Saturday, April 14, 2007

Continued Elsewhere

Starting 29 December 2006, my blogging is done at Aardvarchaeology.


Friday, December 29, 2006


Dear Reader, I have joined the Scienceblogs stable where I will continue to blog under the by-line Aardvarchaeology. Scienceblogs is a blog portal run by the American pop-sci journal Seed. Please join me there! This site will remain on-line as an archive.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Early Medieval Thuringia

The kingdom of the Thuringians in Central Germany flourished briefly during the 5th century AD and came to a sticky end in AD 531 at the hands of the Merovingian Franks. One of the modern German Bundesländer carries its name. Back in October, a conference on early Thuringia took place at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena, focusing on archaeology, linguistics and historical research. For summaries of the papers check out this on-line Vorbericht (in German).

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Erik Davis

I recently read Californian writer Erik Davis's latest book and really liked it. (There's a review lined up for my new blog.) Then I found the man's web site, with 15 years' worth of feature journalism available on-line. Great stuff, highly recommended! Davis writes a lot about mysticism, drugs, religion and the intersection of these themes. I take an outsider's anthropological interest in such issues, and although Davis has more of a stoner's and zen student's perspective, he writes so well that I gladly follow him. Check him out!

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Stinking Bishop

Toward the end of the 2005 Wallace & Gromit feature film, Wallace is revived after an accident by the smell of a cheese named Stinking Bishop. To my considerable surprise, this cheese actually exists. And to my delight, it can be mail-ordered worldwide over the internet, along with a very healthy selection of similarly hard-core cheeses, from Teddington Cheese, Middlesex, England!
"Stinking Bishop [...] has a sticky yellow-orange rind and smells of old socks. The paste is soft and creamy, the flavour is delicious and, although full and distinctive, it is not quite as pungent as the odour may imply! At certain times of year the paste becomes firmer and slightly crumbly. The cheese is similar to the famous French Epoisses which has been banned from the public transport system in Paris."
Having 750 grams of Stinking Bishop delivered to my door in the Stockholm suburbs would cost me £42, $83, €63, SEK 560. This translates to SEK 750 per kilogram. A pretty stiff price, but I know people who could and would pay it.

Here's a piece from the Guardian about the maker of the cheese, who was nervous about whether he would be able to meet the increased demand for his product in the wake of the film.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Soft Drink Wars

The traditions and imagery of Anglo-American Christmas are largely Victorian and urban in origin: Dickens's Christmas Carol, C.C. Moore's Santa poem, eggnog, coal-fed fire places and chimneys, etc. These motifs have spread around the world, but they encounter other Christmas traditions along the way, and some prove resistant.

Swedish Christmas carries strong connotations of rural pre-industrial life. Our Santa Claus is actually a mutated version of a protective sprite that used to be the farmer's little helper: tomtegubben, the "old man of the home plot". Our presents, julklappar, "Christmas doorknocks", are the descendants of prank presents tossed through the front door of the farmhouse after a quick knock. We decorate our houses with billygoats and other ornaments made of straw. Our traditional Christmas food is almost entirely based on lo-tech methods of food preservation, with salted, cured and smoked meats and fish. The only vegetables are such as store well (cabbage, apples), or, in the case of kale, grönkål, can be picked all through the winter in the garden as it stands tall over the snow.

The other day, as I was shopping for Christmas food, I found evidence that Swedish Christmas traditions have actually managed to beat the Coca Cola Company.

In Sweden a soft drink is sold at Christmas and Easter that is perceived as a traditional part of the old-time rural Christmas complex. Julmust is dark, very sweet, carbonated, seasoned with malt and a tiny bit of hops -- not enough to give it the bitter edge of beer. It's sort of a caricatured stout for kids. And for years, Coca Cola has tried to muscle in on this seasonal soft-drink market with it's flagship product, a beverage that is actually quite similar to julmust. But they haven't made much headway. Most Swedes perceive Coca Cola as quite incompatible with a traditional Christmas. CC is seen as part of post-war modernity and consumerist culture: it's the opposite of authenticity. Drinking Coke at Christmas would be a bit like erecting a model space shuttle rocket instead of a Christmas tree and playing electronic dance music while the presents are opened.

So what's a poor old soft-drink multinational supposed to do? If you can't beat them, join them.

Since at least 2004, Swedish supermarkets have offered large handsome bottles of Bjäremust brand julmust around Christmas. The label design screams AUTHENTIC, RURAL and OLD TIMEY. Bjäre is a rich agricultural district in Scania, southernmost Sweden, and unmistakeably Scandinavian simply through the name's orthography. And who, you may ask, offers this fine julmust to the authenticity-seeking Christmas celebrant? The Coca Cola Company.

I put the Bjäremust bottle back on the shelf and got some Spendrups, after checking that they hadn't put aspartame in it.

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Christmas Geocaching

Geocachers sometimes put huge effort into temporary caches that are available only for a few weeks and then removed. The first one I encountered was a lovingly elaborated Easter Egg cache at Velamsund not far from where I live, which myself and the ladies of my family logged one sunny day last spring. Some of these super-rich caches even form annual series, such as the Trollvinter caches west of Stockholm.

Two of Sweden's most active geocachers call themselves Moomin and Snork Maiden after Tove Jansson's wonderful fantasy books. Hide a cache in some far-off location, protect it with a complicated puzzle involving differential calculus, and you can still count on Moomin finding it within hours. The man always keeps climbing equipment, an inflatable boat and other useful gear in the back of his car.

"Trollvinter" is a short story in Jansson's 1962 collection Det osynliga barnet (Eng. Tales from Moominvalley). Here the Moomins wake up from hibernation in the middle of winter and find all their neighbours in a tizzy over the approach of Christmas. The Moomins, never having heard of this before, interpret "Christmas" as a threatening being that is on its way to the Moomin Valley and must be appeased with offerings of food and presents.

The Trollvinter caches are far more peaceful in tone. Moomin and Snork Maiden select a small spruce tree in the middle of the Lovö woods, decorate it lavishly, adorn it with electric candles and wire it up to a car battery with an ingenious switch. Then they put a plastic crate full of little presents under the tree.

