October Pieces Of My Mind #2

A pause in the metal detecting at Storsicke in Glanshammar
  • Here’s a new journal paper by myself and Magnus Green about a lovely yet obscure category of Regency era metalwork from Sweden and Norway. It’s my first contribution to post-1789 archaeology.
  • In the first Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters (1977), a Welsh serf describes a Norman lord as being “feudal”. Welsh inequality is idealised. Otherwise a fine depiction of the 12th century.
  • My new art project is to organise a conference on transhumance livestock rearing in the same venue and at the same time as a conference on transhumanism.
  • Looking forward to the Stockholm Film Festival. Most of all to watching Saloum: “Propulsively lurching with infectious glee from crime drama to modern-day Western to horror suffused with supernatural elements, this may turn out to be the rare African film that enters the international mainstream, or, at the very least, achieves cult movie status.”
  • Here’s my new paper about where and why certain types of gold torc and arm ring also occur in silver and bronze during the Roman Period.
  • I learned something sad about a friend who died a few years back. He was convinced that Swedish society was falling apart, and that it was the Muslims’ fault. He was so anxious about this that it kept him from sleeping. Must have been reading alt-right web sites and forums. I can report that the many Muslims in my area are in fact quite keen to keep society from falling apart.
  • Cycling shock this morning. I overtook a pedestrian, rang my bell, swerved out to leave space between us when I passed her — and she gave off a loud, shrill, horror-movie steamwhistle scream. Maybe she was wearing earbuds?
  • “To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That’s the first sign they look for that you’re wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are.” P.K. Dick 1977, A Scanner Darkly, ch. 1
  • We’ve let loose 25-30 detectorists at three sites in Glanshammar parish selected for completely different archaeological reasons. All have proved to be thinly sprinkled with 9/10th century dirham coins from the Caliphate, which was not among the reasons that we chose the sites. I’m starting to wonder if all of agricultural Sweden is covered by a single cloud of thinly sprinkled dirham coins, which is only visible if you have either 25 detectorists or extreme patience.

Anglo-Saxon Frisia

Map from schotanus.us

After the departure of the Roman state administration in AD 409, England saw the arrival of numerous Germanic-speaking migrants during the 5th century. They brought with them a foreign language (Old English), a foreign religion (Scandinavian paganism), foreign social organisation (non-urban, decentralised), foreign material culture (south Scandinavian), and their genetics have been shown to survive in English people to this day.

These people later believed that they had originated in Angeln, Saxony and Jutland, the area around the mouth of the River Elbe. Therefore we call them Anglo-Saxons.* But linguistic and genetic data don’t point to that kind of origin.

The closest documented linguistic relative of Old English is Old Frisian, whose home was closer to the mouth of the River Rhine, west of Angeln and Sachsen. The closest genetic matches to Anglo-Saxon skeletons are also found in Frisia.

So was these people’s origin story erroneous? I’ve wondered about this for years, and I just learned something that suggests no. I’m at a conference in the Netherlands, and my colleagues here explain that parts of Frisia have very little 5th century settlement at all. This seems to have been due to over-exploitation of coastal peatland in the Late Roman era. People drained the peat for agriculture, it got compacted by gravity and microbial action, the ground level sank sharply, and the sea moved in, rendering the land useless to agriculture. And when eventually people re-colonised these areas… they were using pottery that my colleagues describe as Anglo-Saxon.

So the reason that the English immigrants’ language and genetics look Frisian is probably that both England and Frisia were colonised by the same people. Or possibly even, that Frisia was repopulated from A-S England.

* I am not interested in what this term means today to US right-wing hate groups.

Mats P. Malmer 100 Years

Mats Peterson Malmer (1921-2007) would have been 100 years old on 18 October. If I had to pick just one archaeological hero, I’d pick Mats. It’s his clarity of thinking and writing. It’s his insistence on objective observation. It’s his uncompromising willingness to process enormously large volumes of material. It’s his wide thematic range. Mats’s 1984 debate piece “Arkeologisk positivism” was enormously important to me in grad school ten years later when I was surrounded by an evangelising post-modernist relativist orthodoxy.

