”Navigation and Vinland”

People in the modern world have grown so dependent on all kinds of instruments that they tend to exaggerate the role of such objects when thinking about the past. In particular, because modern navigation has become so instrumentalised, discussions of early navigation tend to be coloured by the same mindset. So it is that most modern scholars who examine Old Norse navigational methods tend to propose a favourite navigational instrument which, they seem to believe, offers a definitive solution to the problem of how the Norsemen navigated.

In this context people also appear to miss the paradox inherent in exaggerating the role of allegedly valuable medieval instruments and devices. The sagas and other Old Norse sources show quite clearly that the efficiency of the navigational technology of the times was, in practice, limited. We might add that if Norsemen had been in possession of good navigational instruments, then the kinds of faltering voyages of discovery and exploration represented by reports GB [Bjarni in the Saga of the Greenlanders] and EL [Leif in the Erik the Red’s Saga] would never have taken place, not to mention the abortive GŽs [Žorstein in the Saga of the Greenlanders] and EŽs [Žorstein in Erik the Red’s Saga] voyages.

[…] It seems appropriate at this point to say something about proportions. Between the time of the Norsemen and that of Columbus, several new navigational instruments were developed. Just one of them was the key to success: the compass. The fundamental inadequacy of all other instruments of the time was that they made use of the sun or the stars and thus presupposed a clear sky, which was (and is) by no means always the case in the North Atlantic. It was precisely in overcast or foggy conditions that navigational aids were and are so vital. Thus, we may safely say that the importance of the compass far exceeded all the other navigational instruments, and this remained the case until twentieth-century technological developments. And we know for sure that the compass did not reach Europe until the thirteenth century. Those who fantasise about some sort of Old Norse compass should simply read again the kinds of saga accounts already discussed in this paper. Those voyages were all too clearly undertaken without the aid of any compass or similarly useful equipment.

The present author has discussed elsewhere some possible candidates for Old Norse navigational instruments. I summarise my findings in the table below. We should note that very few of the instruments would be of any practical value in real navigation, because of the bright nights, the frequent absence of a clear sky, the lack of independent time measurements, and all the related complications associated with using solar motion at sea for calculating direction or time.

Table. Possible Old Norse navigation instruments.

Probability index Utility Index Comments
Sounding lead 3 3 Shown on Bayeux tapestry
Cross staff 2 2 Simple; some form likely
Gnomon 2 1 Some form likely; difficult at sea
Sun dial 0 0 Horizon/gnomon of same use in north
Bearing dial 1 1 Candidate artefact found in Greenland
Solar stone 1 1 Substantial report for land use only
Quadrant 0 1 Mentioned in late C13 [13th century] astronomical text
Astrolabe 0 1 Adapted to sea use in C15
Lodestone 0 3 C13 Europe; no signs of use of compass


The evaluation of usefulness applies to instruments as they would have been in the Viking Age. For example, modern people with up-to-date knowledge of optics could make a solar stone from Iceland spar and formulate procedures for using it in the optimal way, but this would not tell us much about how medieval people might have used it. In any event, the extra information which could be gained today from a solar stone would have been of only limited practical use for navigation had it been available in the Middle Ages.

The quadrant and the astrolabe have recently been proposed as candidates for Old Norse navigational instruments[…] As such these items are well known from the history of early astronomy, albeit unconnected with navigation. However, many ideas and instruments from ancient Greece are generally believed to have been lost to early medieval Europe. It is the case that mention is made of the quadrant in a late thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript, but that is in the context of general ancient astronomy and represents no evidence for the instrument having been used almost three centuries earlier in the north for astronomy, let alone for navigation, for which it would have been utterly useless. The astrolabe was developed by the Arabs during the Middle Ages. It is primarily an instrument for general astronomy and perhaps for travel on land, and was not adapted for navigation until the time of Henry the Navigator in the fourteenth century.

The Question of Sailing Speed and Time

[…] The distances traversed by the Vinland voyagers are often known, or can be inferred from the texts when, for example, a model of the localities involved is available. The duration of single voyages is, however, not so often reported in the texts, though we may have implicit information, for some statement is usually included if a voyage is supposed to have taken more than one summer.

The information obtained by analysing the individual accounts of the Vinland expeditions can be summarised briefly. Nothing in the reports leads us to assume a higher sailing speed for the Norsemen than that of Columbus mentioned above. The average, effective sailing speed may very well have been of the order of three knots. Indeed, this also holds for the totality of voyages in the Icelandic sagas. […]

Source: Žorsteinn Vilhjįlmsson, "Navigation and Vinland" in Approaches to Vķnland: A conference on the written and archaeological sources for the Norse settlements in the North-Atlantic region and exploration of America, Andrew Wawn and Žórunn Sigurđardóttir (Reykjavķk: Siguršur Nordal Institute, 2001), 117-119.

Return to parent page