Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ways To Go

Swedish archaeologists have a way of going out with a bang. I collect stories of archaeologists dying spectacularly with their boots on. These stories are tragic, these people left loved ones behind, I mean no disrespect. But the stories are too good not to be told.

Two early investigators of megalithic tombs in Bohuslän went with a resounding WHUMP. Megalithic tombs. You can see where this is going, right? Yes. They removed the earth that had surrounded and stabilised the stones of the tombs for close on six millennia, and then they crawled inside. WHUMP.

In the 80s, rescue archaeologists began stripping huge areas of farmland outside Malmö, documenting entire prehistoric villages. The area is really flat, and the proximity to the North Sea can bring some pretty nasty weather. At one dig, the site manager took a walk across his site just as a thunderstorm started to build up. South Scania is flat. The site manager’s head was the highest point for several kilometers. ZAP.

Another flat site, in Östergötland, was the scene of an archaeological demise just a few years ago. The place was so flat that the railroad bank running through it was the best vantage point available if you wanted to get a good view. One morning the site manager arrives in his car, drives onto the unattended railway crossing – and spots something really interesting in the stripped area. He stops and idles the engine. Is it an alignment of post holes? HOOT. Maybe a number of paired ones, typical roof posts? HOOOOT. The engine purrs. The radio plays. Hey, that’s actually got to be a house foundation! HOOOOTCRUNCH.

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Vertical Photo Collage

Vertical photography is a venerable documentation technique in field archaeology. Instead of drawing plans of your site, you put clearly visible coordinate markers on the ground and photograph it from above, using a huge camera tripod or the scoop of a mechanical excavator (don't tell the health and safety people!). Then you develop the photographs and glue them together in one big collage. The beauty of this is that it's fast, accurate, hi-resolution and that you needn't have everything cleaned and ready for photography at one go. As long as you keep reasonable accuracy on your coordinate markers, you can shoot the site a few square meters at a time. But with analog chemical photography, you have to have cheap overnight photo development.

Swedish archaelogists who developed this technique were Otto Frödin in Östergötland, Björn Ambrosiani in the Lake Mälaren area and Erik Nylén on Gotland. Nylén's team produced excellent documentation in the 60s and 70s. They were technology optimists, very scientifically minded, and it's kind of sad that the glue they used back then doesn't age well. In the 90s many of their archived photo collages were falling apart and had to be restored.

Here's a vertical shot that Gustaf Trotzig took in the 60s at Barshalder, the cemetery on Gotland that I wrote my thesis about. It shows an 11th century inhumation grave. Only the lower half of the skeleton was preserved, the rest had been destroyed by looters.

Vertical photography has received a boost in recent years thanks to the adoption of digital cameras and image processing software. These days, you need no photo lab and you can start removing stones seconds after shooting the site. Also, you no longer need to take exactly vertical photographs. If you make sure there are four coordinate markers in each shot, the computer can rectify them for you. If they're really good, the machine can even do the stitching for you.

As often mentioned here, my friend Howard Williams and myself dug a 9th century boat grave last summer. We saved enormous amounts of time by not planning the site by hand. Instead, intrepid Howard scaled the land owner's aluminium ladder and took oblique digital photographs of everything. Each shot covers a bit more than four square meters. They have been sitting on my hard disk ever since, and in the last couple of weeks I've processed them and put them together using AirPhoto and PhotoShop. Here's what came out. The coordinate crosses are one meter apart. Any PhotoShop wizards around who can help me get the colour more uniform?

I'm really thrilled to be using the methods of my scholarly fathers with modern equipment. The question now is, how do we get an archive longevity comparable to that of monochrome photographs? I should probably try to find a lab willing to print the collage on the same Ilford stuff that they used in the 60s.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Religion and Other Cultural Traits

In the past few days a lot of readers have come here via the 41st Carnival of the Godless to read the entry on shawls and bikini tops. Some have commented, and my reply to one of them grew into an entry in its own right.

Wrote Anon:
the wearing of the shawl is not a Muslim requirement. It is fairly uncommon in Indonesia ... the most populous Muslim country on Earth. Rather, it is an Arabic cultural requirement ... I think it's important to separate religious requirements from cultural ones. ... some people are buying into Arabic cultural imperialism in the false belief they are following a religious requirement.
Said I:
Good point, but then, is it meaningful to separate cultural traits from religious ones? I don't think so. It's all in our minds.
Replied Anon:
Absolutely it's meaningful to separate the two. If not, one can have some trait on the basis of false pretenses. Bombing abortion clinics is a radical-right extremist Southern Bible-belt wacko thing to do, not a Christian thing to do. ... Indonesia has a architectural tradition for its mosques that is quite different from that of the Arabian penninsula. However, the Saudis are spending vast amounts of money in Indonesia to promote Wahabbism, the Saudi form of Islam. The mosques they build with this money look like mosques in downtown Riyadh. ... are Saudi-style mosques superior to native Indonesian style mosques? ... they are being imposed on Indonesia by Saudi money ... The problem arises when cultural traits are being mistaken for religious traits.
Anon, my thoughtful friend, I think you're being overly idealistic regarding both religion and culture.

To me, Christianity (and other religions) doesn't exist outside the practices of its adherents. So anything done in the name of Christ -- running orphanages, educating slum kids, relieving famine-struck areas, bombing abortion clinics -- is part of Christianity to me. Typical Christianity, of course, in the statistical sense, consists only of lukewarm lip service. That's what most Christians do in the name of Christ.

As to Saudi vs Indonesian vs Swedish culture, I can't really say it matters to me. Any culture is OK as long as it doesn't go against the Declaration of Human Rights. Gimme peace and freedom for all, and I don't care what kind of mosque you're building. Culture and local identity is a fleeting, socially constructed thing. The value of a cultural trait, in my opinion, has nothing to do with its age or pedigree. The important thing is whether it works for people right now, right here. The nationalism of an oppressed group isn't any better than the nationalism of their oppressors. What counts is whether you treat your fellow human beings with empathy and solidarity, regardless of nationality.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Dreams of the Past

Sven Ove Hansson and I have started work on an anthology of skeptical essays on speculation and fraud in historical and archaeological writings. Ancient spacemen, Holocaust denial, hyper-relativism, basically any kind of pseudoscience about societies in the past. The working title is Drömmar om det förflutna, "Dreams of the Past", and the book is intended for the general reader.

We're planning to re-use some material published by ourselves and others in journals during the 90s and 00s, and a number of very good people have agreed to contribute new work.