In the Malmer retrospective reader volume Archaeology as Fact and Fiction (in English, 2016), Stig Welinder comments on Mats’s radically stringent and explicit typological methodology from 1962. It never become the subject of much debate: archaeology simply recognised it as sound and adopted it wholesale. The 2016 volume is an excellent entry point into Malmer’s wide-ranging work. It’s available on-line for free.

Mats has been proven wrong in some of his interpretations, most importantly regarding the arrival of agriculture in Sweden. Archaeogenetics have recently documented a large immigration wave at the time that would have surprised Mats if he had lived. But as a lifelong friend of the natural sciences, he would calmly have accepted the evidence.

In Tim Murray’s big 1999 collection of archaeologist’s biographies, there are only two Swedish names. One is Oscar Montelius, our most fruitful thinker and writer of the 19th century. The other is his 20th century counterpart, Mats P. Malmer.

October Pieces Of My Mind #1

Ferdinand Boberg designed this mini observatory for the Skansen open-air museum in 1910. Would you want one too?
  • All arguments that the 700s should count as part of the Viking Period can equally well be used to argue that the 800s should count as part of the Vendel Period. It’s a pointless thing to try to change.
  • Historical dictionaries: most have such a long production period that by the time the last volume appears, some of the first volume’s definitions contain words that have fallen out of use or changed their meaning.
  • I used to be hailed over the Internet for confused conversations by this woman who had a series of relationships with bus drivers and train drivers because she was into men in uniform.
  • Talked to a Vietnamese man. He told me I look like a foreigner.
  • Yay! Today’s new paper is my 190th archaeological publication! Thank you Poland for recognising and rewarding my academic work! ❤
  • A recurring mistake I made as a young Game Master was to spend way too much time writing adventures as if they would get published, instead of just making brief notes to be able to run them once. Random tables for encounters etc., overkill.
  • About the facial expressions actresses and models assume at photo shoots in order to look sexy. I think they’re super embarrassing. Real randy women don’t look like that at all.
  • Movie: Blood Simple (1984). Adultery, jealousy and a confused series of misunderstandings lead to murderous mayhem. Grade: OK.
  • Annoyed. A mandatory software update just removed the useful step-back button from my Kindle.
  • Jack Vance’s 1965 scifi coming-of-age novel Emphyrio mentions “the Star Wars” (ch. 5) in an enumeration of calamities that have befallen the city of Ambroy through the centuries.
  • The Dutch used to build cellar flooring that acted like a raft when the inevitable flooding occurred.
  • I got to push a baby stroller for an hour today! Passenger prattled and cooed happily. ❤


Ever since the first role-playing game was published in 1974, characters in the games have typically had quite an odd lifestyle and a strange set of motivations. The game rules often describe them as adventurers who go adventuring. They’re essentially violent homeless vagrants, or murderhobos. I got to thinking about what an adventurer is in the real world, today.

  • Professional mountaineer / polar explorer / extreme sportsperson
  • Backpacker
  • Hiker (not really, as few people hike for more than a week)

And in past definitions of the word:

  • Gambler
  • Financial speculator
  • Mercenary soldier

The word adventurer is more than four times as common in English writing from around 1800 as in current writing. This is clearly because of the change in the word’s sense. Like in 1800, we certainly still talk a lot about financial speculators and not a little about mercenary soldiers. But we have very few professional mountaineers, and most current writing is not about Dungeons & Dragons.

The German Abenteurer means today what its English cognate means. Peaking in use during WW2, it has not seen any dramatic change in frequency since 1800. The French aventurier has never been a common word but is no less common today than in 1800. It now means “an unscrupulous person who resorts to intrigue, breach of trust, dishonest speculation and violence to achieve notoriety, fortune, power, etc.” Entertainingly, Larousse glosses it as a synonym of captain of industry and schemer!

The Swedish historical dictionary SAOB says nothing about our word äventyrare yet, because Ä is the penultimate letter in our alphabet.

Weekend Fun

Now that almost everyone in Sweden is vaccinated and the restrictions have been lifted, I’m cramming in as many entertainments as possible into my calendar. So I had a really fun weekend!

