Saturday, December 31, 2005

Gotta love a little site destruction

You might think that archaeologists would hate anything that disturbs ancient deposits, mucks around with finds and exposes them to the elements. Right? Actually, no. In many cases we love it.

Nobody wants large-scale destruction, such as unsupervised bulldozing for open-air mining, highways, airports or housing estates. But smaller nibbles are the lifeblood of archaeological discovery.

Bring on shoreline and riverbank erosion, small-scale gravel extraction and peat cutting, gardening, ploughing, tree-toppling storms, forest fires and burrowing animals! Without them we wouldn’t know half of what we know.

A year ago I went to Ribe, Denmark to study Viking Period casting moulds. Claus Feveile and the other good people of the town museum made me feel welcome. And when I was done with the moulds, I had a look at the town.

One of the sites I visited was riddled with molehills. It had been raining, so solid objects had been washed out of the dirt and were clearly visible. I checked out a number of hills as I strolled around, finding a lot of brick fragments and a little flint. And then I saw something glinting in the sunshine. A gilded filigree decorative mount from the 15th/16th century.

Claus thought I was joking when I came back into his office with the find. I’d only been gone for about an hour. But he took out his GPS navigator, we went over to the site and he took the mole hill's coordinates. And the mount became danefæ, "goods of the dead", property of the Danish state.

So mole hills merit some attention, as do ploughed fields after rain and the root tangles of toppled trees. Look long enough and you’ll find something interesting. And then e-mail a pic to your friendly local archaeologist!

[More blog entries about , , .]

Friday, December 30, 2005

Pet Shop Boyhood

When I was a kid, there was a little crowded pet shop at the mall. I would go there to look at the budgies and parakeets, the guppies and guinea pigs. I remember the smell of wood shavings and pet food, the cacophony of parrots and the burbling of aquarium pumps... Then the shop closed and the space became part of a grocery store.

How long would an animal live in one of those cramped cages at the store? What was the casualty rate? How often did they make a sale? Did the owner keep backup animals at home, to be able to re-stock the cages? Where did they get the merchandise from in the first place? Were there guinea pig wholesalers?

There seem to be few pet shops around these days that keep birds and mammals for sale on the premises. My gut feeling is that any animal that needs to be kept in a cage is simply wrong as a pet. But then again, if the animals thrive and procreate, I suppose a suburban cage is an excellent biotope. Gerbils certainly don't seem to mind.

As my friend Jens Heimdahl has pointed out to me, in nature there's no right or wrong, only adaptive success and failure. So abolishing pet cages would actually be to destroy valuable habitat. I guess only an over-sized brain can make an animal believe that abstract freedom is more important than abundant food, shelter and safety.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A place with a past

There is no untouched wilderness. For ages, people have been messing around with every spot of dry land on Earth and sinking artefacts and anthropogenic sediment over much of its ocean floors. More recently, we've sojourned at a number of scenic spots on the Moon, dropped quite a bit of gear on neighbouring planets, made tracks and drilled into rocks.

Archaeology is everywhere on Earth. But in modern urban areas, it's easy to get the impression that there is no past before the landscape of today.

The 70s housing project where I live, Fisksätra, is one of those places. Almost every single building here is the same age, indeed, uniformly designed by the same architects. There are very few clues left to what the place was like until the 60s: an old summer villa near the seashore and a number of large oak trees. It's pretty much as if the modern layout had been dropped from orbit, obliterating the past.

But in the archives there is quite a bit of documentation, and on the margins of the developed area a few archaeological traces can still be seen. Fisksätra used to be a poor tenant farm, inhabited since at least the 16th century by fisher/farmer families. The name is even older, and pagan graves show that the people of a nearby farmstead had an interest in the place in the 10th century or even earlier.

I recently published a paper about the forgotten past of Fisksätra in the municipality's annual Nackaboken. Read it here in Swedish.

[More blog entries about , , .]

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tragedy is mundane

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a person who struggled with adversity -- and lost. They lost their loved ones, saw their hopes and dreams dashed, got humiliated and hurt, possibly killed -- all for no good reason, achieving nothing. The end.

