The sixteenth century Alderney crystal: a calcite as an efficient reference optical compass?

Albert Le Floch, Guy Ropars, Jacques Lucas, Steve Wright, Trevor Davenport, Michael Corfield, Michael Harrisson


The crystal recently discovered in the 1592 sunken Elizabethan ship is shown to be an Iceland spar. We report that two main phenomena, with opposite effects, explain the good conservation and the evolution of this relatively fragile calcite crystal. We demonstrate that the Ca2+–Mg2+ ion exchanges in such a crystal immersed in sea water play a crucial role by limiting the solubility, strengthening the mechanical properties of the calcite, while the sand abrasion alters the crystal by inducing roughness of its surface. Although both phenomena have reduced the transparency of the Alderney calcite crystal, we demonstrate that Alderney-like crystals could really have been used as an accurate optical sun compass as an aid to ancient navigation, when the Sun was hidden by clouds or below the horizon. To avoid the possibility of large magnetic errors, not understood before 1600, an optical compass could have helped in providing the sailors with an absolute reference. An Alderney-like crystal permits the observer to follow the azimuth of the Sun, far below the horizon, with an accuracy as great as ±1°. The evolution of the Alderney crystal lends hope for identifying other calcite crystals in Viking shipwrecks, burials or settlements.

  • Received October 31, 2012.
  • Accepted February 7, 2013.
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