So far, most of the pieces we're considering can be tagged with at least one of the following:
  • Hyper-relativism ("Any interpretation is as good as another")
  • Historical forgeries (e.g. the Turin shroud, the Kensington runestone)
  • Dark Ages speculation
  • Right-wing extremism
  • Methodology of scholarship
  • Ancient religion
  • Archaeoastronomy
  • Atlantis
  • Ancient spacemen
Dear Reader, what would you like to read about in this context? Is there a common misapprehension or lie about the past that you'd like to see discussed? Please tell us!

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Rickard Berghorn, editor of the horror & fantasy magazine Minotauren, has been good enough to give me a column of my own. The first instalment of my writing under the heading Den klentrogne, "The Skeptic", is found in issue number 29 of Minotauren that reached subscribers today.

The piece treats H.P. Lovecraft's fear of the unknown, the absence of such fear in people who use alternative medicine, creationism, lie detectors, Chinese traditional medicine, Thomas Ligotti's short fiction and the first underground trial detonation of a nuclear charge in 1957, all in less than five pages. I'll put it on-line when the next issue appears; my column for that is already in the can.

Minotauren prints new and old short fiction and essays in Swedish, much of it translated by the editor, and also has review sections for books, magazines and movies. Jens Heimdahl is a regular contributor. This magazine caters unflinchingly to the horrific needs and cravings of all Scandinavia! I have never actually met its mysterious editor, although we live less than three kilometers apart. The unquiet waters of Lännerstasundet separate us.

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ex-Fugee Commits Logical Redundancy

Remember Wyclef Jean's and Mary J. Blige's soulful 2000 duet, "911"? Breaking news: its lyrics contain a whopping big piece of logical redundancy.
If this is the kind of love that my mom used to warn me about
Man, I'm in trouble
I'm in real big trouble
If this is the kind of love that the old folks used to warn me about
Man, I'm in trouble
I'm in real big trouble
Expressing this in the programming language Pascal, you get
IF trouble=1 THEN trouble:=1;
Or compare this piece of plain English:
If this is the kind of fruit my mom used to call an apple, then I've got an apple.
More generally, it might be phrased:
I hold the advice of my mom/the old folks in high regard.
Shocking stuff. What's next? Will he start using the double negative? Ain't there no sense in the man?

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Friday, May 26, 2006


To improve legibility, I've repainted the blog from badass grey-on-black to monkish chocolate-on-vellum. Whatchathink?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


As part of an ongoing leavetaking of who I was 20 years ago, I have realised that I am no longer much of a fantasy fan. That is, I'd rather not read any more thick American paperback trilogies in the Tolkien mode.

In my early teens, love of fantasy led me to start reading novels in English (indirectly providing me with the tools necessary to write this blog). It was mostly American paperbacks in bunches of three: Eddings, Feist, Weis & Hickman, Brooks, Zimmer Bradley. Absolutely wonderful (except Brooks, shudder, even I could see that back then). Then I turned away from this sort of thing, shunning Jordan, Kay, Williams, Hobb, Lackey and their ilk. But still, inside me there is a 13-year-old who feels that anything with dragons and magic in it must be worthwhile. So I've returned now and then. With predictable results.

Dear Reader, it is useless to collect a fiction library, because you will sooner or later find that you are no longer the person who decided to keep a given book. Give your books away once you've stopped re-reading them. Eddings sat untouched on my shelves for 15 years. Then I re-read Pawn of Prophecy and promptly donated the Belgariad series to my local library. In recent years, I've also given Hobb, G.R.R. Martin, Goodkind and Kay a chance, but I haven't felt like finishing their books.

American Tolkienesque fantasy sells well, which means that it is good literature by the only meaningful yardstick I know of. But I am personally unable to enjoy most of it. My problem with it is that it feels like a walk through Disneyland. Everything is painted in bright colours with sharp edges, like the Larry Elmore cover of a Dragonlance book. It's mostly written in the voice of a literary innocent, guileless and naive, a breathless Dickensian storyteller. The people in these novels are clearly modern Americans in quasi-Medieval costumes. Much like Larry Elmore's woodenly posed and composed models, actually.

Another thing that keeps me from enjoying American fantasy is my profession. As an archaeologist specialising in 1st Millennium AD Northern Europe, I know a thing or two about the real Dark Ages that these Americans are dreaming of at long remove. I'm breathing the actual dirt from Dark Ages cemeteries and settlements. I can see what outdated college-textbook historical interpretation a fantasy author is working from. I groan at the umpteenth Happy Meal plastic toy resurrection of matters Arthurian, Beowulfish and "Celtic". The weight of cliché is often crushing. Diana Wynne Jones skewered the genre mercilessly in her very funny Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), but of course she couldn't kill it.

Most of the fantasy novels I've read and liked in the past five years have been written by Europeans.
  • Låt den rätte komma in. John Ajvide Lindqvist 2004.
  • The Absolute at Large. Karel Čapek 1922.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll 1865.
  • The Warrior of World’s End. Lin Carter 1974.
  • The Never-ending Story. Michael Ende 1979.
  • The Exploits of Moominpappa. Tove Jansson 1968.
  • Changing Planes. Ursula K. LeGuin 2004.
  • Ronia, the Robber's Daughter. Astrid Lindgren 1981.
  • Titus Groan. Mervyn Peake 1946.
  • The Truth. Terry Pratchett 2000.
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. J.K. Rowling 1997.
  • Kung Tulle. Om grundandet av Tulavall. Irmelin Sandman Lilius 1972.
  • The Eyes of the Overworld. Jack Vance 1966.
This list should be useful in one way or another to anyone with an interest in fantasy. If, as many people do, you really like American Tolkienesque fantasy, then it would probably be wise to steer clear of the stuff I like. If, like me, you don't, then give 'em a try!

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Claude Strikes Back

Christian blogger Claude Mariottini teaches the Old Testament at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He's interested in Biblical archaeology. A week ago I challenged Claude to a race on the Technorati top-10 list for archaeology blogs. I also identified myself as an atheist and made snide remarks about some faith-based and moralistic reasoning that he had quoted (and which I misattributed to Claude himself).

Claude rose to the occasion and mustered his forces with a counterpost -- or should I say, a riposte. It's actually a brief homily, interesting from a theological point of view as Claude denies that his Imaginary Friend On High is actually almighty. The deity has "self-imposed limitations" providing leeway for humanity's free will. Claude, however, offers no explanation for his deity's self-imposed limitations regarding famine, pestilence, hurricanes, tsunamis and other causes of human suffering that have nothing to do with free will. Perhaps he would argue that they are just tests of humanity's faith and that believers will be compensated in the afterlife. To me, the whole god thing is just an unnecessary hypothesis pruned long ago from rational discourse by razor-wielding Ockham.