In order to find this year's Trollvinter cache me and my pal Lars had to wander through the woods, passing a series of tests on Moomin lore. Every station is marked with a little electrical lamp controlled by a photosensor. When you lift the final lamp from its stand to read the question underneath, you trigger the Christmas tree's candles. A beautiful surprise after dark!

Dear Reader, I wish you a merry yet supremely peaceful Christmas. Luckily, that's what I'm having myself. And meanwhile, I'm stockpiling longer blog entries for the new site, which I hope to have on-line some time within two weeks from now.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Remote Central

Tim Jones knows how to blog, but he doesn't know how to market his way out of a shallow cliff overhang on Timor.

For two years, the Londoner has blogged at Remote Central about archaeology and palaeoanthropology and astronomy in an entertaining manner, illustrated with lots of cool pix. Yet his site remains a little-known oasis in the desert reaches of inane prattle that are the bloggy-spear.

Dear Reader, get thee to Remote Central, read it, comment on it, and link to it. Or me and my posse of crackhead niggaz gonna get Lower Palaeolithic on yo' ass, tru dat.

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Overheard in Stockholm

Sweden's version of Overheard in New York is found at The other day they had a tidbit that I really like.
(A subway train stops at the Östermalmstorg platform and the doors open.)

Driver: "... and watch out if you enter carriage number one. The floor may be slippery. It will probably also smell of fish, because someone's sat down and cleaned a salmon."
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Friday, December 22, 2006

Radiocarbon for Christmas

Back in September I told you about a little dig that I did with my friends and colleagues Howard, Libby and Peter at Stora Tollstad, Sjögestad parish, Östergötland. We dug a small peripheral trial trench into a great barrow (Raä 16) and found a thick charcoal layer underneath it.
Yesterday Tomasz Goslar of the Poznan Radiocarbon Lab sent me the results of analyses of charcoal from the barrow. Ulf Strucke had kindly identified two pieces for me with a low innate age: one of Norway Spruce (Picea abies, Sw. gran) and one of Goat Willow (Salix caprea, Sw. sälg). The willow material, being a thin twig, should date the cremation pyre at the site (although we found no bones at its periphery). And the analyses came out beautifully!
Spruce. Poz-18592. 1265±30 BP. 685-775 cal AD (1 s).
Willow. Poz-18593. 1210±30 BP. 775-875 cal AD (1 s).

The Sjögestad barrow was clearly erected in the late 8th or the 9th century AD, that is, the Late Vendel or Early Viking Period. This fits well with the dates of similar barrows in the Lake Mälaren area and rules out a Bronze Age date, the other big barrow period in Swedish prehistory. And behind every great barrow lurks a powerful group of mourners...

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Four Stone Hearth

The fifth instalment of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Nomadic Thoughts. Lots to read about archaeology and anthropology! I'm hosting it myself two months from now.

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Going Pro?

Dear Reader, I am excited. I have been offered to move this blog from to a high-profile venue elsewhere.

This would mean that I'd have to start again from zero on the blog's Technorati and Google rankings, as they are tied to the current URL. But the Blogger site's ranking would still help pull in readers who would find a re-direction link to the new site. Which would in turn attract more traffic than the old site simply by being where it is. So reaching the current rankings again would most likely not take a whole year.

Another question bothered me more. Would they make me change my blogging habits? Perhaps ask me to write more about this and less about that? No, apparently not. They want me to continue doing what I do.

And then there's a money issue. These people would stick ads on the blog and make a small profit off it. Would any of that trickle down to me? Apparently yes. Certainly not big money, but getting paid at all to blog would be pretty neat, don't you think? And blogging at the new place would mean greater visibility and thus possibly generate revenue indirectly through speaking engagements, review copies and promotional freebies.

So you can see why I'm excited. I'll let you know more when things solidify!

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Tangled Bank 69: War on Christmas

Our verdant Tangled Bank makes war on Christmas. It's hitting Kris Kringle with all it's got, strengthened by global warming. It will not cease until lush rainforest grows up to the very foundations of St Nicholas's icy fastness at the North Pole, and his elves all take up bikini-waxing! We will not rest until Yuletide celebrations involve fruity drinks with paper umbrellas, Hawaii shirts and surfing! Then we shall bask in the light of the midnight sun, at the balmy shores of a tepid North Atlantic, as we gloat over our victory upon the red-clad hohoho's son and his polar-bear minions.

Dear Reader, this is Salto sobrius: the world's #4 archaeology blog and #5 skepticism blog. Today I bring you the 69th Tangled Bank blog carnival. Enjoy!

Culture & Tech
  • Brian at Backseat Driving offers E.T.'s opinions on a recent pronouncement by Reverend P.Z. Myers regarding the improbability of extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • Your very own carnival host waves about a new excavation report on an unusual archaeological site: a High Medieval farmstead in Sweden with finds and features indicating aristocratic contacts. And evidence that they didn't celebrate Christmas! (Sort of. Actually, no, not really. Sorry.)
Cell biology
"I like to give people a chance, but any fuckwit who can look around in this 10-degree December and not notice that something is fucked up with the world, is just not worth any more of my air, and is clearly beyond help."
The next Tangled Bank will open on J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday (3 January) at Viva la Evolucion! Don't miss it -- just don't. And until then: don't forget your kerosene can. You never know when you'll come across an indoor evergreen tree that needs liberatin'.

Update on Christmas Day: O jeez, I thought Santa was called "Chris Pringle". That, it turns out, is the name of many people including "one of the prime movers in Oxford Falls Christian City Church" -- but not of the obese reindeer fancier. Now I'm embarrassed.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Suliman Speaks

Among this blog's most popular entries is a very early one from December 2005 about the Evil of Kjell and Lisa. Today I received e-mail from Suliman Cassimjee who feels that Kjell and Lisa have indeed done him much wrong. Mr Cassimjee wishes to correct me on a point I made, as follows.
Mr Martin Rundkvist,


Dear Sir,

According to the information you placed on the internet "..... Kjell and Lisa appear to be high-ranking Scientologists.....". Please note, Kjell and Lisa are not high ranking Scientologist. I have a copy of a letter from SCIENTOLOGY that states approximately that KJELL AND LISA are declared as being the CRIMNAL type of PERSONALITIES and they do NOT HAVE THE RIGHTS OF BEING MEMBERS OF THE church for the crimes that they are committing.

