The Uunartoq ‘Bearing Dial’- not an Instrument for Ocean Navigation?

When Danish archaeologist Christen Leif Vebæk excavated a Norse site in the Uunartoq fjord in south west Greenland in 1945-48 he uncovered a find which did not attract much attention at the time. Excavating what was believed to be the ruins of a Benedictine convent, a small wooden object was uncovered in the lower cultural layers which were assumed to predate the convent. It was a semi-circular disk, 7 cm across. Around the curved edge, triangular notches had been carved, creating an image not unlike a half-finished cog-wheel (fig. 1).

Vebæk published it as an object for unknown use in The Illustrated London News(Vebæk 1952). The article caught the attention of a Danish compass manufacturer and maritime historian Captain Carl V. Sølver, who suggested the disk to be the remains of a sun-compass (Sølver 1953; 1954). There is a general consensus that the magnetic compass (Old Norse leiðarsteinn = magnet) was not known in Northern Europe until after the Viking Age (KLNM 12, 260), and so the findings of a suggested sun-compass in far-away Greenland appeared to offer a solution to the lost secret of Viking navigation: how to cross the North-Atlantic without modern navigational instruments.

Sølver's solution gained in popularity, and was presented as a fact in several prestigious works (KLNM 12, 261; Graham-Campbell et al. 1994, 80-81). For a while it was also presented on posters in the exhibition of the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo. Recently, the disk has been presented as a controversial object (Seaver 2000, 274).

The ambiguity of the original object was perhaps lost on the way, and people seemed to have forgotten the basics of experimental archaeology: the distinction between exploring what might have happened, and seeking evidence for what probably did happen.[…]

Still, it is important to try to separate the plausible from the possible. This is an attempt to find a different interpretation of the Uunartoq disk through a more conventional archaeological approach: by looking for similar or related objects within the same cultural sphere. It is suggested the Uunartoq-disk is a so-called 'confession-disk', a mnemonic device used to record certain clerical services, preparing people for a totally different journey than the one across the North Atlantic. The suggestion is tentative, since little is known about the use and dating of confession-disks, and the examples stem from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which makes them post-Reformation Lutheran. A troubling fact, since Medieval Greenland was undisputedly Catholic. […]

Icelandic Confession Disks

In the National Museum of Iceland are some objects which vary considerably in shape and design, but which all have been collected from parish churches around the country. Their name in Icelandic is skriftaskífar, which translated to English means ‘confession disks’ […] quickly described, the confession disks were instruments used by the parish ministers or priests to count how many parishioners were taking confession. This was done in one of two ways: either by twisting a dial on what resembles a clock face, or by putting a little peg in a hole next to a number. […]

The key issue, of course, is to establish whether confession disks were used in the Nordic countries under the Roman Catholic Church, or were these a post-Reformation phenomenon.[…]

Today, most people would argue that the personal confession is one of the Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, but not in the post-Reformation, Lutheran Church. Tempting as it is to use this to propose a medieval origin of the Confession Disk, it is too much simplification. A closer look at the practice of confession is needed. […]

Final Comments

[…]The conclusion must be that the final interpretation of the Uunartoq disk has not yet been reached. The present article has offered some new alternatives, and so maybe the puzzle will be solved by a new find in a clearer context somewhere. Maybe it was designed for some mnemonic purpose, maybe for navigation, or perhaps it was a toy?

How the Vikings navigated across the North Atlantic is still a bit of a mystery. Maybe they used the North Star, maybe solar navigation with or without gnomon curves, maybe a variety of techniques. The lack of conclusive evidence should not stop us from speculating. We may need the answers, but we also need the mysteries. […]


Kulturalhistorisk Leksikon for Nordisk Middelader 1956-1978, 2nd ed. 1982, vols 1-21, Copenhagen.


Graham-Campbell, J et al., eds, 1994. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World, Oxford and New York.

Seaver, K. 2000. ‘Unanswered Questions’, in Fitzhugh and Ward 2000, 270-279.

Sølver, C.V. 1944. Vestervejen. Om Nordboernes Navigering over Allanteren. Det Grønlandske Sclshabs Aarsskrift, Copenhagen

-1953. ‘The discovery of an ancient bearing dial’, Journal of the Institute of Navigation, 6, 294-6

-1954. Vestervejen. Om Vikingernes Sejlads, Copenhagen

Vebæk, C.L. and Thirslund, S. 1992. The Viking compass guided Norsemen first to America, Humlebæk, Denmark.

Source: Christian Keller and Arne Christensen, "The Uunartoq 'Bearing Dial'- not an Instrument for Ocean Navigation?" in Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, Shannon Lewis-Simpson (St. John's, NL: Historical Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2002), 429-430, 438-441.

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