But according to Claude, his supernatural friend has a claim even on me. So I guess I'll just happily continue in my unbelief, secure in the assumption that if this unlikely thing actually exists, then it'll most likely gather me to its bosom when I die regardless of what I do or think. I mean, come on, I hear it's all-luvin'! Or are there "self-imposed" limits to this love as well?

Claude's currently way past me in the race, and his readers are flocking here to check out the competition. Note that the contest isn't about the number of readers we attract, it's about the number of unique blogs that link to us.

Dear Reader, if you enjoy this kind of game, then feel free to link to one of us! Claude and myself categorically deny all rumors that the whole thing is just a scheme we dreamed up with the aim of attracting enough attention for both of us to beat the evil archaeo-astronomical genius Alun Salt on Technorati's list.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Tangled Bank

Excellent science blog carnival Tangled Bank is on-line in its 54th edition over at Science and Politics. A blog carnival is a thematic, regularly recurring roundup of selected blog entries. A great way to find good fresh reading matter!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dwindling PhD Student Numbers

Sweden's largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, has an interesting headline today: "Research scientists have declined in number by 25%". Fortunately, this is due to a misunderstanding on the part of the person who wrote the headline. What has declined 25% in number from 2003 to 2005 is actually newly admitted PhD students at Swedish universities.

Up until 1998, it was possible and very common to become a PhD student without any funding. Swedish university departments didn't ask how you intended to support yourself. I did it for four years with savings, a little state subsidies (studiebidrag) and a lot of grants from private foundations. Then I got a doctoral student's salary for 2½ years and finally finished my thesis with nine months on the dole.

A 1998 reform meant that universities had to start checking people's funding, and that ideally they shouldn't accept anyone without any money. Some departments tried to work around this by instituting prolonged Master's courses so PhD wannabes could do some of their coursework before being formally accepted as PhD students. But generally, 1998 spelt the end for large PhD student seminars in poorly funded subjects such as archaeology. As mentioned here before, some professors of archaeology are pretty desperate about this.

But as I also mentioned recently, student numbers are declining generally, not just at the PhD student level. The kids may actually be finding jobs instead. It isn't much to worry about in my view. I'm sure there's not a lot of unclaimed PhD student funding lying around: probably the system is just becoming more market-driven, with unprofitable subjects (notice that I mention no names) shrinking and money-making ones retaining their vigor. This is excellent for our academic demographics. Anything that means that young PhDs will one day be able to find jobs is fine with me.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

David Nessle

Swedish cartoonist, author and translator David Nessle has a wonderfully witty blog that should be reason enough for y'all to learn Swedish, so get going.

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Trompe le Monde

A song that keeps playing in my head is the Pixies' 1991 album opener "Trompe le Monde". As usual with Frank Black, the lyrics are enigmatic, and on this song the grammar is also a bit spaced out. I keep meditating on it, getting nowhere.
Trompe Le Monde
By Frank Black Francis

Why do Cupids and angels
continually haunt her dreams
like memories of another life
is painted on her shirt in capitals

Out on the free free way
there's only she and the they
represented by the lights

We went to the store and bought something great
which samples this song from Washington state

Go little record go
it is named by
some guy named Joe
and the words
are the letters of the words
electrically played
for outer space and those of they who paid

This song is twice occurred
and now its time to go
away on holiday
Joe may be the band's guitarist Joey Santiago. Maybe he named the album Trompe Le Monde, "Fool the World". And maybe that's why I can't understand much of the lyrics. Perhaps the words shouldn't be taken seriously: they're just the sum of their letters, played electrically. There are other signs of whimsy on the album, for instance the fist-pumping chorus "JEFREY WITH ONE F! JEFREY!"

But what about the song from Washington state? Is it a Nirvana song? Probably not: Nevermind was released just a few weeks before Trompe le Monde. Or was Frank Black referencing a song from Bleach? Or some other band entirely? He doesn't seem entirely supportive of the band in question.

"The They" on the freeway who are represented by lights would seem to allude to space aliens descending on solitary drivers. And some of the They appear willing to pay for Pixies records.

Great album, weird lyrics, great band. And then they went away on holiday.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Christian Lindqvist 1948-2006

Dr Christian Lindqvist is dead. Suss, his wife, just called me and told me the news. Brain tumor, three weeks ago.

Christian was an archaeologist, an osteologist, a fauna historian and an expert on the rock art of early hunters in Northern Scandinavia. We became friends in 1999. Having read an excellent paper of his about Mesolithic animal bones from the Stora Förvar cave, I invited him to collaborate on Neolithic finds from under the Late Iron Age cemetery I wrote my thesis about. He joined me and my draughtsman-friend Stefan Kayat in one of the the old cavalry stables at the Museum of National Antiquities, and we had a lot of fun together. I visited him for the last time in late January and found his spirit unbroken.

Christian was a productive and painstaking scholar with a natural-science bent similar to my own. It's said about the excavations at the Alvastra pile dwelling in the 1970s and 80s that despite the team's efforts to produce uniform documentation, the results suffer somewhat from the "Christian Lindqvist effect". The excavation squares where he did the sieving somehow produced far more finds, mostly very small fragments, than any other squares.

It speaks volumes about Christian's generosity that we never had any conflicts. He was a sensitive soul, prone to brooding over old differences, often doubting people's motives. I, on the other hand, am loud, undiplomatic and somewhat lacking in social and emotional finesse. He took it all with the best of humour. Perhaps my level of open uncouthness was such that any hidden motives couldn't possibly be any worse than what he got shoved in his face whenever we met.

In addition to wife and son and mum, Christian loved animals. I visited him a few times at his summer hangout on the shore of Lake Båven, admiring his rabbits and chickens, all of rare old country breeds with gene bank status. In January, he regaled me with the story of a homicidal midget rooster that he was forced to kill and cook in order to keep his eyesight, gene bank or no gene bank.

Christian Lindqvist's one of the best people I've met through archaeology. The fact that he was forced to quit working 30 years too early just testifies to the mindless randomness of the universe. But the good thing about this randomness is that it also allows rabbits, chickens, Mesolithic hunters and archaeologists like Christian to evolve.

