken with the script, it was a movie, you know, for entertainment. I would say to John, the author of the negative rant on the film, “do some research the next time your dander is up.” The movie locations were authentic: Brittany, Fort La Latte, Côtes d'Armor, France, Germany, Hardangerfjord, Norway, and Lim Fjord, Croatia, to name a few. You missed the entire reason for the axe throwing scene involving the ‘beautiful Scandinavian girl.’ It wasn’t a savage game; it was a test of fidelity, or the lack thereof. The medieval Vikings were a savage people, living in a savage time. To make contemporary comparisons is ludicrous. The nationalities of the actors are of no consequence--although the Norwegian people were well represented--they are portraying the elements of the script. To those of us who have enjoyed the film, they became Vikings for a time. And John, the Vikings were not cowering in the ship during a storm, rather they were fogbound, and unable to see their surroundings, or the way ahead. It was a terrifying event for them. Have you ever been at sea, blind in the fog, or ‘cowering’ during a storm, John? Well, I have. The crash of the surf against an unseen rocky shore gives pause to anyone. The film makers were not portraying ‘we Scandinavians’ in a bad way, they were not portraying us as a people at all. Rather, they were trying to depict an era--they did an admirable job--about which we know little or nothing.

So John, sometimes it is best if we keep our lack of knowledge on a particular subject private rather than formalize it with a public letter.

Long Sought Viking Settlement Found

Author's Note: here is more news on the exciting medieval Viking archaeological site recently unearthed in northern Ireland 70-kilometers north of present day Dublin, near the town of Annagassan, County Lough, just off the Irish Sea coast.
September 23, 2010

Science Now

The Vikings, the famed Scandinavian warriors, started raiding Ireland in 795 and plundered it for decades, before establishing two Irish outposts, according to the Annals of Ulster, a 15th century account of medieval Ireland.

One outpost, Dúbh Linn, became Dublin, the other, Linn Duchaill, was lost in time. Perhaps until now. A team of archaeologists announced on Friday that it has found the lost Viking settlement near the village of Annagassan, 70 kilometers north of Dublin. "We are unbelievably delighted," said archaeologist and team leader, Mark Clinton, an independent archaeological consultant.

The Annagassan locals have long believed they lived near an ancient Viking town or fort. The stories of Viking raids were told to local children by schoolteachers, and there were also occasional finds that underscored this story. For example, a few years ago, a set of handcuffs once used to shackle Viking slaves was found by a farmer ploughing land. The modern search for Linn Duchaill began 5 years ago when a local filmmaker named Ruth Cassidy, a member of the Annagassan and District Historical Society, enlisted the help of Clinton, a family friend, to find the lost Viking town. They searched through 2005, 2006, and 2007 and were on the point of despair when they came across a flat area- ideal for lifting boats out of the water for shipbuilding and repairs- a couple of kilometers up the River Glyde. They managed to secure funding to pay for a geophysicist, John Nicholls, to survey the site. Nicholls found a series of defensive ditches about 4 meters deep, running in lines. The pattern of ditches does not seem compatible with the typical Irish structure of the period, a ring fort, and no evidence of a Norman settlement, such as moat or castle remains, was found. That left just one other option: Vikings.

Despite this evidence, the researchers struggled to secure funding for excavation work. But the local Louth County Museum eventually offered funds to excavate at three locations. The team found 200 objects in 3 weeks, convincing them that they had found a major Viking shipbuilding town. There is evidence of impressive engineering, with an artificial island constructed out of the landscape to offer protection from attacks by the indigenous Irish. There is evidence of carpentry, smelting, and ship repair, with ship rivets dotted around the site. These features alone would make the site significant as few Viking longphorts- or shipbuilding towns- have been excavated. The team also found hacked coins, which Clinton says were a typical "calling card" of the Vikings, but there is also a total absence of pottery- the Vikings used wooden bowls. There are "high status" early Christian objects, too, probably stolen from the Irish.

Other Viking experts are cautiously optimistic that the long-lost Viking outpost has been found but emphasize the settlement needs to be solidly dated before the case is closed. "If the settlement found can be identified as Linn Duchaill, its value for linking archaeology to the written sources is very important," says Peter Pentz, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. "In addition, it appears that the site is almost untouched by later activity, unlike those of Dublin- some longphorts developed into urban settlements- and thus it might provide important knowledge of this particular type of settlement."