Did you like the story? No? Well, this happens every day in the real world. Stories of pointless suffering and cruelty are typical of real human lives. And I'm not interested in fictional accounts along these lines. I feel betrayed and disappointed when an author introduces a sympathetic main character, places them in a quandary, and makes them lose.

For instance, take a plot thread from China Miéville's celebrated Perdido Street Station (2000). Spoiler warning.

Once upon a time there was a struggling artist who received a commission to make a statue of a crime boss. She worked hard and it looked like the piece would become her greatest achievement ever. But while she was working, the boss erroneously got the impression that the artist's lover was trying to muscle in on his turf. He then imprisoned the artist and had his henchmen starve, beat, rape and mutilate her. After weeks of this, she was rescued by her lover, only to be attacked by a soul-sucking monster that left her severely mentally handicapped and unable to care for herself. The statue was left unfinished. The boss continued his business. The end.

Like it? I don't. I think it's a pointless, cruel, realistic story. I like fiction that is not like the real world with its mundane randomness. I want redemption, wrongs righted, and just deserts for all.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Feel my asparagus

Me, my brother and our parents moved back to Sweden in the spring of 1978 after two years in the U.S. I was six and began to read the comics in the morning paper. The page before the comics had movie ads, including little compact ones for porn flicks.

One title stuck in my memory: Känn min sköna sparris ("Feel my delightful asparagus"). When you're a kid you don't have much to compare with, so you generally just accept that the world is the way it is. Apparently, the titles of porn flicks would sometimes refer to asparagus.

But isn't that kind of weird? I could understand corn cob, cucumber, zucchini, egg plant, melons... But can you imagine some hammy porn actor saying "Hey babe, c'mere and feel my big, massive ... umm ... asparagus"?

So I googled the movie. And it turns out that it's a German hardcore flick (from 1978, genau) with the original title Pornokneipe ("Porn Diner"). The leading lady is named Ginny Noack and plays a cook. So that's the explanation for the asparagus: the shtupping takes place in a traditional German restaurant.
"Horst hat eine gutgehende Kneipe. Das liegt vor allem daran, das die Gäste ihren Gelüsten freien Lauf lassen können. Für die ausgefallensten Wünsche hat er immer ein offenes Ohr und es vergeht kein Tag ohne einen ordentlichen Arschfick oder eine Doppelpenetration in die Muschi und in den Arsch der weiblichen Gäste."
Herr Ober, I think I'd prefer to have some asparagus that Horst and his friends haven't had a chance to feel, bitte.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Epicurean bookworm

There are far more books around than anyone can get through in a single lifetime. So we'd better prioritise.

Reading for practical purposes, we may occasionally need to slog through (or skim over) the mire of a boring book. But when we read for pleasure alone, there are no mandatory books. There are only enjoyable ones and dull ones.

The most effective way I've found to improve my reading enjoyment is to never read more than 50 pages of a dull book. If it ain't good after 50 pages, then it ain't no good for me. Never mind if it's a "classic", a "best-seller" or a "must-read". De gustibus non est disputandum.

Another important improvement was to start seeking out interesting books more deliberately. I used to read opportunistically: books on display at the library or the bookstore, found on the shelves of friends, given or lent to me by enthusiastic acquaintances. The books I sought out actively tended to cost me a lot of money and a trip to a bookstore.

Lately, the net has changed all this for me. Most importantly, I've discovered inter-library loan at my local public library. They can't buy books to cater to my tastes, but our friendly librarians happily get me any book I want from another Swedish library at little more than a dollar a pop (SEK 10, €1). I fill out a web form, press the button, and a few days later I get e-mail notification that the book is ready for pickup.

But of course, a lot of the stuff I like to read isn't held by any Swedish library. Enter eBay and on-line book stores. I'm no bibliophile: Content is King. I prefer a used paperback to a new hardback for reasons of economy, space and portability. So I go for the cheapest available copy, being careful to order from dealers inside the EU if possible. That way I don't have to pay customs. And most paperbacks fit through the mail slot in our front door, saving me a trip to the post counter down at the grocery store.

