Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Metalworking at Skamby

As previously mentioned here and here, me & my friend Howard dug a 9th century boat grave at Skamby last summer and found that the place had also been a settlement site in the last century BC. The culture layer contained way too much burnt daub from the walls of a building, a little pottery, and not much else.

Well, there were these bubbly or shiny pieces of very lightweight clay that had clearly seen even worse heat than the daub. When I was washing the daub a few bits of the stuff actually floated in the water like dirty styrofoam. We called it slag during fieldwork, and then I reckoned it was just clay heated to a temperature where the quartz had melted to glass, so now it's vitrified clay in the finds list. 30 grams all in all. Helluva house fire, I thought.

Then I gave a talk in Linköping a few weeks ago, and in the audience was my colleague Dr Erika Räf, who told me a house fire is unlikely to vitrify clay. To get that kind of heat, you need a charcoal furnace and a set of bellows. She suggested I send the stuff to her hubby, Dr Ole Stilborg, who carries on the ceramo-tech torch that Birgitta Hulthén lit in Lund.

So I did. And now Ole tells me that those ugly little bits are pieces of crucibles and casting moulds, all probably used to cast copper alloy! The reason that they're vitrified is that they've been in contact with molten metal. We can't say what kind of objects were cast, but it's still a pretty big deal, because it means we've found one of a very few identified metalworking sites of Pre-Roman Iron Age Scandinavia.

Still, the dating is a little iffy. Most finds of this type of crucible -- the "Helgö type" -- are 500 years later than the radiocarbon dates that we think represent the time of the settlement. It's possible that the metalworking took place at a time that is visible neither in the radiocarbon dates so far nor in the humble artefact finds from the culture layer. But until someone finds more evidence, I'll use Ockham's razor and assume that the metalworking is also last century BC.

Update: I think I kind of understated just how uncommon this find is if the dating holds. Turns out that, all in all, copper alloy casting guru Anders Söderberg and Ole Stilborg know of two other bronze casting sites of the Scandinavian Pre-Roman Iron Age. Both are in eastern Jutland: one at Vitved and one at Egebjerg.

Andersen, S.H. & Madsen, H. 1984. Ett førromerskt bronzestøbefund fra Vitved i Østjylland. Hikuin 10. Viborg.

Kristiansen, Anne Mette & Fristed Jensen, Trine. 2005. Kronehalsring. Skalk 2005. Højbjerg.
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Monday, February 27, 2006

Bigga lettaz

Oh, ye blog readers who seldom say even "NI" unto myself; are ye happy with the Bigger Letters?

If not, don't blame me. I was bullied into doing it by a gun nut from Texas and a female member of the xrxaxixn Mafia.

Update: The Serbian Mafia sends its regards and explains that it is inadvisable to use Balkan ethnic labels carelessly. Also, they have encouraged me, at gunpoint, to switch type faces.

Peace payments

I'm a passive pacifist, or as my cousin Hans once wrote to me, a passivist. His attitude is understandable: at the time, he was in jail for breaking into a military airfield and vandalising the weapon bays of a JAS fighter plane. He was a member of the Plowshares Movement back then, planting trees and sowing corn inside the aviatory wire mesh. The other inmates called him Jesus. Nowadays he's a priest among the council tenements of Gothenburg.

My work for peace is pretty much confined to a small monthly donation to the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, of which I've been a proud member since I was seventeen. Among other things, the organisation's Stockholm office does a great job of keeping our politicians on their toes regarding the Swedish arms trade.

The peace people keep unearthing discreet deals with unsavoury foreign powers, asking uncomfortable questions, and, worst of all, they have a nasty habit of reminding our elected officials about things they've said before. Like "These are the rules:" and "No way, we'll never sell arms to THEM, they're fookin' evil!". Also, they keep making it onto the debate pages of national newspapers. Bloody nuisance, I guess. Because this interference actually seriously limits the Swedish arms trade.

I just received the organisation's arms-trade newsletter, where we learn that the Swedish government is breaking its promise to never EVER allow military gear to be sold to Pakistan. Also, the Swedish government's hanky-panky with Saudi Arabia over military cooperation and future weapons deals is roundly criticised.

As Secretary of State Jonas Bjelfvenstam put it earlier this month,
We have an ambitious, knowledgeable, active volunteer peace movement in this country. With its critical attitude towards the arms trade, the movement raises the demands on consistency, logic and transparency in the authorities' handling of such issues. In my opinion, this is a valuable contribution to our democracy.
Can't say I've done anything to take personal part in this praise, but at least I helped pay for the work.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006


I'm writing this from the golf course of Saltsjöbaden, not far from home. Most of the time, I avoid this place as I don't want to get brained by a golf ball. But on snowy sunny winter days, chances are you'll find me here, cross-country skiing.

Here comes my old gym teacher and lots of other ski bums. Must be hundreds of us on a good day. A lot of retirees.

My fingers are getting cold. More music and skiing now!

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Passport to Peril

One of the CD games my son likes to play on the PC is Pink Panther: Passport to Peril. We've got the Swedish version from 1996, Rosa Pantern: Resa på egen risk. Yes, he's playing a ten-year-old game on current hardware under Windows XP.

I suppose Pink Panther must be a particularly well-behaved Windows app. But still, hardly any PC games from 1986 will run in a standard PC operation environment from 1996. This has to do both with the late-80s proliferation of Windows and with games colonising the PC platform in earnest about the same time.

