I've spent a good bit of time these past few days admiring Viking longboats, warrior halls, stave churches and suchlike. It's a humbling exercise because you have to admit that along with rape and pillage—well, they also loot, but along with all of that, you would have to admit that by, say, 850 AD or so, these guys were by some measures among the most successful civilizations on the planet. Yes, I'm thinking about the longboat and its kin: these vessels really are marvels of engineering. They're seaworthy (of course) but beyond that, in various avatars they are swift and efficient. By “seaworthy,” I mean they can get you all the way to Newfoundland more times than not, and one has to marvel at the generations of evolving craftsmanship went into the final product.
Aside from the vessels, the most noteworthy avatar is the great hall—the place for warrior powwows. They look like upside down longboats and the resemblance may be more than accidental: my friend Ken says, “if you can build a longboat, you can build anything.” One is tempted to ask, which (great hall or longboat) came first. The answer may be “neither:” maybe they co-evolved, each one profiting from the other's technical advance.
The stave churches are a somewhat different matter. They're wood, and so terribly vulnerable to fire (the one I saw yesterday has discreetly placed 21C sprinklers). They're made to look like stone churches or cathedrals; the “staves” are the “columns.” As with any derivative architecture, you have to wonder how much of this product consists of design elements that once served a functional purpose, but serve one no longer. Specifically, the columns—are they weight-bearing or only decorative? On superficial appraisal, I couldn't tell.
But hang all that and let me tell you about what might be the coolest of northland inventions: the barrel. Recall how the ancients, notably the Phoenicians, carpet-bombed the Mediterranean with amphorae full of wine and olive oil and whatnot. But amphorae are heavy; they don't contain a lot and they are frustratingly vulnerable to breakage. Enter the barrel, which pips them on all counts.
And where do we get the barrel? Ha, compare the longboat. They're both made of planks, seasoned and sealed. The barrel is much more “seaworthy” than the amphora, in that they are capable of holding more, easier to move and much harder to break, but conceptually a longboat it is.
Or maybe I have it backwards; maybe the barrel is really the father of them all.
Fn.: much as I admire the technical skill of the people who developed all this stuff, I must put in a good word for the adventurers who found the hulks on ocean bottoms and hoicked them to the surface and hauled them to a museum and reassembled them without losing the whole project to heap of rubble.