With respects,
Yours sincerely,
Suliman Cassimjee.

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Develop a Richer Understanding of Stuff

Reading the introduction to a new book written by a fellow archaeologist, I'm reminded of how far some members of our little academic minority within archaeology are from the contract archaeology mainstream.

Archaeology, to my mind, is about looking at old things to find out what life was like a long time ago. This is the sole rationale of field archaeology and museum collections. We look for patterns in the archaeological record, we formulate as plausible interpretations as possible, and we anchor them as robustly as possible in the data at hand. Then we dig some more and confront our old interpretations with new data, revising our ideas as we go along. As Mats P. Malmer put it, "archaeology asymptotically approaches the truth about the past".

Not so in my colleague's view. Important goals of his book are:
  • to "develop a richer understanding"
  • that it "attempts to show the importance of developing a theorised and imaginative engagement with the ... archaeological record"
  • to "provide exciting new interpretations"
I find these phrases completely alien. To me there is only one kind of science, the one that aims to find out what the world truly is and has been like. I view this as a complicated enterprise in any subject, where scientists will often hurry down the wrong path for a while until they realise their mistake and get back on track toward the truth. But a "richer" understanding has nothing to do with it. Imagination comes into science only when we formulate hypotheses and devise experiments. A theorised engagement with the source material is the only one possible, and so needn't be emphasised, as no sentient being ever engages with anything without preconceived ideas. And whether an interpretation is exciting or not, new or old, is completely irrelevant: the question is if it's more plausible than the others, and above all, testable.

The author I'm reading suggests that the challenge for the next decade within his entire field of study would be to "move towards considering" a series of concepts that simply look outlandish and arbitrary to me. He isn't introducing new testable hypotheses and he isn't offering new data to test old ones. He isn't arguing that any earlier interpretations regarding concrete events in the past are actually wrong. His goal seems to be to teach his readers a new vocabulary where everyday words have subtly new meanings, and to convince them that it would be valuable to talk about the source material in his terms. To me it all looks like literary criticism, aesthetics, a glass bead game.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

High Medieval Farmstead

Iron wire brooch from Sommaränge, 14th century AD. Diam 27 mm.

The other day I received a copy of a new excavation report, produced by a number of close friends and dear colleagues at the SAU excavation unit in Uppsala. Three years ago, Emelie Schmidt Wikborg headed the excavation of a High Medieval farmstead at Sommaränge in Viksta parish, Uppland. I visited the dig once together with Emelie's hubby, my friend Jonas Wikborg, and I've followed the post-ex work, so it's great to see what came of it.

The building remains were pretty woolly due to the rural Medieval habit of erecting houses on wooden frames supported on easily removed stones instead of the age-old way with postholes. But there had been at least five houses including a smithy, and in addition there was a still-functioning well and the remains of a simple brick kiln. The site produced unusually many finds, including a surprising amount of metalwork with an aristocratic flavour: weaponry, spurs, dress ornaments, furniture mounts, combs and lots of horseshoes. This was at least partly thanks to the wise use of metal detectors before and after de-turfing. Check out the finds drawings by the great Stefan Kayat, who illustrated my doctoral thesis! The people who lived here were clearly a cut above the standard Medieval peasant.

The reasons that I like Sommaränge particularly are a) the number and quality of the small finds, which are always close to my heart, and b) the fact that the farmstead can pretty confidently be identified with a place mentioned from 1323 to 1482 in the written sources. It subsequently disappeared from the records: Giplinghe farm, or as it would be written in modern Swedish, Gipplinge. The excavation area was on the border of two villages that have historically fought over the land, probably because the marginal Gipplinge's demise did not take place in such a way that the rights to its land were entirely clear afterwards.

The dig also covered graves from the Bronze Age and Migration Period along with Late Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement remains, including a number of impressive burnt-stone mounds and rare Early Bronze Age metalwork. These prehistoric remains are treated in a separate report by Camilla Forsman and Helena Victor that hasn't appeared yet.

Emelie's a resourceful person. She keeps moving in and out of field archaeology and thus never seems to be unemployed: for a while she worked in the telecoms industry, then back to the trenches, and now she's with the state property management service. She's also an ex-punk chick and a rural culture geek who knows how to sing the cows home, milk them and make cheese. No wonder Jonas grabbed hold of her on her first dig and hasn't let go since.

The report isn't on-line here yet, but if you're into the real Middle Ages beyond the tournaments and castles and banquets, then you should get hold of a copy. Good stuff that you don't see every day.

Schmidt Wikborg, Emelie. 2006. Från gård och grund uppå Sommaränge Skog. Medeltida bebyggelselämningar i Viksta socken, Uppland. SAU Skrifter 15. Uppsala. 224 pp. ISBN 91-975994-4-1.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Upcoming Blog Carnival

Dear Reader, do you blog? Do you want more exposure, more readers, more links?

Well, have you written anything good lately that relates to the life sciences? Then submit it to me for inclusion in the next edition of the massively popular Tangled Bank blog carnival! I'm putting it on-line on Wednesday 20 December.

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Blog Birthday

A year ago, at 19:18 in the evening, I posted my first entry on this blog. Blogging soon became one of my favourite pastimes, and I've been posting a bit more than one entry a day on average. Half a year ago in June, I was feeling a little glum about the readership figures. Little did I know that this was a vacation slump -- the blog's been booming ever since. This has been due to a combination of a) my hosting of popular blog carnivals, b) the increasing number of hits from Google searches on sundry themes as the blog's Google ranking rises (it's currently 4/10) and I type more potential search terms into the thing. Simply put: after a year of blogging, the chance is greater that I've used the words someone happens to search for.

Readership: the median number of daily unique readers for the past two weeks is 207, of whom 38 are returning readers. These figures are highly dependent on whether I've been hosting any carnivals: for October they were 225 and 59. Very few regulars seem to read the blog on a daily basis, so to hazard a guess I'd say there should be about a hundred regulars who check in at least once a week. But it's still a bit of a mystery to me why the regulars count doesn't grow. It's not that I don't promote the blog, and it's not that the blog attracts no new regulars. My guess is that I'm losing one regular for every new one that joins us, and that this means that people get tired of reading this blog after a while, even if they really like it at first. Perhaps they lose interest when they find out that I don't concentrate heavily on archaeology and skepticism? Or, more optimistically, they may get tired of reading blogs at all.