Wanderlust Interactive, makers of this excellent game, didn't live long.
... the CD-ROM era was fleeting. By the end of 1996, technical leaps allowed computers to send and receive ever-greater amounts of data over ordinary phone lines. Soon, PC users found much to fascinate them on the Internet, and their interest in buying CD-ROMs quickly waned. Wanderlust's first major product bombed during the Christmas season of 1996, and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy. Link.
The producer of the Swedish version, Ahead Multimedia, was merged with other companies in 1998 and lives on in this fashion as business education firm AcadeMedia.

So Pink Panther the game is effectively abandonware. The pink character himself, though, is of course heavily copyrighted.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Melodic psychedelia

I love music – it's my only drug. There's always music playing in my head, if I'm not wearing earphones that send actual music into it, or ear plugs because I'm at a concert. For this reason, I was tempted for a long time to put up a music page on WWW. I always tossed the idea aside since it seems gratuitous to preach about bands that everybody knows about. Finally, however, I realised that I listen to a lot of bands that hardly anyone knows about. And so, here are my music pointers, freshly updated.

What unites the bands on the main list is that they are all currently issuing records or demos and that their musical roots are in the US/British melodic psychedelia of 1965-1975. The music involved varies in attitude from good-natured pop to evil metal. All the bands, however, have in common a love of melody, vocal harmony, trippy sounds and surreal lyrics. These people are also all very highly skilled musicians on stage and in the studio, and tend to be multi-instrumentalists. This is music with heart (warm), brains (slightly addled) and, in many cases, a lot of balls. The discographies only cover my favourite discs. After the main list follows a selection of less well known but extremely good psychedelic bands of the past.

I'm always thrilled to find new good music. If you're familiar with these bands or check them out and find that you like them, I would be very grateful if you would share your own favourites with me.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Tentacles of science

I am forced into speech because men of science have clearly succumbed to the mind control of the Great Old Ones.

The Swedish Research Council no longer makes any attempt to disguise the fact that it is controlled by elder abominations from beyond the stars. The organisation recently launched a public outreach web zine called (Iä! Iä!) Tentakel. And a piece of mine is going to be in it soon.

How did this happen? I suppose the stars were right.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Welcome, Danish nationalists

Members of Skadi and Nordish Portal, web forums for Danish nationalists, race enthusiasts and hard-core neo-Pagans, have discovered Salto sobrius. Welcome, everyone! Denmark is great! Et yndigt land! Particularly Danish archaeology and archaeologists.

But I should perhaps tell you guys that neither my first nor my second wife is of pure-blooded Germanic extraction, nor by extension my kids. And although my own recorded ancestry is composed entirely of Swedish farmer stock, my looks are basically Mediterranean.

Oh, and I don't believe in nations. Or gods. And I think the idea of racial purity is fiction, particularly in areas like Scandinavia where slaves were imported on a large scale until less than 1000 years ago.

But still, I think we can agree that Denmark is a really cool place. Hope you enjoy the blog!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Suicide stats

The good people at SKOM were discussing suicide rates and pointed to the WHO's stats on the subject.

A few observations.

1. Eastern Europe is a depressing place.

2. Us Swedes are not, as Dwight Eisenhower once proclaimed, particularly suicide-prone, despite our Social Democrat politics.

3. China is the only country in the world with decent statistics where the suicide rate among women is greater than that among men.

Add to this the fact that selective abortion in China currently causes a gender ratio at birth of 12:10 in the favour of males.

This must add up to a serious prostitution boom going on in China. On the other hand, the Chinese men most likely to end up without unpaid female company are probably the ones who can't even afford to pay a prostitute. I therefore predict that the Australians will soon no longer be seen as the world's greatest sheep botherers.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Slotcars update

As previously mentioned, Christmas brought my son a slotcar set that entertains me no end. I've continued to explore it and learned a few things.

1. The track doesn't have to be a closed circuit. The other day I built a long straightish track from the kids' room over to the opposite end of our apartment where my wife was watching TV. Then me & our daughter sent cars rattling over for the poor woman to turn and send back to us when we'd rotated the power supply.

2. The cars are mainly held on track by magnets on their under-sides, grabbing the conductors in the tracks. Two of the cars are of a useless make and keep de-railing all the time, because they have only one magnet each. The good cars have three. I tried gluing the magnet from one of the crappy cars onto the base plate of the other, but it still sucked. Oh, well.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Viking Period horse gear revealed

As previously mentioned on Salto sobrius, me and my friend Howard dug a Viking Period boat grave at Skamby in Östergötland last summer. Well, actually, Howard's students and a vintage-car expert from Norrköping did, and we bossed them around.

The grave had really bad metal preservation, but near the south-western end of the boat were a few iron objects. We took them up in soil blocks and I brought them to conservatrice extraordinaire Åsa Norlander of the Board of National Antiquities in Stockholm. Writes Åsa:
"They had an extremely hard corrosion crust that had to be removed by grinding and sand blasting. The hook 343 and the ring 303 have small mineralised remains of wood."

Åsa promptly sent me X-rays of some objects, showing them to be a shaft hook, a hoof spike and a ring. This morning, she sent me a photograph of the stuff as it looks after she's removed surface corrosion, but before she sticks it into distilled water for several weeks to leach the chlorides out. (Finally she'll dry the iron out and soak it in wax.)

Look at the smithwork! The spiralling end of the hook, the spindly steel antlers of the hoof spike. All done with hammer and pliers at a lo-tech charcoal furnace 1150 years ago.