  • Lindqvist, C. 1978. Älghuvudmotivet i nordeuropeisk plastik och hällkonst. Det nordeuropeiska jägarsamhället under sten- och bronsålder. Xeroxed BA thesis. Dept of Archaeology, University of Stockholm.
  • Lindqvist, C. 1994. Fångstfolkets bilder. En studie av de nordfennoskandiska kustanknutna jägarhällristningarna. Theses and papers in archeology, new series A5. Dept of Archaeology, University of Stockholm.
  • Lindqvist, C. 1997. About the importance of fine-mesh sieving, stratigraphical and spatial studies for the interpretation of the faunal remains at Ajvide, Eksta parish, and other Neolithic dwelling sites on Gotland. Burenhult, G. (ed.). Remote sensing 1. Theses and papers in North-European archaeology 13a. Dept of Archaeology, University of Stockholm.
  • Lindqvist, C. & Possnert, G. 1999. The first seal hunter families on Gotland. On the Mesolithic occupation in the Stora Förvar cave. Current Swedish archaeology 7. Stockholm.
  • Rundkvist, M.; Lindqvist, C. & Thorsberg, K. 2004. Barshalder 3. Rojrhage in Grötlingbo: a multi-component Neolithic shore site on Gotland. Stockholm archaeological reports 41. Dept of Archaeology, University of Stockholm. [Christian is the author of section 9, "Bones and radiometric analyses".]

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Racing Claude

Two months ago, Salto sobrius made it onto the top-10 list of archaeology blogs on Technorati. It's currently at number 8 and rising.

The reason I bring this up now is that I've just made it past Claude Mariottini of the Northern Baptist Seminary, the current number 9. Mariottini's blog "is a Christian perspective on the Old Testament and Current Events" and covers Biblical archaeology among other things. Here's a snippet of his opinions regarding The Da Vinci Code.
Error: The book tells readers that "The New Testament is false testimony."

Rebuttal: The New Testament was sealed with the apostles' blood. They put their money where their mouths were. The Greek word for "witness" – as in the idea of witnessing to the truth about Jesus – is "martyro," from whence we get the word martyr. Why? Because so many witnesses to Jesus, e.g., the apostles, were killed for testifying about what they themselves saw. Brown glibly ignores this history and, instead, exalts the questionable writings of second-, third-, and fourth-century Gnostic Christians, who were sexual libertines for the most part. (Other Gnostics were strict legalists.)
You can see where this guy's at. Code is a crappy novel full of clichés, and you have to be severely ignorant to believe any of it is historical truth. But being a skeptic and an atheist, I find it really amusing to see a tenured academic argue (as a "rebuttal" of an "error"!) that if someone is willing to die for a piece of religious writing, then it must be historical truth. And also, that an author's sexual habits, as described posthumously by his enemies, are a good indicator of his truthfulness.

Well, Claude amigo, keep up the good work! You started blogging on 16 August last year, so you've got exactly four months' head start on me. And you're supported by an Almighty Imaginary Friend. But still my stuff seems to be more relevant to other bloggers than yours.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

That Hideous Extremity of Human Outrage

Today I listened to a reading of H.P. Lovecraft's horror story "The Hound" from 1922. It's a grisly tale of decadence, gore and supernatural dread, and the over-the-top reading by highly original actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård fit it very well.

The story revolves around graveyards and human remains. It struck me how poorly equipped a prosaic archaeologist like myself is to appreciate the HORROR of opening graves and collecting GRISLY TROPHIES. In fact, some passages are pretty reasonable descriptions of everyday business to archaeologists and osteologists.
Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world; where even the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui.

[...] finally there remained for us only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures. It was this frightful emotional need which led us eventually to that detestable course which even in my present fear I mention with shame and timidity -- that hideous extremity of human outrage, the abhorred practice of grave-robbing.


The predatory excursions on which we collected our unmentionable treasures were always artistically memorable events. We were no vulgar ghouls, but worked only under certain conditions of mood, landscape, environment, weather, season, and moonlight. These pastimes were to us the most exquisite form of aesthetic expression, and we gave their details a fastidious technical care. An inappropriate hour, a jarring lighting effect, or a clumsy manipulation of the damp sod, would almost totally destroy for us that ecstatic titillation which followed the exhumation of some ominous, grinning secret of the earth.
Well, H.P.L. my friend, I guess I'm guilty as charged. That hideous extremity of human outrage is pretty much a trick of my trade. I haven't violated very many ancient tombs compared to seasoned colleagues in contract archaeology, but I have spent innumerable hours in playful reverie over... things others have collected on their predatory excursions.

But of course, I have yet to encounter any blasphemous jade amulets described in the Necronomicon.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Negotiating Search Terms

I just found two really good sets of search terms on the blog's visitor list. (They show what people have entered into Google before ending up at Salto sobrius).
  • The most attractive women of the 20th century
I suppose that, if you were given the choice, mid evil was preferable to really heavy evil even in the Middle Ages.

Update 22 May: Haha, this is generating meta-search-hits! Someone just came here after searching for "see how people who dress in mid-evil times" on MSN. Before this happens again: it's spelled MEDIEVAL or MEDIAEVAL, kids, and it means "from the Middle Ages". Nothing to do with evil, thank goodness.

Boy on a Broomstick

Very little in art is original and it's not always the original bits that make it good.

I read a story the other day about a boy who had magic lessons in school. He liked to ride his flying broomstick, but when he didn't behave his aunt and uncle, with whom he lived, took it away, grounding him in a very literal manner. His nasty cousin kept telling on him. Non-magic technology was barely known to the people in the story, and any investigations into it were discouraged.

The story was published in 1953, twelve years before J.K. Rowling was born. It's called "The Wall Around the World" and was written by American sf writer Theodore R. Cogswell (1918-1987). In 2003 it was nominated for a retro-Hugo for best novelette of 1953 (the award went to James Blish). Given the general state of sf in 1953, I suppose it's pretty good. But I like Harry Potter better.

Mike Ashley has made the same connection, but he doubts that J.K. Rowling read Cogswell's story before conceiving of H.P.

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Goes Round, Comes Round

I grumbled a bit back in March about complaints from the University of Dingledongle regarding how I've said in public that archaeology is a hopeless career. Then it got worse, in ways I haven't chronicled here. Instead I wrote something for the journal of the Swedish trade union of university teachers, a piece which is now on-line in Swedish. The story is basically as follows:

Martin: "May I please apply for grant money to work with you guys?"

Dingledongle head of dept: "Certainly, your project looks very interesting."

Martin: "Thanks." (Does application paperwork.)

Dingledongle head of dept: "Wait a minute! I saw you on TV the other day. You said that a lot of archaeologists are unemployed and that we might as well close down the MA courses for a few years. You can't work here! Fuck you!"

Martin: "You don't like me saying that in public? I'll show you public!" (Writes polemical article.)

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Collective Creativity 1992-2006

In the winter of 1992-93 I was asked by my Tolkien Society pal Anders Blixt to write some stuff for a role-playing game campaign module set in Middle-earth and called Southern Gondor. Not all of what I wrote made it into the final version of the book; an adventure scenario ended up on the cutting-room floor. In early 1996 I put the scenario on the web, marketed it to search engines and pretty much forgot about it. Then the web exploded.