Links: on Technorati, with links from 171 individual sites in the past six months, Salto sobrius is currently ranked about number 19 000 out of 63 million. It's the number four archaeology blog and the number five skepticism blog on the web.

Comments: keep 'em coming! And I still haven't seen any requests. You know what to do. Actually: if you're a returning reader, please comment on this entry and tell me what kind of material you'd like to see more of. You can be anonymous if you want to.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Welcome Bergh's Students

Here's a link page that I used during a talk about internet culture to advertising students on 15 December. This blog entry will move down the page as I write new ones, but I'll leave the link page on-line. Bookmark it in your browser!

If you, Dear Reader, weren't at the talk and still want to hear my comments on the links, I'd be very happy to give more talks on the subject at the venue of your choice.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Mats Widgren, Blogger

Professor Mats Widgren is a human geographer and a really nice guy. (I'm not just saying that because as a member of the Academy of Letters he's actually sort of my employer.) We're neighbours in Fisksätra and sometimes we chat on the train to town. I just found out that Mats has a blog. He's into prehistoric and early historic human geography, and so is actually an archaeologist in disguise. So there's a lot of archaeological interest at his site.

I was particularly interested in his view of Jan Henric Fallgren's and Maria Petersson's radical opinions about a late date for the Stone Wall fossil landscapes of south-eastern Scandinavia. They're usually viewed as active during the Late Roman and Migration Periods (c. AD 150-550), and that's the date that Mats prefers. He hasn’t been blogging very frequently, but if you give Mats some comments maybe he’ll take the hint.

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Land of Four Thousand Archaeologists

My good friend and mentor Jan Peder Lamm has a thing for bibliographies. Specifically, he’s been the driving force behind a series of volumes listing photocopied BA and MA theses written by Swedish students of archaeology and adjoining disciplines. Many of these works contain very respectable research, with useful databases and thoughtful analyses. Thanks to Jan Peder’s efforts (and those of his disciples, including myself), they are far more accessible than they would have been if they had just been lying around the department store rooms.

It struck me the other day that these bibliographies allow one to estimate how many archaeologists Sweden has produced since the 1940s, assuming a BA or MA in the subject as a prerequisite for the moniker. I’m interested in this because of my strong opinions on the high unemployment rate in the profession. This is to my mind a result of a university system that strives to maximize student throughput and teacher employment rates without any view to whether the kids learn anything that might help them have a subsequent career.

There are sources of error: some theses may have been missed, and some people are listed both for their BA and their MA theses. But we should be able to see the order of magnitude. Let’s just look at theses in Scandinavian archaeology, which are the ones written by people who hope to work as archaeologists in Sweden.

For the period 1950-2003, the bibliographies list 4371 theses. They document decades of slow growth, and then a dramatic peak in the 1990s, when on average 87 theses where written each year only about the Iron Age. There is then an encouraging slump for 2000-2003, with an annual average of 63 Iron Age theses. Nevertheless, there must be thousands of people with archaeology BAs or MAs in the country, most of whom are not yet past retirement age. And believe me, there are not thousands of archaeology jobs: there may be two or three hundred. So it seems that in recent years, Sweden has had an overproduction of archaeologists on a rough scale of 10:1. Though the application numbers to recent jobs are more like 90:1.

I say, let's put a few tens of archaeology teachers on the dole, thereby stopping the university system from providing hundreds of unexperienced kids each year with a career path leading to unemployment.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The King and the Hoard

Picture from the must-see Guder og Grave web site on the Danish Bronze Age.

In the December issue of excellent Danish pop-sci archaeology bimonthly Skalk, Bente & Jens Henrik Jønsson tell the tragicomical story of Denmark's largest Early Bronze Age hoard find.

The Smørumovre hoard dates from Montelius's Period II (15th or 14th century BC). It came to light in 1851 near Copenhagen when farmer Peter Sørensen was digging a ditch to drain a bog. He collected 163 bronze objects, most of them axeheads and spearheads, and dutifully took them to the Museum for Nordic Antiquities in town. At this time the museum was still headed by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, the father of archaeology, and housed in a wing of the Christiansborg royal castle. Unfortunately, the museum wasn't open on the day when Sørensen came to call. Instead he was told that there was another person around who collected antiquities and might be interested: King Frederick VII.

Frederick received farmer Sørensen, took a look at the find and immediately bought every single piece of it. This meant that the hoard didn't enter the state collection housed in the museum, but became the property of the king himself. He promptly commissioned an excellent publication of the find by J.J.A. Worsaae, which appeared in 1853. And then, in 1859, the royal apartments at Frederiksborg castle burned down and the king's collection was largely destroyed.

Today, 68 pieces from the Smørumovre hoard survive, most of them fire-damaged to some extent, with splotches of lead from the roof of Frederiksborg. If you didn't already know, you can now see that monarchy is wrong.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Big Bog Booty

Another search term that tricks hapless porn surfers into visiting this blog: "bog booty". Happens every day, because I've been writing about war booty sacrifices in bogs. At first I thought this would have something to do with gay cottaging, as "bog" is a British slang word for "toilet". "Booty" of course means, in the words of the Urban Dictionary, "butt, ass, specifically female posterior".

So I did some googling of my own. And it turns out that the bog booty surfers are not actually looking for gay materials. They're just poor typists: O is right beside I on the keyboard. What these gentlemen are really looking for is simply biiiiig booty. A sentiment with which I'm sure we all sympathise most warmly.

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Gingerbread Cult of St Lucy

Tomorrow's the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son's school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It's a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we're still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can't believe it's almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here's the first verse:
Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,
And in Swedish:
Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!
The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l'astro d'argento..., "The silver star gleams over the sea...".

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Eponym Blog Directory

There's a new blog ranking service out, the Eponym Blog Directory, and I don't know much about it. But they certainly seem to be doing something right, as they rank Salto sobrius #1 for archaeology and #19 for science overall.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tolkien and Archaeology

An old idea of mine is popping up independently in the heads of other scholars who aren't just musing about it but actually publishing studies -- on Tolkien and archaeology.