I have a tendency to make duties out of things I really only do for fun. But in recent years, I feel I've managed to turn my reading into an almost unalloyed delight.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Pond of the Plywood Vikings

In Skive, Denmark, there's a pond dug to accommodate a plywood Viking ship that was never set afloat.

My friend Rud Kjems tells the story in local-history annual Skiveegnens jul 2005. Skive museum was incorporated in 1910, but only in 1942 did it get premises of its own. When the museum building was finally becoming a reality, the organisation received some unusual corporate sponsorship.

Danish brewery Tuborg financed a film set in the Viking Period for the universal exhibition of 1937 in Paris. The brewery ended up with a warehouse full of props, costumes and set decorations, including a 19 metre Viking ship replica. It offered all this, along with a sizeable sum of money, to the thrilled trustees of Skive museum. They envisioned a Viking re-enactment centre in the town park, with a re-constructed Iron Age house, people in period costumes, and a pond with a boat house and a proud Viking ship. For a time, Skive was the envy of neighbouring town councils. Plans were laid out for the park, and the pond was dug.

But when the gear arrived from Tuborg, it turned out that the latter-day Vikings of the Danish film industry weren't quite up to the standards of their ancestors.
"Using cardboard, plaster and paint, they have created an illusion of thick oak boards, but it is all hollow. Only a few pieces may be massive. The general impression of the materials is not good, even if there may be a few things ... you might have hopes for, but otherwise it looks like a pile of firewood."
Skive museum has much to offer the visitor, but no re-enactment centre from the 1930s, and no Viking ship. It turned out to be made of plywood. But the pond is still there, the imprint of a dream of a beer-sodden replica of a golden past.

[More blog entries about , , , , .]

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Tech note - SharpReader dislikes corrupt XML currently isn't doing a very good job on the Atom feed for this blog. In fact, the XML code it produces is so debased that SharpReader won't have anything to do with it. I've tried switching templates without any improvement, so I guess one of the blog entries must contain something the XML generator doesn't like.

However, the blog looks OK on the web and in the feed readers built into Thunderbird and Firefox. So, dear SharpReader users, sorry for the inconvenience. I can't do anything about it and I hope the problem will go away before you forget about the blog. Helpful suggestions from those wise in the ways of the Feed would be most welcome.

Update on Christmas Day: SharpReader is fine with the blog if you paste the entire XML address into the address field. The problem arises when you use only the web URL, which works for most other blogs.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Friday, December 23, 2005

Shred a spruce branch

I'm not much into holiday traditions. My wife's Chinese and even less in touch with the traditional ways of her culture of origin. So we don't bother much about holidays. This time of year, there's the electric star-shaped lamp in the kitchen window, a box of gingerbread cookies in the cupboard, a few gift-wrapped things for the kids in the closet, and that's about it.

But there's one seasonal thing I've been missing. The smell of the tree. I don't miss the actual tree, but I like its fragrance. So I had an idea. I went out into the woods nearby and cut a spruce branch, took it home, snipped it to bits with pliers, and stuck the resulting prickly salad in two vases. One for the kitchen and one for the living room. Shredded spruce branch packs a lot of aromatic punch. Mmm-hmmm...

Now all I need to get the perfect olfactory environment for the season is a couple of hyacinths.

[More blog entries about , .]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Viking silver in Arctic Norway

The Viking Period was a funny time, only three centuries long, leaving a huge footprint in terms of ideas and archaeology. Speakers of Scandinavian languages lived mainly in the fertile southern third of Scandinavia, most of them being subsistence farmers. The endless pine woods and ground-down mountain ranges of the north were home mainly to Saami and Finnish hunters and freshwater fishers. But along the Norwegian coast, deep-sea fishing and sea mammal hunting supported Scandinavian settlements all the way up to the edge of the Arctic ice. Here's where the warming effect of the Gulf stream is really important. And these people weren't poor or cut off from the world, even though they had to stand far more cold and dark than pretty much anyone on Earth except the hardiest Inuit. They thrived, they travelled, they held their own against the elements.