To you non-gamers, I should explain that role-playing games are basically semi-improvised adventure stories where the listeners are also participants and co-story-tellers. Think of it as theatre played sitting around a table, with a director and players but without any audience. A "campaign module" is a collection of background material to a series of stories, describing the world they're set in. An "adventure scenario" is the skeleton of a story that will be told differently each time it is re-enacted.

The net is a good place for collective creativity. In 2004, when the scenario had been on-line for more than eight years, Olga Pérez got in touch with me and told me she'd translated the whole thing into Spanish. She graciously agreed to let me put her version on my web site. Then, a few months ago, Vince Schiavoni wrote me and told me he'd like to illustrate the scenario! He just sent me the first picture, shown above. Many thanks, Olga and Vince!

I should come clean about one thing, though. The scenario relies heavily for ideas on social anthropologist James K. Campbell's 1973 book Honour, family and patronage. A study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community. I read it for first-term soc-anthro in March of 1992 and enjoyed it a lot. Thanks to you as well, J.K.!

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Finn Hellman

My friend Finn Hellman is a gay blind anarchist activist journalist. He was in my brother's year in school, and scarily promising: music, poetry, he did it all, even rode a bike on his home street and orientated himself by clicking his tongue and listening to the echoes. It's a source of considerable pride to me that I was once the one who helped him get on-line.

Finn hasn't followed the standard career for the blind in Sweden, that is, going on disablement pension and vegetating from the day you finish high school. He wrote an award-winning Master's thesis about the Swedish legislation against gay sauna clubs (established in the 80s as a panic reaction to AIDS) and is currently a radio journalist with the Independent Living Institute in Stockholm.

Here's a typically confrontative piece of Finn's recent work: a story in Swedish about how disabled people are portrayed in the news media. We hear for instance of intellectually disabled people who are shown on TV but who aren't identified with name tags or asked any questions like other participants.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Landscape is Changing

This will be my 25th summer on the Island.

In late 1981, my parents were lucky enough to find a small island for sale, and the loans necessary to buy it. It measures only 300 by 70 meters, mostly smooth ice-ground granite with lichen and low pines, in a sheltered part of the Stockholm archipelago. There were two decrepit summer houses on the Island, which was lucky as it wouldn't have been possible to get a building permit for the new houses otherwise.

My dad and his friends did the demolition and the building. My mum took care of the household and the kids, baking innumerable chocolate fudge cakes. And after a bit more than a decade, us kids had grown up and three sturdy houses were finished. So was my parents' marriage. My mum bought my dad out of the Island and both went on to find better spouses.

The land is still recovering from aeons under the crushing frigid weight of the inland ice. Around here, it currently rises half a meter in a century. I've come here for a quarter of a century, which translates to 12.5 centimeters. It really shows at low water levels, like now. I am able to see at work the process that has turned Mesolithic seal hunting stations into mountaintops. If I make it to a ripe old age, I'll see my dad's jetties useless and landlocked and the rock lagoon where my brother and I used to swim gone dry.

I guess it's a lesson everyone learns with time: nothing is constant. Everything is changing. As Ursula LeGuin put it: all we ever have is here, now.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Puppy Love Graffitti

In the early 80s, when I was about ten, I once found a plastic vial of liquid lip gloss at the roadside when I was pushing my bike up the last slope before home. It was pale pink and looked like it was mixed with fine silver sand. Attached to the stopper was a little cylindrical brush inside the vial. After inspecting the lip gloss, I used it to write something on a nearby lamppost.

The lamppost is still there, but a house and a lawn have replaced the little oak tree I used to climb with my friend and the patch of woodland where we'd have pissing contests. I passed the post today on my way from the battlefield investigations and took a picture of my old graffitti.

It's placed strangely low on the post. I appear to have grown a bit. And the two lower characters are tilted to the right. I think it's because I was holding my bike upright on the asphalt with the other hand and had to lean toward to post to reach it.

It's supposed to read M <heart> S. S as in Sophia, the daughter of friends of my parents, a freckled blonde cheerful girl. I was four or five the first time we met. With Sophia I made out for the first time at a disturbingly early age. We didn't meet often, but we corresponded intermittently through the school years. Then she got into the Conservative and Christian Youth Associations and I lost track of her. But the lamppost remembers.

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The Battle of Baggensstäket

1719. A year whose memory smells of smoke. A summer of pleasant weather and determined large-scale arson along the eastern seaboard of Sweden. The year of the Russian raids.

At a huge cost in men's lives, widowed women and fatherless children, Sweden enjoyed nearly a century as a major political power around the Baltic in the 17th and early 18th centuries, under the rules of Gustavus II Adolphus, Kristina, and the Caroluses, nos X through XII. It was a little empire, still commemorated in the lyrics of the national anthem. Then it all started to unravel. Carolus XII, a psychopath who may or may not have been a military genius but whose luck had clearly run out, was killed at the siege of Fredrikssten in Norway in November 1718 at the age of 36. And the Swedish armed forces fell to pieces.

Anyone could see that the Swedish interlude on the European stage was over. Anyone except the Swedish administration, that is. At the peace talks with Peter the Great's Russia, the Swedish negotiators kept stalling for time, hoping that their war machine would get back in gear again. Peter's strategists realised that they needed to teach the Swedes a lesson. So they sent a fleet to burn almost every single building and crop along the Baltic coast of Sweden from Norrköping to Piteå, a huge distance. "Now do you get it, guys?" They did. A peace treaty formalising Sweden's abasement was signed at Nystad in 1721.

The Russian coastal fleet of 1719 had no realistic hopes of actually invading Sweden. But burning the country's coastal cities was eminently feasible. Stockholm, however, is protected by an extensive archipelago with only a few passable routes to the city. The one at Vaxholm was heavily defended. But what about Baggensstäket, the old Viking Period entry point?

On 13 August 1719, the Russians attempted to break through provisional defences at Baggensstäket, leading to a day-long skirmish against hastily assembled second-rate Swedish troops that has gone down in history as the Battle of Baggensstäket. Toward the evening, Swedish reinforcements arrived, and the Russians discreetly left to continue their pyromaniac activities elsewhere.

The battle was not a neat open-field affair. It was fought partly from ships, partly on land, and none of the participants are likely to have had any good overview of things. Afterwards, both the Swedes and the Russians claimed to have won, and the Swedish commanders delivered partly irreconcilable reports of what had happened, each somehow describing its author as the hero of the day. To understand the battle, we'd need objective sources.

Enter Thomas Englund and Bo Knarrström and their team from the National Board of Antiquities' excavation unit. Having studied other battlefields of the Swedish heyday by intensive metal detecting, they are now, as I write this, pinpointing the movements of troops in the Battle of Baggensstäket.