Said I in Swedish in the gaming mag Codex in October of 2001:
Just like everyone in Middle-earth is always ready to deliver a snatch of an old heroic lay, so Tolkien's landscape is full of ancient monuments. The Barrow Downs, Weathertop, Moria, Argonath and Amon Hen, Dunharrow and the Paths of the Dead; the examples are many. They contribute to an illusion that Middle-earth is much larger than the story we happen to be reading, much older; ourselves and the main characters of the narrative we're following are incidental figures and not a central condition for the existence of the world. The painting continues outside the frame, and behind the central figures we can make out a busy background of history.
Says Deborah Sabo of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey (Thanks to Beregond for the heads-up!):
"Tolkien ... imprinted the time-depth of his legendary world on the land, through place-names, ruins and monuments. [A]rcheological places provide the setting of many incidents within the book. ... Taken together, these places form a cultural landscape that is experienced by hobbits, dwarves, elves, men and orcs in distinctive ways."
Dr Dimitra Fimi of Cardiff wrote her PhD thesis on "The Creative Uses of Scholarly Knowledge in the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien". She will be teaching an on-line course titled "Exploring Tolkien: There and Back Again" starting on 12 February 2007.
"This on-line course will examine Tolkien's awareness of northern European mythologies and languages as well as other aspects of his scholarly background, such as anthropology and archaeology."
I've never gotten round myself to systematically identifying Tolkien's archaeological sources, but I do know there are at least two Swedish ones. Early Iron Age rock carvings of mounted warriors at Tegneby in Bohuslän show up among the goblins' cave art in The Father Christmas Letters. And Laketown in The Hobbit looks a lot like the 12th century AD pile dwelling in Lake Tingstäde on Gotland.

Actually, my studies of archaeology and neighbouring subjects have somewhat diminished my enjoyment of Tolkien. They have made the flaws, joints and white spots in his work apparent like they never were to me as a child. Middle-earth doesn't really work when seen from anthropological and economic viewpoints. And Tolkien's world-building makes heavy use of models and interpretations of real-world history that are no longer accepted by scholars. But still he's one of my great favourites.

Yesterday I sat down with my son and played the Gameboy version of The Two Towers, which is a really silly game. An Aragorn looking a lot like Viggo Mortensen was running around the western foothills of the Misty Mountains, killing orcs and collecting gems. A lot of the orcs were also carrying lembas travel bread, on such a scale that they must have had a captive Elven baker hidden somewhere. Abandoned sacks, crates and treasure chests dotted the landscape, and Viggo-Aragorn had to hit them with his sword for gems to appear. Still, my 8-year-old thinks the game is pretty OK, and unlike me he's a member of the target audience. I can always return to the books.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Entry Points

Extreme Tracking does a really good job of tracking this blog's readers. Among other things, it looks at what search terms you guys use to arrive here, and how often. Here's the top 20 terms after nearly a year's tracking (disregarding uninformative words like "the").
  1. salto
  2. sobrius
  3. Viking
  4. Sweden
  5. Qtek
  6. bikini
  7. Celtic
  8. 9100
  9. Stockholm
  10. Swedish
  11. Bible
  12. Martin
  13. caffeine
  14. withdrawal
  15. shout
  16. Suliman
  17. Cassimjee
  18. archaeology
  19. blog
  20. mask
There are two distinct reasons that these words are common entry points to the blog. Some (Viking, Sweden, Stockholm) are recurring themes here and can be said to be typical of the blog. But others have been used only very rarely here (bikini, Bible, caffeine). The reason that they appear on the list is that a huge number of web searches are done for these terms all the time, and so some of that traffic ends up here almost at random.

I don't have any visitor stats for individual entries on the blog. But judging from the list above, the following must be among the most read of all entries so far.[More blog entries about , ; .]


Friday, December 08, 2006

Skeptical Quarterly

The year's fourth issue of the skeptic quarterly I co-edit, Folkvett, reached subscribers today. The contents (92 pp.) are entirely in Swedish, as follows.
  • Ledare: Skall vi bara kritisera pseudovetenskap?
  • Kimmo Eriksson: Matematikmissbruk
  • Göran Grimvall: Förenkla -- men inte för mycket
  • Martin Peterson: Den nya vetenskapen i Luleå
  • Thors Hans Hansson: Ledande parapsykolog om kvantfysik (recension av Entangled Minds av Dean Radin)
  • Sven Ove Hansson: Test av ett svenskt medium
  • Birgitta Forsman & Dan Larhammar: Förtydligande om oredlighetsutredningar
  • Sven Ove Hansson: Politiskt förvriden vetenskap (recension av The Republican War on Science av Chris Mooney)
  • Olle Häggström: Duger det att stå utanför och se in?
  • Notiser
It's a really good issue. Too bad I've already read it in copy-editing.

Folkvett, like the entire skeptic movement, does suffer from a bad gender imbalance, though. Female skeptics, please send me manuscripts for the journal!

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I had a Lost in Translation experience today. (No, it did not involve a scantily clad Scarlett Johansson.)

My wife has felt for some time that the skin of my face needed some serious scrubbing to stomp out the blackheads that marred my ample nose. Not really daring to hope, she offered to pay for a facial treatment at a beauty parlour. To her delight, I took a deep breath, set my jaw manfully and accepted her offer.

After lunch today, I took a short walk from the office to a school for beauty care specialists and spa staff in central Stockholm. The place was full of young women wearing prim white nurse-like uniforms and a lot of make-up. I was expecting to sit for an hour in a hair dresser's chair, listening to podcasts, while someone kneaded my nose. To my surprise, I was instead immediately handed a dressing gown and a pair of plastic slippers, and ordered to strip to my undies. "But I'm just having a face thingy", I spluttered. They knew. They explained that the treatment also involved a backrub. So, soon I was sitting there in the waiting area sofa, wearing only my undies, a short dressing gown and a pair of slippers, feeling like Bill Murray.

The beauty care student who would clean up my face was a rubenesque 20-year-old of Turkish extraction. She introduced herself as Selma and led the way into a large well-lit room with several examination tables on which women of various ages were lying swaddled in sheets while having their faces scrubbed and coated in products. It is a funny feature of beauty care lingo that anything you can buy in bottles or tubes and smear on your face is called a "product".

