20 February 2011

Excerpt from Assimilation: An Axe of Iron Novel

The following is a short excerpt from the third book of the Axe of Iron series, a continuing tale of the Greenland Vikings assimilation with certain tribes of pre-historical North American Indians. The scene is Halfdansfjord, the settlement built on a cove by the expedition on the southwestern shore of present day James Bay, Canada.

The face of the sun had just dipped below the western horizon when the peace that normally descends at day’s end was shattered by the guard’s horn wailing from the south tower. The signal was soon duplicated by the horn from the north guard tower as both combined to set up a frightful din, bringing the occupants of Halfdansfjord running from every quarter. People poured from the south gate onto the landing beach in response to the guard’s outstretched arm and shouts, “A ship rounds the headland! It is Steed of the Sea.”

Halfdan and Frida, in the forefront of the crowd swelling out along the beach caught sight of the ship between the two islands offshore of the landing beach as her mast top and sail swam into view through the ever-present haze. Her sail foot was pulled in close as she beat close around the headland.

Frida grabbed Halfdan’s arm, excitement flushing her beautiful face as she shouted above the din of the crowd. “Just look at her! She is a sight to behold!”

Halfdan’s arm encircled her shoulder and he pulled her close, his eyes drinking in the sight of his ship as Bjorn brought her about and she charged downwind on a broad reach for the landing beach. A flush coursed through his body at sight of the bow wave creaming out, the graceful prow slicing the water’s surface asunder as her speed rapidly increased on the downwind tack. “She has the bone in her teeth, just look at the white foam of the bow wave. Gorm has her hard on the wind.”
Large snow flakes drifted lazily to earth from the grey, leaden clouds. The still air ensured an even accumulation over every surface. It all began three days hence with a cold wind from the northwest that brought increasing clouds and driving snow. With passage of this onslaught after the first day, the storm front pushed its way out over the broad bay to the south, a stillness gradually developed as the low clouds filled in, enfolding the settlement and the countryside in ice fog and steady snow.

Halfdan sat staring into the opaqueness from the shelter of one of the many sheds scattered about the settlement commons, where he often sought seclusion to commune with his thoughts. Dressed for the occasion, he wore the heavy bearskin parka that Frida had just this morning presented to him.

J. A. Hunsinger, Vinland Publishing, http://www.vinlandpublishing.com/
©2011 Jerry A. Hunsinger, All Rights Reserved


18 February 2011

Did Vikings navigate by polarized light?

Published online 31 January 2011


Nature News

'Sunstone' crystals may have helped seafarers to find the Sun on cloudy days.

Jo Marchant

As highly skilled navigators, Vikings crossed thousands of kilometres of open sea.BRYNA PRODS/UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION

A Viking legend tells of a glowing 'sunstone' that, when held up to the sky, revealed the position of the Sun even on a cloudy day. It sounds like magic, but scientists measuring the properties of light in the sky say that polarizing crystals — which function in the same way as the mythical sun stone — could have helped ancient sailors to cross the northern Atlantic. A review of their evidence is published today in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B1.

The Vikings, seafarers from Scandinavia who travelled widely and settled in swathes of Northern Europe, the British Isles and the northern Atlantic from around 750 to 1050 AD, were skilled navigators, able to cross thousands of kilometres of open sea between Norway, Iceland and Greenland. Perpetual daylight during the summer sailing season in the far north would have prevented them from using the stars as a guide to their positions, and the magnetic compass had yet to be introduced in Europe — in any case, it would have been of limited use so close to the North Pole.

But Viking legends, including an Icelandic saga centring on the hero Sigurd, hint that these sailors had another navigational aid at their disposal: a sólarsteinn, or sun stone.

The 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 sun stone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun"2. In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia2.

Light consists of electromagnetic waves that oscillate perpendicular to the direction of the light's travel. When the oscillations all point in the same direction, the light is polarized. A polarizing crystal such as calcite allows only light polarized in certain directions to pass through it, and can appear bright or dark depending on how it is oriented with respect to the light.

Centred on the light

Scattering by air molecules in the atmosphere causes sunlight to become polarized, with the line of polarization tangential to circles centred on the Sun. So Ramskou argued that by holding a crystal such as calcite up to the sky and rotating it to check the direction of polarization of the light passing through it, the Vikings could have deduced the position of the Sun, even when it was hidden behind clouds or fog, or was just beneath the horizon.

Historians have debated the possibility ever since, with some arguing that the technique would have been pointless, because it would only work if the crystal was pointed at patches of clear sky, and in such conditions it would be possible to estimate the position of the Sun with the naked eye, for example from the bright lining of cloud tops3.