A cool thing about this project is that although it is entirely research-driven, it has been initiated and funded by a rescue excavation unit. They have somehow managed to get around the field-archaeological paradox. Go Bo and Thomas!

I visited them a few hours ago. It's a highly unusual site as early modern battlefields go: wooded and hilly. Much of it has been untouched woodland pasture at least since the Viking Period: indeed, some fighting has clearly taken place among the 10th century pagan graves there. Preservation is exceptionally good, although there have been rumours of detector looting in the 1980s. Musket balls, grenade splinters and spikes from the improvised wooden fortifications still lie where they ended up after the fighting. There's no money to be made from finds like these, but by looking at their technical and ballistic characteristics and their distribution across the topography, the project will be able to identify where the troops were holed up during the fighting. For those interested in individual objects, I'd say the most exciting finds so far are a 1719 Swedish copper coin and the rear end of a fine-calibre portable artillery piece that seems to have ruptured when fired.

I grew up with stories of the Battle from books and school. Now I know where they fought and what their weapons were like. When the project is done, we will be able to confront the commanders' reports with hard evidence from the battlefield.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Kids Have Gotten Wise

Today's papers carry an item that spells professional doom for my generation of academics in the humanities. Nevertheless, it fills me with a sense of grim satisfaction. (I've been carping about this before, repeatedly.)

Swedish kids have finally gotten wise to the career prospects offered by higher education in the humanities. Compared to last year, applications to higher education are down 9% generally – and down 21% in the humanities, 25% in language studies. Apparently, young people are finding other things to do, that is, actual jobs.

If this keeps up, it'll mean that when the Boomers retire from the universities, their teaching jobs won't be put up for application. Instead they will quietly disappear. Along with entire university departments.

Now, why do I smile sardonically as Rome burns? Because I don't live in Rome myself. I'm an academic freeholder on a distant hillside, watching the ivory towers I and my contemporaries have been unable to scale since getting our PhDs collapse into the ashes.

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Little Enigmas

No archaeologist knows every object type there is even in their home area, so anyone involved in fieldwork will have a number of finds that are in typological limbo, waiting to be classified. Many get dumped on-site because some detail shows that they're probably recent, and most of the time I think this judgement is made correctly. But we do lose some good stuff, particularly since field archaeologists have very little opportunity to learn about artefacts.

During my metal detector work with Tim & Kenth over Easter, we found a few pieces that look pretty old to me, but that I have been unable to classify. Dear Reader, I invite you to look at these pics and tell me WTF these things are. And please point me to pictures of similar objects!

F1. The end of a pewter ornament, wriggled decoration along the edges, a hook at one end, for some reason curving toward the front side, not the back side. Part of a pendant? A spoon?

F12. A copper alloy terminal for a flat iron object like a knife. Update: My old digging pal John Huttu tells me it's a terminal from the handle of a Late Medieval table knife. Go me!

F33. A small piece of a punch-decorated copper alloy object from a Viking Period cemetery. It reminds me of Vendel Period keys.

F36. An open tapered copper alloy ring with a rhomboid cross-section. A finger ring? Update: Pierre identifies it as a Medieval ear ring with parallels from Eketorp III.

F42. A small copper alloy polyhedron with a hole through it holding a thin iron rod.

F46. A copper alloy terminal for a flat iron object like a knife. From a site with Viking Period metalwork. Update: My old digging pal John Huttu tells me this is also a terminal from the handle of a Late Medieval table knife.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Unsuccessfully Grokking Prostitution

News reports from the German brothel industry pending the World Soccer Championship have set me a-thinking about prostitution. It's one of those tricky issues where I find it hard to make up my mind.

Is prostitution a problem? If so, who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? What are the ethical aspects of prostitution? Quite apart from ideals, what is the best practical stance for society to take regarding prostitution? Are there important differences between prostitution and participation in pornography? Should we allow people to do whatever they like with their bodies as long as they aren't harming themselves physically? Are there physically harmless acts that nobody can perform without harming their minds? Or that nobody in their right mind wants to perform?

To me, prostitution is a deeply alien thing. One of the main points of sex for me is the mutual affirmation involved: "I want you and you want me, yippee, let's get it on". Not "I want you and you need cash, spread 'em". But then, I'm reasonably pretty and outgoing, so I've been lucky with women. Imagine the horror of having a strong sex drive, a repulsive exterior and a shy personality. I can see that it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Apparently the people who either buy or sell sex are a minority among the population. And I gather that most prostitutes have a history of childhood sexual abuse. So we might perhaps tentatively say that prostitution is a symptom of a psychological problem in both buyer and seller. I mean, what kind of self-image does a john have? Either he deludes himself that he's actually buying love, or he gets off on thinking himself able to "dominate" the prostitute, or he believes that the only way he can get someone to go to bed with him is by paying them.

I'd be absolutely shattered if someone I care about began to buy or sell sex. I'd see it as a big problem that I'd have to help do something about. But then again, I know a charming and popular guy who used to be a sailor when he was young, and he makes no secret of the fact that he would buy sex regularly when on shore leave. And I know another guy who runs a bar in the Far East, and he is explicitly aware that the bar girls used to cater to his needs (before his marriage) only in order to be able to use his place to pick up business. "I've got no looks and no charm, I'd never have a chance with gorgeous girls like these back home in Sweden." Again, it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Take a young junkie, supporting himself and his habit by turning tricks, occasionally getting beaten by johns or his pimp, inexorably wearing himself down. What's his biggest problem – drugs or prostitution? What's the hen and what's the egg? If society manages to get him de-toxed, will he also quit selling himself? If society gets him a real job, will he de-tox of his own accord so he can keep the job? Or should we decide that junkie prostitutes no longer have free will in any meaningful sense and that we must take care of them forcibly to keep them from dying on our doorsteps?

Or take a former member of the Romanian national gymnastics team. If her choice is between working a checkout counter at a supermarket six days a week, or recording ten mullets-and-Doppelpenetration movies a year and making considerably more money – should we pity her if she chooses the latter? Or maybe the question is, should we think in terms of choice, of free will, at all? Because most pretty Romanian supermarket clerks for some reason don't move into porn.

In Sweden, it's illegal to buy sex or facilitate a sex-money-transaction. It's legal to sell sex, recognising that prostitutes are, by-and-large, victims with quite enough problems that they really don't need police harassment and criminal punishment as well. In Germany, just a short ferry ride across the Baltic, buying and selling sex is legal, pimping is not. Quite a number of prostitutes are legitimate businesspeople and pay taxes. Legitimate businesspeople having sex with sixty paying strangers a week. I really find that demeaning.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Science Fiction Paperbacks

Today I attended the sale of the late Åke E.B. Jonsson's science fiction library. I didn't know the man, but he clearly loved to read sf paperbacks, and he seems to have been very open-minded about their level of literary pretention. SEK 50 (€5, $7, £4) bought me eleven paperbacks. Lots more can be had from the Swedish SF Society to which Jonsson bequeathed the books.