I too ended up on one of the tables after an uncomfortable moment when I had to get rid of my dressing gown before slipping my winter-pale body under the sheet. Then my caretaker gave me a very nice backrub, had me lie on my back, put cotton swabs on my eyelids, shot steam in my face, slathered it in various products, and, yes, kneaded my nose mercilessly. We had a nice conversation about our lives and careers and loved ones, and I was a bit nervous about my hands. For all intents and purposes, I was at a massage parlour, which was not what I had expected. I felt that if I kept my hands under the sheet, the nose-kneading girl might think I was surreptitiously grabbing myself, and if I kept them on top of the sheet, she might think I was going to grab her. But it passed.

Selma said that she loved the course, that only one of her co-students was a guy and that he was queer, that everybody on duty was required to wear make-up, and she told me what "spa" means. She had been taught that it's an acronym: Salus Per Aquam, "healthy by water". This would go back to the old superstition about healing springs and balneotherapy. Checking this up, I learned that it's an erroneous etymology: "spa" originally simply referred to the Belgian town of Spa whose hot springs were known already to the Romans.

The session ended with Selma massaging my face for ages, which seemed a little pointless, strangely intimate and actually kind of hot, and then she massaged my hands and lower arms, which felt absurd. Then, an hour and a half after I lay down, I was told to get up, flashed everyone in the room yet another glimpse of my claim to hunkiness before getting into the gown again, said goodbye to Selma and went to get my clothes back on.

All in all, an interesting and not unpleasant experience. And my nose? It's very clean. And it's pitted with clean, deep, empty little mine shafts, all clearly visible. You didn't think blackheads actually go away just because you remove their contents, did you?

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A Reply to the Minx

Candy Minx picked up on something I wrote about the Antikythera mechanism. Here are a few comments to what she wrote.
"A question arises, if we had manufactured this device, surely there must have been more of them, and why haven't we found others? [...] These mechanisms weren't needed by the masses because we already had timepieces and complex astronomical devices. [...] I see the similarities in world Mythologies and religions and realize...these stories are CLOCKS."
I agree that nobody in the ancient world really needed accurate clocks. But that doesn't explain why the Ancient Greek clockwork devices didn't become more popular -- for two reasons.
  1. The Greek devices used clockwork, but they weren't clocks: they were astronomical simulators cranked by hand.
  2. People in the High Middle Ages didn't need clocks for any practical purpose: they became popular because of an irrational monastic culture where monks had to pray at certain hours every day.
As for the idea that mythological texts could function as a "mechanism for memory and celestial events", I don't believe that at all. How would that work?
"People already knew the movement of the stars and their sense of time was much more profound and integrated in their lives than the universe is in most of our lives. [...] They knew more about the movements of the heavens and it's importance to everyday life than a grad student in astronomy does today."
I don't know why Candy Minx thinks so. The historical and archaeological record rather suggests that detailed astronomical knowledge was cultivated only within the educated castes of certain highly differentiated civilisations, such as those of Mesopotamia or Greece. Nobody else was very interested since the knowledge wasn't of much practical use and education was a rare luxury. The Greek philosophers prided themselves on performing investigations for their own sake: they certainly didn't want to be seen as engineers.

So the basic difference between Candy's view of the past and mine seems to be that while she feels that there was an almost forgotten order and meaning to much of what happened, I believe that human history has largely been a haphazard, bumbling and meaningless process where nobody really understood much of what was going on.

Finally, two small corrections. Latin did not grow out of Sanskrit: both descended from a lost Indo-European root language. The names Christ and Krishna are not cognates: christós means "anointed" in Greek and krishna means "black" in Sanskrit.

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Cyber Culture Speaking Gig

Ming the Merciless has a son named Clas. He teaches at the Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm. Last night he called me and offered me a speaking gig. So next week, I'm going to lecture Clas's students on cyber culture. Yay!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Swedish Archaeology Mailing List

For over seven years, my pal Göran Werthwein has run a mailing list about archaeology in Swedish. More than 350 interested and knowledgeable people are on it. To join, click on the link and follow the instructions.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Hideous Day of Discovery

This morning I listened to Ernst Hugo Järegård's demoniac reading of Lovecraft's 1923 short story, "The Rats in the Walls". It's full of history, archaeology and racist physical anthropology. And toward the end was a passage that struck me as good to think of to spice up a dull day at a rescue dig.
"I wonder that any man among us lived and kept his sanity through that hideous day of discovery. Not Hoffman nor Huysmans could conceive a scene more wildly incredible, more frenetically repellent, or more Gothically grotesque than the twilit grotto through which we seven staggered; each stumbling on revelation after revelation, and trying to keep for the nonce from thinking of the events which must have taken place there three hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand or ten thousand years ago."
Then, as I was writing the above, my RSS reader told me "Large mass grave found in the Balkans". The site is apparently located near Zvornik in eastern Bosnia and contains the remains of 700 people murdered for reasons no less atavistic than what befell the victims of the insane de la Poer family in Lovecraft's tale. Only this didn't happen three hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand or ten thousand years ago. It happened in 1992.

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Bruce Trigger Deceased

Canadian archaeologist Professor Bruce Trigger, known to European colleagues mainly for his widely read 1989 book A History of Archaeological Thought, passed away on Friday 1 December at the age of 69. (via the Montreal Gazette)

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pseudoarchaeology Talk in Stockholm on Thursday

If you're in Stockholm and understand Swedish and are prepared to pay 50 kronor to hear a talk about the distinction between archaeology and pseudoarchaeology with illustrated examples of both -- then get thee to ABF, Sveavägen 41, on Thursday evening 7 December, 18:30. I'm the one doing the talking and I like Q&A.

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Archaeology Offers No Career

The Grumpy Old Bookman is fond of saying that fiction-writing is an excellent hobby but completely unrealistic, indeed self-destructive, as a professional career. I periodically repeat the same statement for archaeology. Scandinavia is one of the parts of the world where there are the most jobs per capita in archaeology. Still there are tens of unemployed Scandinavian archaeologists for each one that has a job, however short-term and badly paid.

Here's a recent newspaper story that shows what I'm talking about. Johanna Edqvist of Gothenburg has two MA degrees, one in archaeology and one in museology, and a €32 100 study debt. The only steady job she's been able to find is 25% of full time -- at a Kindergarten.