One of the more charming habits of the day was silver hoarding. Let's not get into how they got the silver. But Scandinavians at the time clearly felt that for some reason a lot of it should be hidden and left. And so, in some parts of Scandinavia, silver hoards of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries keep popping out of the ground. On Gotland, the verdant limestone slab in the middle of the Baltic, people are so jaded about this that the local paper will simply say "this year's hoard has been found, call off the search".

In northern Norway, though, hoards are extremely rare. So it came as a surprise to everyone last August when two boys in Tromsø found one in a rock cleft under their club house.

Tromsø is unbelievably far north, a small island town with a university and a museum, both of them employing archaeologists. I was there for a few days two years ago to study brooches, and everybody was very friendly.

The new hoard consists of jewellery collected over generations. The round brooch is decorated in the late Borre style of the mid-10th century. The youngest piece is a pendant crucifix reliquary hung on a necklace of braided silver wire, ending in late Urnes style animal heads, the entire set dating from about AD 1100. A cool thing about the animal heads is that they are rare round-sculpture versions of the ones shown in line-drawn profile on hundreds of rune stones mainly in Uppland, Sweden. The Tromsø heads even have little pretty ears. This is Scandinavian animal art with roots way back in the Migration Period, although the Urnes style occurs almost exclusively in early Christian contexts. The crucifix reliquary is decorated in a clunky Continental Romanesque style embellished with a few Scandinavian curlicues.

No coins were found, making it hard to nail the hoard's date down to a single decade. But a reasonable guess is that the silver was hidden in the first quarter of the 12th century AD. (This is after the Viking Period proper.) The church of Tromsø isn't historically documented before the 13th century, but the crucifix reliquary makes it highly likely that there was a Christian magnate's farm with a small wooden church on the island already around AD 1100. Unfortunately the new God proved equally unwilling as the old ones had been to improve climatic conditions in Tromsø.

Sources: Tromsø university, article 1, article 2.

[More blog entries about , , , , .]

Archaeology is good fun but unimportant to most people

On 12 November I was a guest speaker at the Nordic Contact Seminar for archaeology students. These seminars take place every few years and are attended by students from all the Nordic countries. The 2005 seminar took place at Granö, one of the autumnally deserted summer camps of Väddö on the Roslagen coast of Sweden.

When I arrived, the students had been shacked up together for four days and nights, listening to each other's presentations, pausing only for a bus excursion to visit archaeological sites. The main theme of the final discussion, to which I had been invited, was "Who is archaeology's target audience? And who should be its target audience?".

The seminar's participants had just spent four days and nights thinking about nothing but archaeology. The reason that I had been chosen as a speaker, was, I believe, that in my opinion archaeology is good fun but unimportant to most people.

Here's what I said to the students. The discussion afterwards was animated.

[More blog entries about , , .]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Fleeing the high tide of darkness

Swedes are manic depressives by climate. This time of the year Stockholm is the pits, or should I say, the Pit. The cold, I can take. A cold sunny day with snow is nice, bracing, invigorating. But in November and December there is little snow here, days are rarely sunny, and they last only for a few hours. The darkness, I cannot take. It kills.

The winter solstice is today. We get six hours of daylight. For several weeks every winter, we rise in the dark -- oh Death! oh Crushing Weight! -- spend our days at work, and return home in the dark. This is a life no man or woman was meant to live.

But as infernally evil as our early winter is, as acutely sweet is our brief summer. April through September, I can think of no better place to live than Stockholm. This is the nation's manic phase.

I have a plan. On the other side of the Equator, seasons are reversed.

Stockholm is located about 59 degrees north of the Equator. At 59 degrees south, we find only the uninhabited South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands, and no Gulf stream to warm them. South America extends south to about 55 degrees, but I don't speak Spanish and the weather is crap.

