Solar calendars and sun cults were an important part of indigenous American cultures, from the Hopi in North America to the Incas in Peru. Now a mysterious group of towers in Peru has been discovered to be a solar calendar, like Stonehenge. Another discovery shows that the Vikings, who may have been the first foreigners to travel to North America by sea, were able to navigate long distances, even when the weather was too overcast to see the sun, by using crystals.

A line of structures known as the 13 towers run north-south along the ridge of a low hill at Chankillo, in the Casma Valley of Peru?s coastal desert, a ceremonial center dating back to the fourth century BC. From evident observation points on either side, the towers form a “toothed” horizon that spans the annual rising and setting arcs of the sun, indicating their use in solar observations.

Researcher Ivan Ghezzi says, “Chankillo is arguably the oldest solar calendar that can be identified as such with confidence within the Americas.” Starting in 2000, Earthwatch volunteer teams assisted Ghezzi at Chankillo for three years, conducting excavations that supported this new revelation about the site?s importance in ancient sun cults. They helped him map the 13 towers and recorded their alignments. Earthwatch volunteers also took tree ring samples from well-preserved wooden lintels that helped date the site. The gaps between the towers are wide enough for just one or two sunrises to be observed in each. The regularity of the gaps suggests that the year was divided into regular intervals.

The Vikings used sundials to navigate their ships, but?until now?no one could figure out what they did on an overcast day, when sundials would have been useless. Now biophysicist Gabor Horvath has discovered that they used rock crystals called “sunstones” to tell them what direction to sail in.

Sailors on the Swedish icebreaker Oden tested this theory and found that sunstones were an effective navigation device. In, Corey Binns explains that “crystals such as cordierite, calcite or turmaline work like polarizing filters, changing in brightness and color as they detect the angle of sunlight. From these changes, Vikings could have accurately determined where the polarized sky light was coming from and pinpointed the direction of the sun.”

Binns quotes Horvath as saying, “Under foggy or cloudy conditions, a Viking navigator could have guessed the position of the sun hidden by clouds or fog by determining the sky light polarization in two celestial points?and could have guessed the position of the invisible sun.”

Archeologists have found Viking sundials, but they have yet to find any remnants of sunstones, so this remains a theory that was first proposed in 1966 by Danish archeologist Thorkild Ramskou. He came up with the theory after reading a Viking saga which mentions the use of such stones.

Art credit: Ivan Ghezzi

If YOU’RE interested in ancient sagas, discover the startling research of William Henry, who investigates the collective memories of ancient cultures and discovers the facts buried deep within them.

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