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Album Review: Maggi, Pierce & E.J., Silver

Thanks to smart web radio site, I've discovered an intriguing and incredibly good band: Maggi, Pierce & E.J. Steve Huey at Allmusic sums them up as "hugely eclectic folk-rockers", which is pretty near the mark. The band themselves suggest "Abba meets Zappa", "Fleetwood Mac meets the Pixies", "Ween meets Joni Mitchell", "Bette Midler meets Wilco" and "Sonic Youth meets the Beatles".

The trio is based in Philadelphia and has issued eight self-published albums since 1995. They still don't have a record deal, which, judging from the songs I've heard so far, must be intentional. The release I'm listening to now is their 2005 triple album, Silver, and I don't know where to begin to tell you, Dear Reader, how much it rules.

Maggi, Pierce & E.J. are two men (basso & tenor) and a woman. All of them write songs. In all kinds of styles. And they switch instruments among themselves between songs. And they sing three-part harmony. And much of their lyrics are excellent stand-alone poetry. And they score their own string arrangements. And the three discs of Silver sound like they might be from three different bands! I am, frankly, in awe of their musicianship.

The first disc is titled Morgen, (German for "morning"), and carries six soft folky songs with acoustic guitars, mandolin, piano and the sweetest singing. I'm really taken with the way MP&E harmonise, and particularly by Maggi's reedy soprano on her "Big Falls, WI".

Then you put on the second disc, Mittag (German for "mid-day"), and you're treated to "Kennison", a rousin' & rockin' power pop number about gender-bending. This disc also has the song that turned me on to the band in the first place, "Snowed In With You", which is a really druggy psych song with lots of Hendrixy guitar, but whose lyrics actually speak sweetly about how nice it would be to be snowed-in in a cabin with someone you love. The Nacht (German for "night") disc starts with a bawdy punk rocker with a raucous Maggi yelling about not remembering her bed-fellow's name, and goes on to a metal song about a depressed E.J. staying in bed all day and whacking off!? I haven't listened to all of Silver yet, but I'm sure looking forward to it. Judging from the liner notes, there's jazz and hip-hop there too, and a song with a tuba part.

Even if all I knew about MP&E was the music, I'd be really curious about them. But then there's the image they cultivate and the messages of album covers, liner notes and the web site. Silver has something that looks like a "Parental Advisory" sticker on the cover, but it actually says "Governmental Oppression Despised". Environmental concerns and gender issues keep popping up in their often humorous lyrics. And judging from the materials the band's made available (as a smoke screen?), they seem to live together in a ménage-à-trois household, keeping a dog. Pierce and E.J. look really gay at photo shoots, though there's nothing fey about their music, and Maggi has the heroin-chic looks and emaciated muscularity of a starving model. They're touring all the time, writing songs in Paris, recording in Berlin, posing for silly pics in Glasgow, playing several gigs a week at small venues. In the summer of 2006 they took a two-week walking tour of the 350 km from Philadelphia to Washington D.C., playing spontaneous gigs in the evenings, being covered on video much of the time to make a film, all in a bid for peace.

Maggi, Pierce & E.J. are musical virtuosi. The image I've formed of them is also that of social and political activists: they would fit excellently on a double bill with Roy Zimmerman. Or Fleetwood Mac. Or the Pixies. Or the Beatles. And nobody I know has ever heard of them!

Update same evening: says Maggi, "this review cracked me up! i loved it. as for starving model, you should see me now. i got a big fat belly. see you on the road somewhere....."

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Thursday, November 30, 2006


The Antikythera mechanism is an Ancient Greek astronomical simulation device. It sank in the early 1st century BC along with the ship it was travelling on near the island that's given the find its name, and was fished out of the Mediterranean a century ago. A paper in today's issue of Nature presents new work with computer-aided X-ray tomography which has allowed a team of scholars to understand better how the thing worked and to decipher more of its many inscriptions. Using a large number of cogged wheels and gears, the mechanism was designed to simulate and predict the movements and interrelationships of the more important heavenly bodies. Most likely, such contraptions were built among the followers of Hipparchus and Posidonius, whose known interests and level of astronomical insight fit well with the mechanism.

The funny thing about the Antikythera mechanism is that it appears to be isolated, popping up more than 1000 years before the documented start of the High Medieval clockwork tradition. This impression may be due to our incomplete knowledge of what Arabic scholars were doing through the Dark Ages -- they certainly relayed a lot of other Ancient Greek work to posterity. But still, when Medieval Western Europe learned to make clockworks, the technology spread like wildfire, so rapidly that it is impossible to tell exactly where it started. Not so with Antikythera. We have a single find and a few brief mentions of similar tech in the literature of the time. Why is this?

I'd like to submit an idea. The reason that the Ancient Greek clockwork devices didn't catch on may have been that they weren't open source. A proprietary technology, guarded jealously among a small philosophical community, and useless to anyone lacking a solid astronomical education -- it would in fact have been highly surprising if it had started a wave of cultural diffusion. The specimen from the Antikythera wreck wouldn't have been travelling alone: it must have belonged to a philosopher bound for Rome, a man who could maintain the device and use it for astronomical demonstrations and predictions. To anyone else, the mechanism would just have been incomprehensible. And it lay in the best interests of its owner that the world at large remained in the dark about such arcana.

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Leave the Ghetto

Dear Reader, I believe we can agree that all citizens of a secularised modern state should have the same rights and opportunities, regardless of their ethnic and phenotypical characteristics. ("Phenotypical" is a nice sciency way of saying "related to skin & hair colour, nose shape and other visual characteristics vaguely typical of people from different parts of the world"). Where we may part company is on the question of ethnic minorities: ex-slave populations, lo-tech tribespeople, tightly-knit diaspora communities, recent immigrants -- any group that is perceived as visually and culturally distinct from the majority population of a state. Because I really mean all citizens. Everyone should enjoy all the rights and opportunities, and carry all the responsibilities, of the majority population. If your granddad was really nasty to my granddad for ethnic reasons, then it does not in my opinion mean that you owe me anything extra. The important thing is that you are not nasty to me now.