I got four of David G. Hartwell's excellent anthologies, two Fritz Leiber, Heinlein's Harsh Mistress, Howard & Carter's King Kull, Keyes's Flowers, Spinrad's Iron Dream and Aldiss's Saliva Tree. With a Michael Allen and the new LeGuin on their way to my mailbox, I look forward to my summer reading with confidence.

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Flying Rowan

Looking for a strong mojo? Something to make you irresistable on the meat market? Maybe you need a good dowsing rod? Or you're tired of your butter-churning taking too much time? Anyone can see the advantages of being able to become invisible.

What you need, according to the folklore of many countries in Northern Europe, is a flying rowan. It's a rowan tree growing from bird droppings as an epiphyth on another tree. Oak is supposed to be best. But mind you, the flying rowan's powers are due to it never having touched the ground. The moment it does, it loses the spark.

I found a flying rowan today outside a subway station in western Stockholm. It was easy to spot, growing in the naked crown of a dead oak. Being a mechanistic materialist, I made no effort to take it. Only its picture. And besides, you're supposed to leave the first flying rowan you find alone. Somehow the second one's mystic powers are stronger.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Shawls and Bikini Tops

The Muslim custom for women to wear a shawl over their hair is controversial in the West and is often associated with patriarchal oppression. In the following, I will argue that shawls are analogous to bikini tops, and that if anyone wants to forbid shawls then bikini tops must go too.

Disregarding nudists, all cultures have taboos for the display of certain bits of the human body; most often the genitals. A person who flaunts them is considered shameless and asocial. But there is a gender asymmetry: women are expected to react with disgust if a man shows them his taboo parts in the wrong context, even if he's an attractive specimen. Men, on the other hand, are expected to enjoy the corresponding sight in an attractive woman immensely. This has to do with traditional roles regarding sex, where ideally men are active predators and women passive prey.

Unlike modern Western culture, Muslim culture has a sexualised taboo for women's hair. Muslim men are expected to react to hair like a Western man reacts to breasts. (The sexualisation of breasts is far from universal.) A Muslim woman who flaunts her hair is consequently seen as shameless, possibly sexually promiscuous.

Compare this with bikini tops. Wearing one is a bit of a hassle, I gather, but not wearing one means to lose face. Men on the beach stare and grin, other women frown and whisper among themselves; briefly put, you feel uncomfortable unless you're a serious exhibitionist. Women in the West wear bikini tops not because they're forced to against their will, but because they'd feel uncomfortable without them. Most Western women would feel far more violated if they were forbidden to wear bikini tops than they ever do by having to wear them. And the same goes for the shawls of most Muslim women. They wear them because they want to.

There's quite a strong argument that women's willingness to wear shawls and bikini tops is in fact a symptom of internalised patriarchal oppression. But I think feminism should choose its battles. The important thing isn't what society teaches our daughters to want to wear. What's important is that they have access to education and jobs and the freedom to make their own life decisions. Never mind the shawls and bikini tops – are women allowed to ride bicycles, go to university, participate in sports, work outside the home?

Looking at a shawl-wearing Muslim woman and saying, "oh, poor thing, she's so oppressed" is simply patronising. She is entrusted with the right to vote in general elections; surely we must assume that she can choose her own headwear.

And besides, even if every single bikini top on the planet was burnt tomorrow, it would still take centuries for men to lose interest in boobs.

Update 7 May: I should have known. Merely mentioning the word bikini attracts lots of search engine users to the blog. I suppose this means that there are men out there who want to see female anatomy but not the bits covered by a bikini. Or are these people in fact women window-shopping for bikinis? Make yerself known, oh ye bikini-questing ones!

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This morning I woke early and abruptly out of an interesting dream and found the bedroom invaded by my progeny. A most efficient alarm clock; I got up, made sandwiches and went out to hunt for geocaches.

Beautiful proto-summer, birdsong and wood anemones (vitsippor, Anemone nemorosa), I drove north of Stockholm to the 18/19th century playgrounds of the obscene (-ly) rich.

Here are a few highlights of what I encountered, places I would most likely never have reached if it hadn't been for geocaching.
  • The private burial site of the descendants of Per Henrik Ling, father of Swedish gymnastics.
  • The grave of Joseph Martin Kraus, "the Swedish Mozart".
  • A 1940s anti-aircraft battery from which a German courier plane was once allegedly shot down.
  • A restored English park.
  • A defunct railway bridge.
  • A mock-Gothic Arts & Crafts brick tower.
  • A beech wood.
  • Two polychrome statues of Moorish fishermen, dressed only in brightly striped shorts, facing each other on either side of a stream.

All of this and still back home at eleven. I guess there's a reason I logged my 250th cache today!

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Shriveled Head, Fattened Tail

The Grumpy Old Bookman is one of my favourite blogs. He recently discussed the concept of the "long tail", signifying the rightward tail in a bar chart where a few huge sellers in e.g. books are found near the vertical axis but most titles sell very little. Chances are that the Internet will shunt a lot of media consumers onto these often obscure titles.

Being an avid music and books fan, I find it hard to muster any sympathy for analog culture intermediaries such as record companies, agents, book publishers and store keepers of any size. Tesco or Mom & Pop off the High Street, why should I pay them for the creative work of someone else? From the perspective of information transmission, they're all just switchboxes.

Music and literature is produced and consumed on networked computers these days. I have long downloaded music, buying CD:s that I never actually play as the only available means of remunerating the artists. And I recently read my first on-screen novel, likewise buying a printed copy to pay for the pleasure. But musicians are putting PayPal buttons on their web sites. And one day we'll have decent pocket e-readers, obviating the paperback.

I foresee a future for media with no likes of Madonna or J.K. Rowling, simply because there will be no way for publishers of making the kind of serious money necessary for the marketing behind such great global successes. One day the long tail will be all there is in media, because there will be no way for anyone except the artists themselves to make big money off big sellers. I welcome that change.

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Jerdacuttup Man

Dear Reader, I bring you the lyrics of "Jerdacuttup Man", a song written by David McComb and issued on Australian rock band The Triffids's 1987 album Calenture.

It's a pretty folky melody in 3/4 time with a bagpipe solo, but it's the lyrics that really make "Jerdacuttup Man" one of the all-time-greatest archaeology songs. McComb deliberately mixes up bog bodies and mummies and Ötzies, but still he portrays the people whose remains archaeologists handle in such a sympathetic way. I'm not a very romantic soul, but it still happens that I caress a bone or a skull briefly and murmur sad endearments to the dead.