Find 343 is a very finely wrought hook from one of the shafts on a sleigh or small wagon, about half the length of my hand. It was used to hook the vehicle onto the harness of a draught animal. Similar (although centuries older) ones were found at Vendel and Valsgärde.

Find 442 is a hoof spike of a kind common for a few centuries in Scandinavia before horse shoes were introduced in the 11th century. They keep the horse from slipping when you ride or drive a sleigh across frozen lakes and marshes. Roads were almost non-existent in Sweden at the time, so winter was the best time for travel. Hoof spikes are very common in graves, suggesting that the road to the Otherworld was believed to be icy too.

Finds 303 and 309 are iron rings of identical and rather small size, one of them with a straight iron bar looped onto it. The wood remains on one of them may be from the boat. They look a bit like pieces of a bridle bit, but the rings are far smaller than any bridle rings I've seen. On the other hand, I haven't seen any annular brooches looking like this from the Viking Period either. So I don't know what the rings are. They may also have to do with horse gear.

Summing up, these objects look a lot like a pars pro toto version of the full horse gear in the boat inhumations of Uppland. They form an abbreviated symbol, evoking a larger idea with a small part of it. You won't get far with your one-horse open sleigh if you've got only one shaft hook and one hoof spike. Skamby is smack bang in one of the wealthiest agricultural areas of Sweden, so this understated symbolism was clearly not dictated by poverty. As is underlined by other finds from the grave...

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Boingboing's pneumatic pogo

Boingboing is the world's most popular blog and deservedly so. It's a links collection with entertaining and intelligent commentary, it has a strong liberal bent and new posts appear by the hour.

But what's up with Boingboing's naïvist animated logo? It shows a burly person of unspecific gender with pigtails, a checked shirt, dungarees and heavy black boots. This individual is holding a vibrating T-shaped object that is either a pneumatic drill or a pogo stick. Given the name of the site, it should be a pogo stick. But while the person's upper body is bouncing with the contraption, her/his feet remain rooted to the ground.

What is the semiotic content of this logotype? Burly dyke works pneumatic drill? Girly lumberjack glues boots to ground and plays with pogo stick? And in either case, what does this say about the blog's mission and contents?

A delicious enigma. Any ideas, Dear Reader?

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Space nationalism

I've said before that I think human space flight is a waste of resources and human lives. Space money should go into many compact, affordable, potentially disposable crewless science missions, not a few bloated crewed missions.

My view is strongly reinforced by this article in New Scientist, where NASA officials explain why they are prioritising crewed space missions over science missions.
"... other committee members worried that China would then leapfrog ahead of the US in space. 'China's going to be on the Moon in 2017 -- I think that's something we ought to be concerned about,' said committee member Ken Calvert. 'The US must maintain its global position.'"
It's hard to believe, but they're openly admitting that they're driven by populistic nationalism!

Well, Dear Reader, let me tell you this. I'm very happy that American tax payers are funding NASA, I pay for a tiny bit of ESA's budget myself, and my in-laws help fund the Chinese space programme. And I don't give a Wookie fur ball in what country the people who make a scientific discovery live. When the Chinese come up with something interesting, they're very happy to translate for us. Or my wife could do it.

Update: but, "The House Science Committee’s Republican chairman and senior Democrat told NASA Administrator Mike Griffin they had little interest in accelerating the U.S. space agency’s exploration plans at the expense of science and research." Link. Mind you, they're not suggesting that NASA scrap Dubya's "Vision for Space Exploration", just that they stick to the original time table.

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Break on through to the other side

In 2002, a 19-year-old in an affluent part of central Stockholm planned to murder his best friend and almost succeeded. He was, of course, mentally ill. But his madness had an interesting method to it.

The kid's psychosis had taken the shape of a full-fledged Gnostic worldview. He believed, basically, that he lived in the Truman Show. The world was just a stage set. The people around him were just actors. And he decided he wanted to meet the director, the Demiurge himself.

I played with the same thought myself as a high school nerd. But I find what follows kind of touching. To meet the director, our friend the psychotic teen figured that he would have to do something that wasn't in the script. Something that could never be accepted as part of the script. Something so heinous that the real powers behind all this illusion would be forced to step in, yell "Cut!", and talk to him. Something like trying to murder your best friend, who suspects nothing.

So what the murder attempt tells us about the kid's world view is that he really believed in good -- and evil. He really believed that there are crimes so evil that it is impossible to commit them. I'm sorry that he was wrong.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

After two months, 200 daily readers

Salto sobrius is two months old today, and, to my delight, this is the day when the blog first passes 200 unique daily visitors! A month ago, Salto sobrius passed 100 daily uniques thanks to the members of a number of web forums, and particularly the interest taken by Scientology critics in the Evil of Kjell and Lisa. Today's record is due to the Tangled Bank and Skeptics' Circle blog carnivals. Maybe one day I'll host one?

But 200 uniques is of course a spike in the data. Looking at everyday visitor stats, last week Salto sobrius had on average 87 unique visitors daily, 31 of whom were returning visitors.

Dear Reader, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoy the blog as much as I enjoy writing it.

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Chili plant bowler hat

My friend Pär Svensson grows chili peppers at home. Here's what it looked like when he re-planted the other day.

I remarked that it looked like a furry bowler hat with a chili plant growing out of it. Jan Mickelin promptly stepped in and put the chili hat on his pal Thorleif.

Pär felt that Thorleif didn't do the chili hat full justice, so he put it on Jan instead.