Gábor Horváth, an optics researcher at Eötvös University in Budapest, and Susanne Åkesson, a migration ecologist from Lund University, Sweden, have been testing these assumptions since 2005. The special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B in which their review appears is dedicated to biological research on polarized light1.

In one study, the researchers took photographs of partly cloudy or twilight skies in northern Finland through a 180° fish eye lens, and asked test subjects to estimate the position of the Sun4. Errors of up to 99° led the researchers to conclude that the Vikings could not have relied on naked-eye guesses of the Sun's position.

To check whether sun stones would work better, in 2005 they measured the polarization pattern of the entire sky under a range of weather conditions during a crossing of the Arctic Ocean on the Swedish icebreaker Oden5,6.

Through the clouds

The researchers were surprised to find that in foggy or totally overcast conditions the pattern of light polarization was similar to that of clear skies. The polarization was not as strong, but Åkesson believes that it could still have provided Viking navigators with useful information.

"I tried such a crystal on a rainy overcast day in Sweden," she says. "The light pattern varied depending on the orientation of the stone."

She and Horváth are now planning further experiments to determine whether volunteers can accurately work out the Sun's position using crystals in various weather conditions.

Sean McGrail, who studied ancient seafaring at the University of Oxford, UK, before retiring, says that the studies are interesting but there is no real evidence to indicate that the Vikings actually used such crystals. "You can show how they could be used, but that isn't proof," he says. "People were navigating long before this without any instruments."

Surviving written records indicate that Viking and early medieval sailors crossed the north Atlantic using the Sun's position on clear days as a guide, in combination with the positions of coastlines, flight patterns of birds, migration paths of whales and distant clouds over islands, says Christian Keller, a specialist in North Atlantic archaeology at the University of Oslo. "You don't need to be a wizard," he says. "But you do need to combine a lot of different sorts of observations."

Keller says he is "totally open" to the idea that the Vikings also used sun stones, but is waiting for archaeological evidence. "If we find a shipwreck with a crystal on board, then I would be happy," he says.

• References

1. Horváth, G. et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 772-782 (2011).

2. Ramskou, T. Skalk 2, 16-17 (1967).

3. Roslund, C. & Beckman, C. Appl. Opt. 33, 4754-4755 (1994).

4. Barta, A. , Horváth, G. & Meyer-Rochow, V. B. J. Opt. Soc. Am. A 22, 1023-1034 (2005).

5. Hegedüs, R. , Åkesson, S. , Wehner, R. & Horváth, G. Proc. R. Soc. A 463, 1081-1095 (2007).

6. Hegedüs, R. , Åkesson, S. & Horváth, G. J. Opt. Soc. Am. A 24, 2347-2356 (2007).

10 February 2011

The Icelandic Riddle

January, 31 2011

Northern Pen

Could a Beothuk woman have been taken from the Northern Peninsula to Iceland by a Viking? Could they have had children, and could that bloodline still run through modern day Icelanders?

Turns out it's a possibility.

Archaeological evidence has long pointed to the fact that when the Vikings settled at Vinland, now L'Anse aux Meadows, around 1000 AD, there was no contact between them and the native inhabitants.

There was the odd reference to "Skraelings" in the Icelandic sagas, but physical evidence never backed up the theory that the two populations actually met.

However, a new study of Icelandic DNA raises the intriguing possibility that the two populations not only met - they also produced offspring.

It all boils down to a mysterious mitochondrial DNA sequence (that is, one inherited through the female line) called the C1e lineage.

The C lineage was originally discovered by Dr. Angar Helgason at deCODE Genetics, then study author Sigrídur Sunna Ebenesersdóttir spent three years examining the sequence.

Carried by more than 80 Icelanders, she found the C1e DNA sequence can be definitively traced to four female ancestors born in the country around 1700.

But, Ms. Ebenesersdóttir explained to the Pen last week by phone, it's likely the C1e sequence was brought to Iceland well before that - and well before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in north America in 1492.

"We think it started a lot further back. The Icelandic population has not been affected by constant gene flow like many other populations, so we can assume that most matrilines in contemporary Icelanders are descended from the original set of female settlers, 1100 hundred years ago," she says.

"It's also important to bear in mind that this C1e lineage isn't found among Eskimo Aleut speakers, so it can be ruled out that it's found in the Icelandic gene pool as a result of a mixture between Greenland Inuit and Icelanders."