An Australian correspondent of mine put it as follows.
In Australia [...], the indigenous people get very generous welfare (education, housing, medical, etc) support. In some cases, this is deserved but misdirected; tribal populations in the outback get a massive amount of funding, but [...] can't solve the problems inherent in a basically Stone Age culture trying to co-exist with the 21st century. And on the other hand, we have people who identify themselves as being Aborigines, because one of their 34 great, great, great grandparents were Aboriginal [...], and also getting more generous welfare than a fifth generation Anglo-Saxon/Celtic Australian (or a 2nd generation Swedish-Australian, or a 1st generation African-Australian).
I say, get off the reservation. Leave the ghetto. In Australia, it would probably be better not to give Aborigines (however such a group may be defined) money to stay in the outback. Better to use it to fund free education and public construction projects in the cities and encourage people in the outback to take part of them. That way, most Australian Aborigines would pretty soon move to the cities, become reasonably affluent and lose touch with non-adaptive traditional lifestyles. It'll be hard to discriminate against Aboriginal-looking people once they all have MBA degrees.

Like all anthropologists, I am a cultural relativist. This position most often takes the expression that "modern Western culture is not intrinsically more valuable than traditional ones". But it goes both ways, really. Traditional cultures are not intrinsically more valuable than the modern Western one. Indeed, no culture has any value at all except in relation to Human Rights: they're all constructed anew each morning anyway. It is of no value to a society, nor to ethnic minorities themselves, that they be encouraged to stay on reservations and in ghettos and remain stuck in unemployment and drug abuse.

In my opinion, the only way that ethnic and phenotypical minorities can actually have equal opportunities is if their members assume places inside majority society through education and employment. Reservation life is just a pale shadow of what these cultures were like in the pre-colonial past. I don't see why it would be useful to anyone that some people be kept, and keep themselves, as cultural museum exhibits. Most reservations were selected as such because they were undesirable to majority society: often awkwardly located patches of badlands. The first priority for members of modern ethnic minorities should not be to remain ethnically distinct and preserve their traditions, but to thrive and contribute to whatever culture works now. Adapt and survive.

My perspective on these things is of course coloured by the fact that I belong to the majority population of a state that was recently identified by The Economist as the world's strongest democracy: Sweden. My ideas on ethnic minorities presuppose that society is reasonably democratic, where the rights of all citizens are protected and where the legal system works. This is unfortunately not the case for most people on Earth. I have also been brought up in an individualistic culture where the most important thing is not to be part of one's people but to be free. I have no relationship to any Swedish tribe or nation: I am an individual relating to other individuals and to the state. I realize that this is very far from how most pre-industrial cultures saw things. But the world is no longer pre-industrial. And if we believe that all cultures are equally valuable as long as they respect Human Rights, then there is no reason for people to stay on reservations or in ghettos any more. Because there they have far less chance of enjoying those rights.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Lint Sacrifices

Clothes give off lint that collects in little wads, for instance in pockets and the turn-ups of trousers. But I also find it on my body, coloured according to what I’ve been wearing, and mainly at three places. Lint collects at the nape of my neck, in my navel and at the upper end of my bum crack. There is a simple and evident explanation for this: religious mites.

All larger terrestrial animals act as unwitting hosts to innumerable microscopic mites (Sw. kvalster). Most of them are harmless, subsisting on little flakes of shed skin. Some allergics react badly to their excrement, but that is rare.

My mites are obviously organized into tribes, one of which occupies my abdomen. They have a central cult site where they congregate regularly to perform sacrifices, lugging enormous loads of lint from far areas such as my upper chest, celebrating great religious feasts that culminate in the lint being heaved into the Great Sacred Pit -- my navel. The theology behind this sacrifice is unclear, but I suppose the mites want to placate some Higher Being, probably me. The mites are periodically killed in devastating numbers when I shower, so the great offerings may be intended to stop me from doing just that. But I am a vengeful God.

What of the great lint deposits made at the nape of my neck? They most likely have to do with the awe and fear felt by the mite tribe on my neck for the dark and mysterious woodlands of my head. I have no doubt but that the head mites, a small-bodied and furtive race hardened by anti-dandruff shampoo, make nocturnal raids on the neck mites, who therefore live in a constant state of fear. Their lint offerings under the eaves of the Head Woods must thus be to appease the mysterious forces lurking up there in the dark.

More horrific still must be the threat that inspires the mites of my lower back to sacrifice lint at the upper end of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Poor little ones.

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Another Great Dane

As noted here before, I'm a big fan of Danish archaeology. They have cool material, good scholars, a solid scientific tradition and hardly any tiresome wannabe philosophers nibbling away at their archaeological university funding.

Esben Schlosser Mauritsen is one of the great Danes, and here is his web site. Esben is into archaeology as extreme sports: aerial photography and underwater excavations are his specialities. Check out his project gallery!

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Tidy School Fire Site

27 September.

Took a walk listening to Escape Pod while my Afghani neighbour, the international used-cars dealer and project facilitator, looked after our Doppelganger daughters. I went up to the old school to see what the site of the fire is like two months later. The place is pretty tidy.

26 November.

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Yixing Tea Cups

My attempts to buy nice big tea cups in Hangzhou and Hanoi came to naught for two reasons.
  • Traditional Far Eastern tea cups are the size of egg cups.
  • Modern Far Eastern household goods are designed to a taste that screams CHEAP AND TACKY to the Western eye. (Yes, I know it's all relative and historically contingent.)
But still we did come home with good cups. My father-in-law took them from work and gave them to us. Apparently he's got a stash of them at the office.

This zisha stoneware is really nice, unglazed, a matte dark chocolate, the vessel shape severe and elegant. The cups are made in Yixing in Jiangsu. I gather the clay is ancient, rich in iron, quarried from beneath formations of sedimentary rock.

Each cup carries an inscription. I fancied it a piece of poetry, perhaps something about cranes and harpistry and wind in the bamboo grove. I generally don't bother much about Chinese script: it's such a huge unknown to me that nibbling at the subject seems futile. But this was inscribed pottery, awakening my archaeological instincts. My wife read it for me.
Heng sheng hua gong chang qing shi zhou nien
Ji shu bu

"Eternity rising transformation work factory celebration ten cycle year
Artisanship artisanship department".

That is,
"The Eternally Rising Chemical Factory, Tenth Anniversary
Technical Department".
So much for the poetry. Our beautiful new cups are in fact promotional items, high-end gifts for the employees of my father-in-law's dye factory on its tenth anniversary. But who will ever know? The inscription looks great regardless of its meaning.

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