Old and lonely, dirty and cold -- won't you please take me home?
Jerdacuttup Man
By David McComb

I live under glass in the British Museum
I'm wrinkled and black, I am ten thousand years
I once lost in business, I once lost in love
I took a hard fall, I couldn't get up

I was frozen out in the lean winter years
When the dollars were few and the faces were mean
I was frozen in business and frozen in love
I took a ten-minute nap, man, I never woke up

Old and lonely, dirty and cold
I am the Jerdacuttup Man

They stitched up my eyelids so l couldn't see
They sewed up my mouth so very carefully
They stitched up the wound they had made in my side
They wrapped me up tight and they threw me inside

I tried to object but the words didn't come
Say, "You're making a mistake, boys, you've got the wrong one,
I'm a little out of shape, but I'm too young to go!"
But my throat just seized up and it started to snow

Old and lonely, dirty and cold
l am the Jerdacuttup Man

They soaked me in brine and thy stewed me in juice
Thy took out my eyes and replaced them with glass
And with skin made of leather, and teeth made of dice
I slept in the peat under ten feet of ice

I had no luck in business and no luck in love
I guess I'm a fool, you could say I'm a chump
I'm shrivelled and black and my bandage is torn
But my fingers are cold, won't you please take me home?

Old and lonely, dirty and cold
I am the Jerdacuttup Man
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Ahmed and Ahmed, Automobile Samaritans

Today I was saved from automotive ignominy by Ahmed and Ahmed, two of the finest Pakistani gentlemen ever to walk on Swedish soil.

I am not into cars. I got my driver's license at age 22 and I bought my first car at age 33, less than a year ago. Actually, I bought two old cars for last summer's excavations: a five-seater 1990 SAAB and a seven-seater 1994 Pontiac minibus.

My dad and my brother picked them out for me and helped me get them into shape. They were thrilled that bookish Martin was finally taking an interest in something they love and cherish. I am very grateful to them.

And the cars performed as one might reasonably expect. I drove the SAAB, Howard and his students drove the Ponty, and we did our dig. Then the SAAB became the Rundkvist family car and the Ponty went into hibernation while I tried to sell it. As I still do (Only SEK 25 000! Please take it off my hands!).

I've kept the Ponty's battery alive all winter and drove it very recently. So you can imagine how I felt this morning when I got behind the wheel to go to annual vehicle inspection and the ignition was dead. The first car inspection of my life. Dead car. What do I do now?

Nobody was around. I was thinking of calling a taxi to jump-start me when my neighbours Ahmed and Ahmed showed up. I've known at least one of them by sight for years, but I've never talked to him before. Now I asked them for help. And they were right on the job without a moment's hesitation.

First we tried to start the Ponty by rolling it. No luck. Then the Ahmeds asked me if I had any cables, and since neither myself nor they had any, I suggested I'd go to the gas station and buy some. "OK", said Ahmed, "we'll be here with my car in 15 minutes". And I did. And they were. And the Ponty started immediately. This was the first time I'd ever opened its hood.

Parting from the Ahmeds with many thanks and promises of remaining indefinitely at their service for car-rolling and furniture-moving, I took the Ponty on a long spin to re-charge the battery, and then went to the vehicle inspection plant. The guy spent 15 minutes on the thing and then told me to go get its exhaust pipe, left front brake and rear brake light repaired before returning for re-inspection. I suppose this would send many car owners swearing and spitting, but I was just so happy. Ahmed and Ahmed had helped me make it on time to my first car inspection, the sun was shining and the Ponty hadn't been condemned outright. So I left with a smile on my face.

And tomorrow it's inspection time for the SAAB.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Archaeology of a 20th Century Garden

This morning I rode my bike to Kyrkogårdsudden, "Churchyard Point", and waited on the jetty there until Jan Peder came rowing and picked me up. Morning dog walkers passed on the other shore. Gulls crying, buoys still vacant. Too early in the season for any boats to pass that I could hitch a ride with.

I spent the day in the pleasant company of friends and colleagues, doing a total of 4½ hours of metal detecting around the brick-studded ruin mound.

I found a lot of stuff, all of it pertaining to the activities of the Lamm family during the 20th century. The house was built in 1918. JP's dad was an army officer working as an inspector at an arms factory, and JP used to play with guns as a teenager. So there were shells all over the place. And uniform buttons. And lots of burnt household garbage. And, of course, my ever-present Nemesis the aluminium bottle top. The coins cover the three latest kings of Sweden.

I guess in order to find something out about the ruin, I'll have to wait until they sink a trench into it.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ancient Baggensstäket

Not far from where I live is the narrow shipping passage of Baggensstäket, famous for a skirmish against the Russian coastal fleet in 1719. Less well known is the place's importance as a military and communicative hotspot in the Viking Period. Ships sailing into Lake Mälaren have gone this way for over a millennium and the route is documented in writing from the 13th century onward. On either side of the narrowest passage is the heaviest concentration of Viking Period (9th and 10th century) pagan graves for several miles around. The mounds and stone settings (and, before that, the cremation pyres) were clearly placed in order to be seen from a boat. Some were even on a little islet at the time.

An 11th century rune stone (badly incomplete: the only legible word is "and", as in the formulaic "YYY and ZZZ erected the stone after NNN, their father, a very good man") has been found on the north shore at the High Medieval manor of Boo. And this brings us to the place names.

Boo is typical for re-named High Medieval manors -- a bo was the administrative centre of a land estate. This one was probably called Harg before that, meaning "pagan altar", heargh in Old English, Harrow in modern English place-names. And late 1st millennium Scandinavian pagan cult was dominated by the aristocracy. So place name and rune stone document the presence of Viking Period bigwigs.

Then there's the name Baggensstäket (once the stäk of Harg). Stäk means shipping blockade, underwater palisade. No remains of the actual blockade have been found, because the passage has been dredged repeatedly through the centuries.

As I have argued in Nackaboken 2003, all of this indicates that Boo manor's predecessor and the blockade was part of the early town Birka's peripheral defence in the 10th century. A high-ranking henchman of the king of the Svear appears to have been stationed here with a military detachment to guard the blockade. These men and their families very likely rest in the abundant graves.

Tomorrow, I'll be metal detecting for a small excavation project designed to find more pieces of this jigsaw puzzle.

My friend and mentor Jan Peder Lamm has a summer house not far from Boo manor. In his garden is a mound-like feature full of Late Medieval bricks. Intricately shaped bricks, not the garden variety, and many of them badly warped and blackened by fire. This thing must have been either a brick kiln or a pretty ostentatious brick building -- perhaps a defensive structure. Either way, it's further evidence of bigwigs. We all look forward to learning more!

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