"It's really, really exciting," adds Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, an expert in Viking studies of Ireland and Britain. "I'm looking forward to hearing about the finds and the dating of the finds. It's a really important step in thinking about the westward expansion of the Vikings, and the importance that Ireland had for the Viking world is something that hasn't been recognized. Ireland in the Viking age is of strategic importance."

One lingering question is why Linn Duchaill was abandoned while Dublin thrived. One theory is that because Dublin has better 24-hour access to the sea, it meant that the Vikings there could take to their ships and head out when they were under attack. At Linn Duchaill, tidal fluctuations would cut off access for several hours a day.

Greenland Vikings Had Celtic Blood

Copenhagen Post
March 20, 2010

Norsemen who settled in southern Greenland carried more Celtic than Nordic blood but they were still decidedly Scandinavian.

An analysis of DNA from a Viking gravesite near a 1000 year-old church in southern Greenland shows that those buried there had strong Celtic bloodlines, reported science website

The analysis performed by Danish researchers on bones from skeletons found during excavations in south Greenland revealed that the settlers' Nordic blood was mixed with Celtic blood, probably originating from the British Isles.

Danish archaeologists are currently conducting the first regional study of southern Greenland's original settlers, whose colonies date back to the year 985. The skeletons disinterred outside the old church also date back to just a few years after that period.

'The research results haven't yet been published, but initial results somewhat surprisingly suggest that the people in the graves were more Celtic than Nordic,' said Jette Arneborg, curator and senior scientist at the National Museum, and one of the Danish archaeologists involved in the project.

'We've always known that Norsemen traveled a lot and we also know that the early inhabitants of the Faroe Islands and Iceland had traces of Celtic genes. But now we also have evidence of this in Greenland as well,' she added.

Although the DNA analysis reveals the inhabitants had Celtic blood in their veins, Arneborg said there was no question that the settlers were Nordic.

'Everything these people did their culture, means of nourishment and so on was clearly Scandinavian,' she said.

Earlier studies of populations living in the Faeroe Islands and Iceland have shown that it was primarily the women who were of Celtic origin.

Arneborg said that indicated the Vikings may have come from Norway down past the British Isles -- where they took women with them -- and then continued on into the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.

Review From Midwest Book Review

An intriguing piece of historical fiction, highly recommended, May 7, 2010

By Midwest Book Review (Oregon, WI USA) - See all my reviews

This review is from: Confrontation: Axe of Iron (Perfect Paperback)

With no understanding there is conflict. With understanding, there is peace. "Confrontation: An Axe of Iron Novel" tells the story of Vikings from Greenland who land on the coasts of the Americas and encounter the native people of the Americas. Though started in conflict, there may soon be a peace as the Northmen realize they need the natives to survive. "Confrontation" is an intriguing piece of historical fiction, highly recommended.

Climate Change on Medieval Greenland

The causal factors for the demise of the Norse settlements at Eiriksfjord and Lysufjord, Greenland, around the beginning of the 15th century are no doubt many and varied. The people remaining in the settlements on Greenland would have seen their lifestyle steadily deteriorate and indeed their very existence become threatened as their winter weather continued to worsen.

Why these few residents continued to hang-on is unknown and unfathomable because the end of life as they knew it on the island must have been apparent to them as the Medieval Warm Period--about 800-1300--wound down and their lifestyle became unsustainable. If they did actually remain until the beginning of the 15th century (1425), as some hypothesize, the winter weather must have been awesome as the Mini-Ice Age--about 1300-1850--had already held the island in its grip for some 125-years, or one quarter of the 500-year climate cycle.

Of all the single-cause explanations for the death of Norse Greenland, climate change has been the most durable. (Thomas McGovern, Vikings, The North Atlantic Saga, The Demise of Norse Greenland, 2000-Smithsonian Institution, 330-331.)

Another factor, one that had little affect on the Inuit, or the Tuniit of the Dorset Culture, was certainly the Norse culture itself. The Northmen stubbornly adhered to their unsustainable lifestyle in the face of horrific weather conditions.

They would not have waited, to die alone in the darkness of the long winter. Those few remaining in the Eastern Settlement at Eirksfjord finally abandoned Greenland, perhaps joining the former residents of the Western Settlement at Lysufjord, in Vinland.


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