In fact, the only other people who carry the C1 sequence are a small group of East Asians and, more prominently, a large number of native Americans.

They carry a slightly different branch of the DNA sequence, but it's the closest relative and certainly has the most plausible explanation - that is, Vikings.

When you combine that with the archaeological evidence of Vikings in north America, specifically on the Northern Peninsula, things start to look a bit more interesting.

"If a native American woman was brought back to Iceland with a Viking, or if she had a female child with a Viking and he brought her back to Iceland, then that would explain the presence of this DNA lineage in the Icelandic gene pool," Ms. Ebenesersdóttir says.

"We cannot say for 100 per cent certain that this is what happened, because this particular DNA group has no other member to date, but the closest relatives of this group are found among Native Americans, so it's the most likely source."

There's even a chance this sequence could have come from the now-extinct Beothuk people, who are known to have lived in the region around the time of the Vikings.

"There is a chance that this C1e sequence still exists, and it's most likely to be among a native American population, but in terms of DNA the Native Americans from North America are somewhat under sampled compared to groups from other regions," Ms. Ebenesersdóttir explains.

"There's also a chance that it has now been lost from the native American gene pool and that it will only be found in ancient remains, so ancient DNA studies may play an important role in determining its origin."

The identities of the 80 or so Icelandic women who carry the mysterious DNA are encrypted in the country's genealogical database, but Ms. Ebenesersdóttir says they would probably feel pretty good about their involvement in a possible re-writing of history.

"I think it would be very cool for them - I would be excited," she laughs, "but I tested my DNA and I'm definitely not a descendant from this woman."

She's not the only one excited about the possibilities raised by the study.

Bill Bartlett, of Griquet, also goes by the name Lambi the Skald.

He works as a Viking interpreter during summer at Norstead Viking village, and says there's no reason the Vikings and native population couldn't have met.

"There are just so many things that point to the fact that happened," he told the Pen.

"Usually Vikings traveled with a boat of 30 men and five to seven women, and I'd imagine those women would end up saying stop pestering me' so why wouldn't the Vikings have looked elsewhere?"

Then you've got the stories in the Viking sagas, which Mr. Bartlett knows back to front.

"When you read the sagas, they talk about Skraelings and women bearing their breasts - that's a tradition of the Beothuk who'd rip open their shirts to prove they were women," he explains.

"On top of that there are references to interactions between the Indians, Eskimos and the Vikings, and when they were digging up L'Anse aux Meadows there were bits of Eskimo pottery there. I'm not sure how much, but it was there.

"When you think about it, this whole area of the Northern Peninsula was the gateway to Europe - everything passed through here. Everyone passed through here and all the way down to Port au Choix they've found native settlements, so why not? Why couldn't this have happened?"

So where to from here?

Well, Ms. Ebenesersdóttir hopes the study will inspire other scientists to look for relatives of the C1e lineage in native American DNA samples, perhaps establishing more concrete proof of the tie between that population and the Vikings.

"This is very exciting for Icelandic people because it's more evidence that they settled north America 500 years before Christopher Columbus, which a lot of people I think don't realize," she says.

This study could prove interaction between two populations on the Northern Peninsula that history says never met, but until the C1e lineage is found in another population, the fact a Viking may have taken a Beothuk wife will simply remain plausible speculation.

05 February 2011

Ireland's Viking Fortress

January, 31 2011

Archaeology Magazine

The remains of the legendary Viking fortress Linn Duachaill have been discovered in northeastern Ireland, 45 miles north of Dublin.

"Historians and archaeologists have been trying to locate Linn Duachaill for more than 200 years," says Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Antiquities with the National Museum of Ireland, who led a lengthy research and targeted excavation effort that resulted in the discovery of the infamous Viking base.

Linn Duachaill was founded in A.D. 841, the same year as Viking Dublin. The fortress was used as a center by the Vikings to trade goods, organize attacks against inland Irish monasteries, and send captured Irish slaves abroad. For more than 70 years, Linn Duachaill rivaled Dublin as the preeminent Viking holding on the east coast of Ireland before it was eventually abandoned.

The discovery of Linn Duachaill will finally allow archeologists to compare the actual site with medieval documents. The names of leaders of the garrison are recorded, along with extensive accounts of attacks they carried out. The site is often referred to as a longphort, a term used to describe a fortification built by the Vikings to protect their ships.

A defensive rampart has already been excavated at the site and examples of Viking silver and ecclesiastical metalwork looted from native Irish sites have also been recovered. "We are excited to learn what insights into medieval times Linn Duachaill will reveal," says Kelly.