The answer is New Zealand. It extends south to about 47 degrees, everybody speaks English, and much of the place looks like Middle-earth and Narnia. When the weather starts looking grim in Stockholm around 1 October, spring is just beginning in the South Island. All I have to do is live for six months in Stockholm, Sweden, then six months in Dunedin, New Zealand, then back to Stockholm, and so on. Life could be a continuous cycle of spring, summer, spring, summer, spring, summer...

In order to pull this off, all I have to do is become stinkin' rich so I can pay for the air tickets and a second home. Got to find a way out of the Pit.

[More blog entries about , , , .]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Burnt daub and the ghost of wattle

Lately I've been washing a lot of ruined building materials, debris from a house fire 2000 years ago.

Me, my friend Howard and his students excavated a Viking Period boat burial in Östergötland last summer. It dated from the 9th century AD and was sitting on the remains of a settlement from the 1st century BC. We weren't there to study that period, but we ended up with a shitload of burnt daub. Thousands of pieces of fired clay with imprints of twigs and straw.

Wattle and daub is a cheap and sturdy technique for building house walls. The roof of your 1st century BC house has its own supporting posts. Between the eaves and the ground, you fix slim stakes where you want the wall, and then you weave thin withes between the stakes making a basketwork screen: wattle. You then mix clay with straw and dung and daub the wattle from both sides. Stays wind-proof for decades. Then, when your house burns down, as it is likely to do when you have no chimney and warlike neighbours, the daub turns into coarse ceramic chunks. Which archaeologists will collect, wash, dry, weigh and photograph.

This is boring and pointless. We collect the stuff because it's clearly artificial and has a funny shape. It occurs in humongous quantities, 100s of kilograms from one site in some cases. But we have yet to see any interesting information about life in the past come out of burnt daub. At excavations, we look at it and say, "There's been a wattle-and-daub structure here, and it's burnt down". And this is as far as burnt daub takes us.

There's an on-going discussion about this issue in contract archaeology. A few years from now the standard procedure will probably be to document where the daub was and how much it weighed, then collect, say, ten of the largest and most intricate pieces from each context, and dump the rest. But I didn't feel I had enough clout to try to set a precedent with last summer's dig. So I'm doing the washing up.

Addendum 4 January: a shitload is here defined as roughly 18.1 kilogrammes.

[More blog entries about , , .]

Monday, December 19, 2005

So out of it

Let me tell you about my friend Jerry. He's so out of it. Things that most people get really worked up about have no impact on him at all. Jerry greets 95% of all news stories with a yawn. He sticks entire sections of the morning paper -- sports, business, real estate -- unread into the recycling bin. He doesn't seem to belong to the target audience of a single print magazine. Jerry will hang around magazine stands with me, flipping desultorily through a few issues, and then go home empty-handed to read some science fiction paperback he bought on eBay. The hot blog topics on Technorati and its Swedish equivalent Knuff are just completely beyond his ken. He never watches TV.

You'd think that Jerry would at least have to face reality to support himself. Kind of hard to ignore The Man when you're working for him. But no. Jerry is an ivory tower scholar, working in a field that interests few and employs even fewer, making a precarious living with private research grants. For most of his working life, Jerry has had no boss, no co-workers and no monthly salary. Good for Jerry he's got inexpensive tastes and good health. He hardly pays any taxes and so isn't eligible for much in the way of social security.

The man's politics are basically sound, but he's infuriatingly phlegmatic about them. He actually doesn't care who the people in charge are, as long as they represent a party to his liking. Jerry's involvement in politics is limited to a bit of web surfing before every election (he does vote) and some money donated by automatic transfer to a few lobby groups.

If I understand the man correctly, he only really cares about his family and a few friends, his abstruse research, his idiosyncratic tastes in reading and music, his internet correspondence, and some weird-ass outdoor sport, otherwise favoured mainly by retired engineers and long-haul truckers.

Jerry simply doesn't seem to live in the same world as most people. He's barely a member of society, preferring to watch it bemusedly from his eyrie or dungeon or island or asylum. He's so out of it. And you know what? I'm a lot like him.

