Friday, October 21, 2011

From the fury of the northmen, deliver us

About 200 pages into Thorstein Veblen's magnum opus The Instinct of Workmanship we discover around thirty pages devoted to perhaps the most intensely personal and motivating question of his writing career, "Why us?"  Why is it that the most disruptive people in human history came from those countries that touched the North Sea?  After all, these trouble-makers not only gave us the Industrial Revolution, but parliamentary democracies, global-scaled imperial colonialism, and industrial capitalism itself.  So instead of some romantic south-sea islanders, Veblen turns the emerging science of cultural anthropology on the most dominating culture of all.

Veblen includes a lot of interesting theories for why the North-Sea troublemakers got the way they did but one of his more fascinating (for me) explains a lot—they went to sea.  While sailors have often been a notoriously superstitious lot, there is probably nothing that so dramatically reinforces the notions of cause-and-effect as sailing.  This is an activity where if you hold some bogus notion as to how the world works, you will almost certainly die of your error.  The sea is very unforgiving and it is easy to lose your way when out of sight of land.

North Sea sailors from England and Holland would not only spend a lot of energy advancing the boatbuilding arts, they would also fund a great deal of basic scientific research into navigation and celestial observation, cartography, time-keeping, meteorology, metallurgy, and anything else that helped you cross large bodies of water and return safely.

On Wednesday, archeologists announced they had found a spectacular new gravesite in Scotland of one of those early North-Sea trouble-makers.  The 16ft-long grave on the west coast's Ardnamurchan peninsula contained the remains of the high-status Viking, laid to rest inside his boat and buried with an axe, a sword and a spear.  He was surrounded by valuable artefacts including a knife, a whetstone from Norway, a ring-pin from Ireland as well as Viking pottery.

And as a reminder that advanced metallurgy is an integral part of going to sea, we here see the contribution Sandvik is making to the preservation of that most popular touchstone of Nordic seafaring—the warship Vasa in Stockholm.

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