As an 80s poet once put it, "Hey, you're such a pretty boy! Hey, you're such a pretty boy! Hey, you're such a pretty boy! You're so pretty!"

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tangled Bank

Gosh & lordy, Salto sobrius has made it onto the Tangled Bank science blog carnival! Hits are rumbling in to pulverise earlier records.

A carnival is a regularly occurring thematic collection of blog posts. If Salto sobrius would host a Pervy Hobbit Fancier blog carnival, then I would collect submissions from bloggers who write about this popular topic and publish the links with short descriptions here in one long blog entry, this being the carnival. A few weeks later, someone else would pick up the baton.

Strictly speaking, archaeology isn't one of the natural sciences, since it studies culture. It's a "humanity", an "art" in the US, or, at a stretch, a "social science". But I'm very pleased to be on Tangled Bank, because I have heavy leanings toward a natural science ideal of what all scholarship should be like. Not because I think natural scientists are all wise and good, but because I think they're somewhat less bad at finding out scientific truth than other scholars. Indeed, much of what goes on at university departments in the humanities isn't remotely like what I call science at all. In a book review in Fornvännen, I recently called this kind of non-scientific academic writing "art criticism, aphoristics, glass bead games or learned speculation".

Thankfully, you won't find that sort of thing on Tangled Bank.

Update. The links above are to the current instalment of Tangled Bank. Here's the carnival's home site.

Also, I've had the pleasure of seeing Salto sobrius on the Skeptics' Circle blog carnival!

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Iron Age Holmsmalma

In 1999, my friend Jonas Wikborg directed the rescue excavation of an unexpectedly large and crowded urn cemetery at Holmsmalma and Gålby, Köping parish, Västmanland, Sweden. Jonas and his team dug 332 graves at the site, most dating from the centuries either side of year 1. Holmsmalma is a well-known name in Swedish archaeology thanks to work done there in the 60s and 70s by Henry Simonsson and Barbro & Stig Welinder, but they excavated a cemetery farther north along the ridge from Jonas's dig.

Jonas is always prompt with reports and in-depth papers, but his manuscripts on this dig have been languishing for years in various editorial offices. Now his studies of Holmsmalma, as well as papers about the site by Barbro Hårding and Thomas Eriksson, have finally appeared in a book from the Board of National Antiquities named Tidens resenärer, "Travellers in/of Time".

The Holmsmalma urn cemetery was a mix between western and eastern traditions. In the west around Gothenburg we get urn cemeteries with nice pottery and few superstructures. In the east around Stockholm we get really cool superstructures (such as those at Åby and Jordbro) but very little and rather ugly pottery. At Holmsmalma, there were urn burials with ugly pottery or bark boxes and little else. Hundreds of them.

But two of the graves were very nice. One was a weapon burial from the last century BC, about the time of Julius Caesar, with sword, scabbard, lance, shield and bear skin, all folded together and placed with the cremated bones in an oval resin-caulked bark box. The shield's handle is unique and suggests that local smiths cultivated designs of their own.

The other notable grave contained a truly weird object. This was another bark box burial, roughly contemporaneous with the weapon grave, with a few bronze and iron belt fittings. On top of them was a 26 cm long decorated sheet iron object looking like a miniature leg guard. It's unique, but shows enough similarities to a Danish wagon fitting that Jonas figures that's what it was. Sticking to its inside were two 1,8 cm disc-shaped tin wire ornaments that were too deteriorated to be saved.

So it appears that we're looking at a part of a cultic wagon along the lines of what Roman author Tacitus described in his book on Germania a century or two after the time of the Holmsmalma burials:
"There follow in order the Reudignians, and Aviones, and Angles, and Varinians, and Eudoses, and Suardones and Nuithones; all defended by rivers or forests. Nor in one of these nations does aught remarkable occur, only that they universally join in the worship of Herthum [Nerthus]; that is to say, the Mother Earth. Her they believe to interpose in the affairs of man, and to visit countries. In an island of the ocean [Tacitus believes that Scandinavia is a group of islands] stands the wood Castum [or an undefiled wood]: in it is a chariot dedicated to the Goddess, covered over with a curtain, and permitted to be touched by none but the Priest. Whenever the Goddess enters this her holy vehicle, he perceives her; and with profound veneration attends the motion of the chariot, which is always drawn by yoked cows.

Then it is that days of rejoicing always ensue, and in all places whatsoever which she descends to honour with a visit and her company, feasts and recreation abound. They go not to war; they touch no arms; fast laid up is every hostile weapon; peace and repose are then only known, then only beloved, till to the temple the same priest reconducts the Goddess when well tired with the conversation of mortal beings. Anon the chariot is washed and purified in a secret lake, as also the curtains; nay, the Deity herself too, if you choose to believe it. In this office it is slaves who minister, and they are forthwith doomed to be swallowed up in the same lake. Hence all men are possessed with mysterious terror; as well as with a holy ignorance what that must be, which none see but such as are immediately to perish." (Chapter 40)
I wish I could dig a few graves like that. Without having to dig hundreds of boring ones as well.

Update. My friend Molle, lady fair and wise, asks me what superstructure means in this context. At a modern Christian cemetery, the grave superstructures are typically inscribed head stones. In the Viking Period, they were mounds or flat stone settings. In the last century BC, we find funny grave superstructures in parts of Sweden where geometric patterns have been "drawn" on the ground with lined-up pebbles. Here's an example from the celebrated Jordbro cemetery near Stockholm.