[More blog entries about , , .]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Lady Lake

It's a cold spring night in Sörmland and for the first time in more than a thousand years weapons are being sacrificed in Lady Lake. Car headlights shine brightly from the dark shore. Men's voices and dog barks echo faintly across the lake. The three in the rowboat first drop a sub-machine gun -- powder-scented bubbles rise to the surface and burst -- then another one, a hand gun, and a bag stuffed with cartridges and clothes. The lights begin to move along the shore as the brawniest of the men rows, fast and wordlessly, into the mist. The woods on the other side are barely visible against the eastern sky. The Goddess smiles, half in slumber.

The above is the first paragraph of a short story I published in print in 2002 and recently put on-line. It's about crime, Iron Age fertility deities and a re-union of teenage sweethearts. Read it here -- in Swedish.

[More blog entries about , , ].

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The evil of Kjell and Lisa

"Kjell and Lisa have been attacking me with a lot of attacks of pains, discomforts and threats against family members, relatives, some friends of mine and many others (to cause e.g. accidents, illnesses, kill certain persons and to make certain relatives of mine criminal). I have also been attacked to do things extremely slowly in my home."

"Here are some of the Satanistic attacks. In my flat's kitchen and toilet the tap was opened telepathically and water was caused to run (when I was asleep and during the day (I placed a container under the tap and these received water although I closed the tap well before leaving it)). Telepathic attacks occurred on the toilet chain and this caused water to run."

"After Lisa communicated about a fire at a flat and a couple that had been harmed, Lisa started to threaten some family members of mine. There were Lisa-like threats to cause BURNINGS in homes and on a cross. Kjell seems to have controlled a Swedish singer to get burnt a little and she had to go to a hospital. Some time after that, I was attacked to experience some heat on my body but I did not get burnt. Kjell and Lisa are harming as Satanistic beings."

Suliman Cassimjee is not a happy man. He believes that he is a victim of constant psychic attacks from two Satanists, the evil Kjell and Lisa, who seem once to have been involved in caring for Mr Cassimjee at a hospital in northern Sweden. And Mr Cassimjee is not afraid to tell the world what he is going through. He has posted voluminously on the subject to on-line discussion forums set up by opticians, mouse pad collectors, Airdale terrier aficionados and the Sierra Times to mention just a few.

Mr Cassimjee's pleas for help are heard on unmoderated forums across the net.


I became curious. Kjell and Lisa both have uncommon surnames, and half an hour on Google and other search engines led to some pretty interesting information.

No, they aren't Satanists. Instead, Kjell and Lisa appear to be high-ranking Scientologists. Their names appear on lists of people who have completed Operating Thetan tests on level VIII. I don't know what Kjell does these days, but Lisa works as a nurse at a home for mentally handicapped adults. Her name is actually Elisabeth. And a man with the same uncommon surname as hers has published Ett sekel med psykiatrin (2003), a two-volume work in Swedish, attacking psychiatry, Scientology's number one bugbear. Much of the book's contents are culled from the Church of Scientology's archives.

Makes you wonder how many Scientologists are working in Swedish mental care. And what the hell they're doing there.

[More blog entries about , , ].

Friday, December 16, 2005

Choose your crime

My wife is researching a piece on stranger rape. (By far the most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, but this is about the guys who hang out in parks at night, waiting for female joggers). Turns out that if I wanted to get away with a serious crime, then stranger rape would be a pretty good choice. Only 8% of reported cases in Sweden ever reach court, and there's reason to believe that this figure is even lower if the rapist is an indigenous Swede like me.

Anyone could get away with stranger rape. It's hard for the police to find the perpetrator when there's no link between him and the victim apart from the crime. But then again, I don't think I would be anatomically capable of it, even if I did become sick enough to want to try. Not sure who would be the lesser turn-on, a non-consenting woman or a consenting Danny deVito. And I don't know any fighting moves. I'd probably just end up getting my balls kicked and my eyes clawed out.

No, I'd better look for some kind of white-collar crime that pays well. That sort of thing doesn't involve any unreliable anatomy. And my wife would probably much prefer it. Too bad I don't know anything about the stock market.

[More blog entries about , , ].
eXTReMe Tracker