Vikings And The Challenge Of Old Technology

by Don Friedman on September 22, 2016


That red ship moored in the North Cove at Battery Park City, the one that doesn’t look like the surrounding yachts? She’s the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a replica Viking great shipDraken recently sailed across the Atlantic from Norway and is here for a few more days before heading up the Hudson, through the New York State Barge Canal and on to the Great Lakes.

I love all of this but there’s an important point to be made: the Draken is not a Viking ship, but rather a replica. That’s not semantics – the Vikings have been gone for centuries, so obviously they didn’t build this ship – but an issue of technology and conservation philosophy. An artifact from the past – a ship, a building, a toy, a shirt – is not just an old thing in itself, it is the product of a technology system that most likely no longer exists in its original form. It’s clear from the Draken‘s website that at least some modern tools are used in its construction, but even of all the tools were historically accurate, the modern shed used to shelter the work was not, the materials were probably not*, the training of the builders was not, the protective clothing worn by the builders is not, and so on. That is, of course, fine. Only a fanatic would insist that a replica be built by people living as if it were a thousand years ago.

An artifact is a piece of the past, both socially and technologically, brought into the present. It can be difficult for us to understand socially: early typewriters look, to us, like difficult-to-use tangles of gears and levers, but they were liberating to people who had only ever known handwriting and printing presses.** It can be even more difficult for us to understand the web of technology that surrounded past artifacts: without knowing how easy or difficult various tasks were using the technology of the era in question we don’t understand why the object looks as it does. A example we frequently come across: the front and rear facades of rowhouses aren’t very well tied back to the side walls. That bothered me for a long time, since the builders certainly knew how to tooth brick together across a corner. Then I started thinking about the logistics of building a row of six or eight houses using only muscle power. It is easier to build the side party walls and floors of all of the houses simultaneously, keeping openings through the party walls to allow lateral movement of laborers and materials, and then put the front and rear facades on later. Even today, with powered materials hoists available, we sometimes build in that manner.

Even if we replace original materials in kind during a restoration or alteration project, our work is a modern intervention. The materials, tools, design, and construction techniques are all different from the original. And that is okay. To deny ourselves the use of our era’s native technology is not conservation, it is antiquarianism. The people who built the Draken were not pretending to be Vikings***, they were showing the modern world – us – what a Viking longboat looks like and is capable of doing.**** Similarly, the people who build heavy-timber buildings today are, for the most part, interested in showing what that structural/architectural form is capable of, not pretending that they are living in 1820.

* I doubt that the raw iron was manufactured the old way, using clay and charcoal.

** While the mechanics of clerking are not the point of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the difficulty of performing that work is described clearly.

*** At least, as far as I know.

**** 14 knots in open water. Amazing.

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