Leif Karlenby (ed.), Tidens resenärer. Arkeologiska händelser längs vägen mellan Köping och Kolsva. Stockholm: Board of National Antiquities 2005. 239 pp. ISBN 91-7209-403-6.
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Monday, February 13, 2006


My colleague Mikael Jägerbrand is a science fiction fanzine publisher turned journalist turned archaeologist. Today I learned that he's also a techno fan and former rave party organiser. He's written a book in Swedish about Docklands, a controversial 90s techno club in Stockholm. A 101 page version is freely available here, and you can also buy a printed 202 page version on the site.

In the media, the Docklands club was synonymous with ecstasy, kind of Stockholm's La Hacienda ten years later with added police raids. Stockholm even had a specialised police squad called the Rave Commission, dedicated to disrupting drug use at techno clubs.

I never went to any techno clubs and the hardest drug I've ever taken was a pint bottle of Heineken when I was fourteen. So the Docklands business mostly passed over my head, even though the venue was only about eight kilometres from where I live. But I'll take this opportunity to say that, from my tee-totaller perspective, it appears silly that most countries allow hard liquor to be sold freely, while criminalising marijuana use.

I mean, I gather cannabis will make you stupid and emotionally dull if you overdose for a long time, but the only way it'll kill you is if a joint sets fire to your couch. Liquor, however, kills. Prohibition has been tried repeatedly and clearly won't work. So as a tax payer, I'd like to see the public money currently put into combating marijuana shifted into alcoholism prevention and rehab.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Impressions of Malmö

My wife and I just spent 25 hours in Malmö, third city of Sweden and home to three bands that I have recommended in the right-hand column.

Malmö is flat and undifferentiated, with none of the open water and vantage points I'm used to from Stockholm. Being only an occasional visitor, I have two spots where I keep returning. One is the town museum, housed in the old fort. The other is the Möllevångstorget square, centre of immigrant culture and exotic cuisine. Go to Krua Thai for Thai food and to Asien for Vietnamese! Far better and cheaper than anything you'll find in Stockholm. And don't miss the Al-Basha baklawa bakery. These establishments cater to the local exile communities, and so are used to demanding and knowledgeable customers.

Möllevångstorget is marred by a sculpture from 1930 where nude muscular men are straining to lift a huge boulder embossed with a smoke-belching industrial motif, while nude women are sort of patting their backs to encourage them. I can appreciate the pro-worker sentiment, but I really feel there would have been less leaden ways to express it.

To see good art and craftwork from the 15th century onward, go to the museum. Very impressive collections. They also have local archaeology, town history, some Mediterranean and Chinese antiquities and natural history.

The city has some great early 20th century brick architecture, for instance the water tower at Södervärn. This phallic structure looks like a nazi space ship, particulary with facade lighting after dark, and is affectionately known as Virgin's Longing.

But avoid the budget motel where we stayed, abject member of the Formule 1 franchise. It is indeed cheap, but looks like a chunk sawed out of a Baltic passenger ferry. Utterly depressing place, staffed by crew-cut Russians who give the place a whiff of the Gulag.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Son of Floppy

The sun shines brilliantly over pristine snow-covered fields and Christmas card woods outside as me and my wife ride the fast train to Malmö. We just passed Boxholm and will soon be entering Småland, the highlands of the Little Lands.

I've spent the trip so far listening to podcasts: Skepticality and my favourite, Escape Pod. Steve Eley is a hero! How can he manage to do E.P. so well and in his free time, while also working to support himself and being the father of a little baby? I'd like to hear more readings by Mrs Eley too, her drawl is really cool.

To be able to bring this kind of large audio files on the road, I bought a gigabyte of storage for my handheld on a mini-SD cartridge. It's incredibly tiny and cost me less than what I saved by ordering the handheld on the net instead of buying it in a shop. And it pretty much made my iPod obsolete.

Holding that little flake of black plastic, I mused about the 5.25" floppy disks we used back in the 80s. I used to think they were pretty high tech compared to the tape cassettes used for my friend's C64. A floppy back then was fragile -- floppy! -- and prone to data loss, its capacity 0.00036 gigabytes. And it measured, well, 5.25 inches across.

Ever on, ever on, railway of progress, you know.

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Friday, February 10, 2006


A friend of mine is shopping around for daycare for his baby boy. Him and his wife visited a prospective Kindergarten today. Communication with the staff kind of broke down over the issue of gender roles. This is an important consideration these days to anyone in my circles. In extreme cases, parents have been known to try to conceal the biological sex of their children outside the family in order for them to grow up free of gender stereotyping.

The daycare ladies weren't exactly up to speed on this.
"Well, we let girls play with cars and boys with dolls if they want to."

"Oh, that's no problem here. We treat boys and girls just the same."

"We're actually attending a lecture about that sort of thing, because the parents want us to."
Poor women. Looks like a case of mutual subcultural incomprehension. Because the people who worry about gender stereotyping aren't the same folks who work in daycare and other poorly paid jobs dominated by women.

Just think of the cultural manoeuvering these daycare ladies have to learn. Not only must they master the niceties of a large number of immigrant cultures regarding children, parenting and gender -- they also have to deal with Swedish subcultures that are almost equally alien to them. My hat (well, my red woolen cap anyway) is off to them.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Book review: Carroll, Endless forms

Being a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould, I jumped at this book when I read about it.

