An archaeological find on a Norse settlement in Greenland may have unlocked the secret to their impressive navigational nous.

Roaming and raiding the world over

One of the most remarkable events of the medieval period was what historians and scholars called the "Viking expansion." 

This period saw about three centuries (c. 750 – 1100 CE) of seafaring people from the Viking homeland (the Nordic region) embark on journeys of conquest, colonization, and commerce throughout various parts of Europe, North America, and parts of West Asia.

Their naval journeys were characterized by exceptional navigational skills, which allowed them to traverse the multiple treacherous river systems of Eurasia (particularly what has been referred to as the "The 4 Ds" - the Danube, the Dnieper, the Don, and the Dniester), the rugged waters of Atlantic Ocean and a variety of seas, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Azov.

Part of this navigational skill lay within the vessels they boarded, but the question remains how the Vikings so successfully navigated not only the Classical World of Europe, North Africa, and West Asia but were active in areas as far apart as on the island of Newfoundland, in modern-day Canada, Baghdad and the town of Archangelsk bordering the White Sea in modern-day northwest Russia.

We moderns have been puzzled by the Vikings' impressive navigational skills and have offered up explanations ranging from magic to the ingrained cultural importance of the sea to Scandinavians. 

However, historians believe that they found an answer buried in the ground in Greenland in 1948.

Norse settlement of Greenland

Surely one of the greatest mysteries of the early modern period was the disappearance of the Norse society in Greenland. 

Though the Norse sagas should not be used as historical documents, they do have elements of truth in them. 

Historians and academics agree with the Saga of Erik the Red that people from Viking societies, led by Erik the Red, began a centuries-long settlement of Greenland from the late 10th century CE. 

At its height, the two settlements, an eastern and western one, housed as many as an estimated 2,000 to 10,000 colonists and spread out over 600 farms.

These two settlements were interlinked with the Viking world and became important economic hubs with the export of walrus ivory (a medieval luxury item) and livestock highly sought after.

The settlements prospered so much that an archdiocese was established in 1128 CE (mere decades after the traditional end of the Viking era).

The western settlement, near the modern capital of Greenland, Nuuk, was said to have been abandoned in 1350 CE, whilst the last written record was of a wedding in the eastern settlement in 1408 CE. 

When a Dano-Norwegian missionary ship sailed to the island in 1721 CE, there was no sign of a Norse population, only the crumbling ruins of stone buildings. The Viking settlers of Greenland had, it appeared, disappeared into thin air.

Several theories have been proposed to explain what happened to the Norse population, including environmental damage (600 farms is a lot for an island with little arable land), climate change (the Norse settlement on Greenland c. 1000 – 1500 CE coincides with warmer temperatures in the North Atlantic whilst from 1500 CE onwards the temperatures chilled into a "Little Ice Age"), deadly conflicts with the Inuit (the indigenous inhabitants of Greenland), or a decline in the price of walrus ivory (forcing people to make their money abroad).

One of the missionaries wondered, "What has been the fate of so many human beings, so long cut off from all intercourse with the more civilized world?"

Yet an even more important mystery is how did people from Viking societies, in the late 10th century, sail more than 2,500 kilometers / 1,500 miles to Greenland in the first place?

Historians agree that people from Viking societies, led by Erik the Red, began a centuries-long settlement of Greenland from the late 10th century CE. Pictured is West Greenland. Photo: jarino / Shutterstock

Danish digging delight

Surely one of the better archaeological digs was undertaken by a Danish team, led by esteemed archaeologist Christen Leif Vebæk. 

Undertaking a dig near what was the Norse western settlement on the shore of a mighty and majestic fjord (named the Uunartoq in the local Kalaallisut language) where nowadays tourists and locals alike come to bask in the geothermal springs. 

Back in 1948, Vebæk and his team were digging near the ruins of what was the only Benedictine convent on the island, built to service the spiritual needs of the two Norse settlements.

Vebæk and his team uncovered a treasure trove of relics and artifacts from the period that spanned the Norse colonization of Greenland, but one soon drew the attention of all the team. 

It was a wooden disc with triangular notches around it and a hole in the center. It was carved out of what was believed to be spruce, and its entire diameter was only 7 centimeters / 2.7 inches.

Vebæk showed the artifact to a retired Danish naval captain. The two came to a conclusion, after much careful research and analysis, that the wooden artifact was a solar compass. The notches on the disc were used to determine "True North" by a vertical pin placed in the center to cast a shadow.

The key to the Viking navigational skill?

Since its uncovering more than seven decades ago, historians and scientists the world over have been fascinated with this wooden artifact. 

The vertical pin casts a shadow – long in the morning and afternoon, short at noon – which is then used, along with a series of carved lines, to estimate where "True North" is. 

Figuring this out, the other directions can easily be discovered, and navigating, especially when on a ship in a vast ocean, just got a hell of a lot easier. 

Before this discovery, many historians believed that the Vikings relied on mere intuition, geographic landmarks, or even the skies above. However, this proves that despite their historical reputation as "barbarian raiders," they possessed just as much brains as brawn.

In recent years Hungarian researchers have hypothesized that along with determining "True North," this wooden disc, fondly called the Uunartoq disc, was used to determine latitude. 

Whilst latitude was known to the Ancient Greeks and to Arab civilizations contemporary to the Vikings, a device that measured it, called the mariner's astrolabe, was not invented by Europeans until the late 15th century CE. 

This means that, if the Uunartoq disc was used to determine latitude, the Vikings were about five centuries ahead in maritime navigation.

The mystery of how the Vikings managed to traverse across the ocean, from Europe to North America, from Scandinavia to West Asia, has not conclusively been solved. 

However, the Uunartoq disc may very well show how these seafaring people navigated so brilliantly in the early medieval period.

The Danish Viking Ship Museum has more on navigation here

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