Sean B. Carroll, Endless forms most beautiful. The new science of Evo Devo. New York: W.W. Norton 2005. 350 pp. ISBN 0-393-06016-0.

Sean B. Carroll is a molecular biologist working in the field of evolutionary developmental biology, or Evo Devo for short. Evo Devo is the study of how DNA programming directs the construction of an animal body from a single cell onward through the stages of embryology. Carroll sets out to explain this new field to the interested layperson.

Most of us know that DNA codes for the proteins that form the bodies of animals. Many also know that the vast majority of base pairs in an animal’s genome are just noise: they don’t code for anything at all and seem never to be transcribed during development. This book is about a third kind of information in DNA, also forming a minority of the base pairs: tool kit genes.

A bucket of mixed proteins doth not a wildebeest make. Biologists have long realised that DNA must not only code for the building blocks of animals, but also contain assembly instructions like the ones provided with an IKEA clothes cupboard or a model airplane kit. Everyone assumed that these instructions would be unique to each species so that the study of how mice are built would be irrelevant to the study of fruit fly development.

Let me suggest a computer analogy. Computer programming boils down to processor instructions that perform small tasks such as comparing two register bits and turning a third bit on if the two are identical. But writing a computer program in processor instructions is a huge drag, it takes enormous amounts of time and quickly becomes unwieldy. Instead, you write programs in a higher-level language such as C, Perl or Java, and then a computer program called a compiler breaks down your high-level instructions into tiny steps and translates them into the processor’s native language. Biologists used to believe that every species had its own high-level language: that mice were coded in C and fruit flies in AutoLisp.

Evo Devo has proved this assumption to be false. All animals are coded in slightly varying dialects of a single high-level language. This is because the genetic toolkit evolved very early in the history of multicellular life. And it means, for instance, that a spinneret on a spider’s abdomen that produces cobwebs is actually a homolog of my arms and legs. Biologists can now also make inferences about, for instance, the genome of a trilobite species.

Mutations can modify building block genes, but it seems that the most important road to change in form is mutation in tool kit instructions and the genetic switches they operate on. For instance, the instruction “build twenty body segments, all with legs” may be overridden by a new instruction to skip legs on certain body segments. As can be expected from computer code evolving by chance mutation, the resultant programs are huge bundles of spaghetti, rarely taking the closest road to the current goal and containing a lot of redundancy. But that’s also what makes the code robust: remove or change an instruction in a highly optimised program, and it simply stops.

I learned a lot from this book and found it a fairly pleasurable read. Of course, Carroll is no Gould, neither as to breadth of erudition nor as to prose style. But he knows his Evo Devo, he explains it well, he discusses human evolution, and he takes an articulate stand against science illiteracy and religious interference in public education.

Other reviews of the book: H. Allen Orr, D. Brown, P.Z. Myers.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Just Friends" Say Coupled Trojans

Here's one of the most bizarre features of the solar system I've ever heard of.

Jupiter shares its orbit with two swarms of small bodies, called the Trojans, suspended at the gas giant's Lagrange points. These are the points leading and trailing the planet where Jupiter's and the Sun's attractive forces balance each other.

In the rear Trojan swarm are two ex-cons, umm, ex-comets, that orbit each other: a binary Trojan system. According to research published in Nature for 2 February, 617 Patroclus and Menoetius measure only about 122 and 112 kilometres in diameter, and their density is only a third of that of rock. This indicates a cometary origin in the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt. Wild!

And while I wax astronomical: did you hear that Xena is actually quite a bit larger than Pluto?

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Mostly good tech

I wrote this posting on the road yesterday and failed to get it onto the blog because I didn't know how to paste text into the e-mail program of my PDA.

Sending a newly completed translation by email from an X2000 fast train was a moment of technological zen for me.

After taking my daughter to daycare by bike through the snow this morning, I returned to my desk and did my e-mail. Then I worked for a while, translating into English a great magazine article I received via e-mail from Jenny, lady of many talents. I think she got the idea to ask me after reading my blog.

Went to town on the commute train reading a library book I ordered on the net, collected the train tickets I ordered on the net, had noodles, rode the fast train Stockholm – Linköping while finishing the translation on my laptop. Then I put it on my PDA and sent it to Jenny as the snow-covered countryside zoomed past outside. Sheer techie bliss.

In Linköping I got out my GPS navigator and nabbed the first of the day's geocaches on my way to the county museum. It was a film canister fastened with a magnet behind a sheet metal connection box on a street corner.

Tea with colleagues at the museum, meeting scheduled by e-mail with the county archaeologist about permits for this year's fieldwork, good people. I'm one of a very few archaeologists doing fieldwork unconnected to land development in Östergötland right now, and I'm also in the unusual situation of having a bit of research funding but no employer. Excavation permits are given only to organisations, not to individuals. This means that my activities don't fit the system, and that I can get things done at all only because everyone down here is so supportive and constructive about it.

After the meeting, a brief visit to the candle-scented interior of the Gothic cathedral, spire half lost in the icy haze of winter twilight. Shot the structure with the PDA's camera. Then two more caches, one of them another film canister, the other a tupperware box under a little bridge in a snow-covered park. Dinner at an empty cowboy-themed restaurant in the town square, checked my e-mail on the PDA, then back to the museum to give a talk.

The A/V technician was a mild-mannered Iranian named Mehdi. The audience was interested and active but tiny. Apparently, some old guy had upstaged me by exhausting the town's intellectually inclined retirees with a good talk yesterday evening.

I talked over a presentation beamed from the laptop, did Q&A, it all took an hour and a half, received a coffee table photography book by the excellent Göran Billeson, went out into the dark again. Logged a fourth cache, film canister with magnet under a staircase, went to the railway station, and here I am pecking away at the laptop. There's wifi here, but 70 SEK an hour is a joke and a bad one. And it's too cold to war walk the town's park benches in search of an open access point.

Dear Reader, I sign off at 21:33 GMT+1, and will now shoot this blog post onto Salto sobrius. Oh connectivity!

Update on pasting problem: Vitnir helpfully suggested that I try CTRL-V. Good idea if the Qtek had only had a CTRL key. And it turns out it sort of has! But only on the virtual on-screen keyboard.

So there is actually a way to paste text into e-mail on the Qtek 9100. I tried it and it works. But you have to use the virtual-keyboard shortcut CTL-V. The paste option steadfastly remains greyed-out on the menu that appears when you click-and-hold in the e-mail editing window.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Gangsta geocaching

Welcome everyone who checked out my likeness of a guy named Mohammed. You set a new attendance record yesterday, and on a Sunday at that! Too bad most of you won't be interested in the kind of stuff I usually write about. Maybe I should take more interest in current events.

I promised I'd tell you a geocaching story. When geocachers muck around in parks, on vacant lots and around scenic spots, most muggles don't know (and probably wouldn't believe) that these people are actually trying to find tupperware boxes containg marbles and freebie key rings. Many muggles appear to think that the cachers must in fact be looking for drugs, for gay sex, or for a discreet way to break into a nearby house.

In the very early hours of Boxing Day last year, three cachers decided to go look for a cache hidden at the centre of a roundabout outside the small town of Skövde in southern Sweden. They did this while on a caching expedition lasting several hours, and by the time they reached the roundabout it was three o'clock in the morning.

Our intrepid three parked their car in the empty lot of a car dealership and went on foot over to the roundabout. Being law-abiding citizens, they didn't pay much attention to the security people patrolling the place. But the security became really nervous. "What are they doing? Drugs, gay sex, burglary?" While the cachers were looking for their plastic box on the roundabout, security stalked them for a while and then breathlessly called the police.

The first police car to arrive belonged to the local, small-town unit. The cops were nervous too. Nervous enough that they went into full Dirty Harry mode. They arrived just as our friends were back in their car and leaving. Two police officers shot out of the patrol car like mustard-anointed cats, undoing the safety catches of their guns and aiming them at our friends, ordering them to stay in their car with their hands visible. (I should perhaps explain to any US readers that in Sweden, when a police officer draws a gun, it's pretty much front page news.)

Now comes my favourite bit. Our friends have to explain really quickly to the jittery police why they're cruising around the industrial outskirts of Skövde in the middle of the night. "Drugs?! Gay sex!? Burglary!?" Do they perhaps ask the police officers if they have ever heard of geocaching? Surely they show the cache to the police by way of explanation?

No, they don't, actually. They tell the police that they are roundabout fanciers. They explain that the Mariesjö roundabout is famed for its beauty and unusual decorations, a must-see for anyone with a serious interest in such things. And since they happened to be passing by...

And the cops actually bought that! The roundabout fancier story even made the regional news. And everyone lived happily (more or less) for various periods of time.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

A likeness of Mohammed

This is a picture I just drew of a guy named Mohammed. Millions of Mohammeds have lived and still live on Earth. In order not to get harassed by religious bigots, I'm not telling you which one of them I have made a likeness of. (Historically, a lot of artists greater even than me have had no such qualms.)

But I'd like to offer the opinion that if your religious beliefs inspire you to burn and vandalise things other people hold dear, such as books or embassies, then this suggests that you are a bigoted moron and need to get a grip.

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Geocaching is an outdoor sport where you search for tupperware boxes hidden under rocks with the aid of a GPS navigator. This is a device the size of a cell phone that listens to microwave transmissions from US navigation satellites to calculate its position. The accuracy is currently at best about four metres. Simple but functional models can be had cheaply.

The tupperware boxes are cached by other participants, and you get their coordinates off the net. They contain guest books and cheap little trinkets to trade: my seven-year-old son usually brings marbles. Great geeky outdoor fun for all ages: you get to visit some incredible places, often just off the road you travel daily.

Finding a geocache isn't as easy as it might seem. The cumulative errors of the two navigators involved (yours and the one used originally to pinpoint the position of the cache) mean that it can take repeated visits to find a cache, particularly in woods where reception is bad and in sloping terrain where a few horizontal metres translate to several vertical metres.

Another complicating factor is that you need to solve puzzles to get the coordinates for many caches. For instance, the web site may give you the coordinates of a statue, where you need to note the year it was erected, and do some math with these figures to find the coordinates of the actual tupperware box.

Or there may be several steps to a cache. One of my favourites is a cache where I first had to read a partially encrypted message written with 8th century runes, giving me the coordinates of a tree on a desolate hilltop. Climbing the tree, I found a small knife hammered into the trunk, with a further set of coordinates carved into the handle. These coordinates led me to one of the steep sides of the hill, where I had to climb up and down for ages before finding the cache on a small ledge halfway down. Add to this that I was accompanied by my two-year-old daughter on this particular cache hunt, and you'll see why I'm pretty pleased with myself for finding the box on the first try.

Geocachers refer to non-geocachers as muggles. Muggles sometimes mistake geocachers for drug dealers, gay cruisers or burglars. I've got a good story about that, so stay tuned.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Swedish church treasures went to Tenerife

Swedish rural churches are uncommonly rich in Medieval wooden sculpture. This has to do with relative poverty in the past, where decorations would not be updated very often, with a climate hostile to vermin, and with a comparatively mild Reformation, with little in the way of iconoclastic vandalism. Very often, the Popish idols wouldn't be burnt in the village green in the 16th century, but instead hoisted up to the church attic and forgotten. The Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm has a huge collection of such sculpture.

For years, there has been a string of thefts in churches in northern Sweden. Artworks and handicraft from the Middle Ages onward have been stolen, everything from liturgic silverware to wooden effigies of saints. The theif/thieves could do this quite easily as the area is thinly populated and the churches haven't been locked in the daytime. The problem took such proportions that the county museum in Härnösand mounted a photographic exhibition named "Wanted -- church thefts in Western Norrland".

Today's papers report that the Swedish police have now found more than a hundred of the stolen objects in the home of a Spanish citizen on Tenerife. The 53-year-old man was expelled for life from Sweden for thefts in the 1970s, but he has nevertheless returned regularly. The police became interested in him last summer after he'd sold a stolen object on the net. They arrested him in September in Hudiksvall, a town in the very area where the thefts have taken place.

Let's hope there's documentation enough to show which piece goes back to what church.

Tegnér, G. 2002. Efterlyst -- en utställning om kyrkostölder i Västernorrland. Fornvännen 2002:3. KVHAA. Stockholm.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Boat grave talk in Linköping 7 February

Last summer me and my friend Howard Williams directed the excavation of a Viking Period boat inhumation grave. It was the first grave of its kind to be excavated in the county of Östergötland, and it yielded some pretty spectacular finds: read about it here and here.

On Tuesday 7 February at 18:30, I'm giving a talk about the dig at the County Museum of Östergötland in Linköping. If any blog readers identify themselves there I'd like to photograph them with my nifty pocket soap and put the pic up here.

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Tech note: Qtek 9100 PDA

It's official: my pocket lint now has internet access. I received the soap-sized and soap-shaped little machine Thursday morning, and it's been behaving very well. Wifi access was easy, and the mean & heavy techies of SKOM helped me configure GPRS.

This means that I can now, indeed, photo blog from a treetop in the woods. Only today I have the flu or something, the kids both have a cold, and it's snowing. So, Dear Reader, you will yet have to remain in the dark about things treetopical for a short time.

I see you shiver with antici... pation.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Bronze Age detector sites

Sites of the 1st millennium AD dominate discussion about metal detecting. But metal detecting can contribute much to Bronze Age research as well. Two fresh examples are found in the most recent issues of Kuml and Lund Archaeological Review.

In the Danish case, Jeanette Varberg presents a ploughed-out Late Bronze Age (period IV) metalwork hoard that was located by a farmer a few years back. The spread-out pieces of the hoard were collected by archaeologists with the aid of a metal detector.

In the Scanian case, Anders Berntsson and Jonas Paulsson recently re-investigated a ploughed-out Bronze Age urn cemetery at Piledal with metal detectors. At rescue excavations here in 1973-74, fifteen bronze objects had been recovered from the remaining lower parts of urn burials. In less than 20 hours of metal detecting, Berntsson & Paulsson found twelve certainly identifiable fragments of Bronze Age metalwork plus a number of doubtful pieces, all originating from the very burials excavated in the 70s.

In both of these cases, professional archaeologists have done the detecting and documentation. My point is that for every site that receives this kind of professional attention, there are hundreds that are known but never visited, and thousands that aren't known at all to science. And that's why skilled amateurs could make such a valuable contribution to research.

Varberg, J. 2005. Rosenlund og Brøndumgård bronzedepoter. Kult og samfund i yngre bronzealder. Kuml 2005. Højbjerg.

Berntsson, A. & Paulsson, J. 2006. Piledal revisited. A test of metal detectors on a Bronze Age site. Lund Archaeological Review 2004 (antedated). University of Lund.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Career advice

Here's some free career advice. Never ever do a PhD in the humanities in a small language or regarding a thinly populated area, e.g. Swedish and Sweden. I did one in Swedish archaeology (thesis in English available on-line), and let me tell you, I might as well have done it on the demography of Pluto for all the job offers I'm seeing.

I have an opinion piece in Swedish about this in the current issue of Universitetsläraren, the newsletter of the Swedish trade union for university teachers.

The Swedish university system offers two ideal tracks for a young career academic after she completes her PhD. She can either go abroad on a post doc, or she can get a four-year forskarassistent job, with 80% research and 20% teaching. This is intended to give her time to rack up merit points enough to get a steady university job.

In the natural sciences and engineering, this is actually pretty much how it works. But in the humanities, there's no money. In archaeology, there are no post docs since our specialisations are only relevant locally. (Viking studies in Japan? Noooo.) And young archaeology PhDs can't compete for forskarassistent jobs, which are exceedingly rare anyway. Instead of functioning as entrypoints for young scholars, these jobs are hotly desired awards for highly qualified people in their 40s. Not for a few, they become the apex of a scholar's entire career.

So a PhD in Swedish archaeology is a big no-no. Avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid.

All us young 'uns can hope for now is for the Boomers to retire, for their jobs to be taken by people born in the 50s, for their jobs to be taken by people born in the 60s, and then, just possibly, might we get a salary and a desk. Unless we reach retirement age first.

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