  • Had solid afternoon tea at the Warship Vasa Museum with friends and heard Jens Heimdahl speak about the paleobotany of excavated Early Modern gardens in Stockholm
  • Saw music critic and humorist Fredrik Strage’s standup show
  • Watched three good films at the Monsters of Film genre festival, about which more in a later entry
  • Studied large Nordic mammals and historical buildings at Stockholm’s open-air museum Skansen — a lynx female was licking the cuddly belly of its kitten!
  • Played Fiasco and No Thanks

Dear Reader, what did you do for fun over the weekend?

Deep Learning and Card Counting

Hey folks who understand deep learning and games. This is the famous method that has allowed computers to beat human players reliably at chess and go. Many intricate games have semi-open information. For instance, in Catan you see the other players draw resource cards to their hidden hand and then play them. But only an idiot savant or someone who keeps written notes (against all social convention) can keep track of what’s on anyone’s hand at a given moment.

In other games such as poker you can in principle assign probabilities to what card another player just drew by looking at what cards the full deck contained, what cards have been played so far, and what cards you are currently holding. Few human players outside of the movie Rain Main can do this.

Let’s call these methods card counting. Here’s my question. If you teach a computer to play Catan or poker with deep learning, should you introduce rules against card counting? If you don’t, then the computer is effectively not playing the same game as humans do. This would make deep learning Catan different from when deep learning algorithms play chess and go with exactly the same rules as humans.

September Pieces Of My Mind #3

The most complete gold foil figures of 2021 from the Aska platform longhouse. Unfolded by Eddie Herlin, photographed by Björn Falkevik, edited by Cheyenne Olander.
  • Reading about Nordenskiöld’s July 1883 expedition onto the inland ice of Greenland. Sleds full of food and equipment pulled across extremely uneven ice by men, sweating from their exertions despite the cold. After 17 days they turn around because of hopeless ice. But Nordenskiöld asks two men to don skis and backpacks to go a little farther still. In one day they ski twice as far as the expedition has managed to pull the sleds in seventeen. Then they return to the waiting expedition at the same clip. These two are the Sámi expedition members Anders Rossa and Lars Tuorda.
  • The Polish term for an embossed credit card translates as “convex card”.
  • Imagine being a member of Culture Club and getting annoyed with the singer. And you’re like “He’s such a fucking primadonna, queening around and swanning about!”. And everybody’s like, “Um, yeah mate, can’t really argue with that…”
  • I really hate gratuitous plurals in academic writing. Exhibit A: “archaeologies”.
  • Melancholy Wikipedia chore: killing old bands you like. They may have released their last album and played their last gig in 2013. At some point you have to change the tense in the article’s lede from present to past.
  • Reading Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories from 1911. Cars have handles instead of steering wheels.
  • Yay! Michael Chabon liked my tweet about Robert E. Howard!
  • Reading on about expeditions onto Greenland’s inland ice, I come across the Sámi members of Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 expedition that made the first successful crossing of Greenland from one coast to the other. Like their compatriots on Nordenskiöld’s expedition five years previously, Samuel Balto and Ole Nielsen Ravna proved solid team members. The difference was that these men first had to get through the marine pack ice along the mini-continent’s east coast. Here too Balto and Ravna performed well. But they were convinced that they were going to die at sea, an unfamiliar element to them. During one risky camp night on an ice floe Nansen found the pair hidden away under a tarp, one reading to the other from the New Testament in Sámi.
  • On Machen and Chesterton: already in their day it must have created quite a silly effect with many readers that their big horrific reveals tend simply to consist of sin against the teachings of the Church.
  • I have long made a habit of ordering used books from the UK. Now they take ages to arrive. Well done, Brexiters. Most recently, 17 days from order placed to book received. During this time, the book travelled from Goring-on-Sea in Sussex via Austria (!) to my home in Stockholm.
  • In the 1960s the Americans dug an artificial cave in the middle of Greenland’s inland ice and put a nuclear reactor in it to avoid transporting kerosene there.
  • Here’s a magical love charm directed towards women and recorded from 1840s Sindh (Pakistan) by Sir Richard Burton. It’s called agathu chinnanu, breaking of the trouser string. You recite the charm over 7 (or 9) threads of raw cotton spun by a little girl, then roll them up and tie 7 knots on them. You then inform the woman that you are performing agathu chinnanu and she’d better just go to bed with you right away. If she refuses, you untie one of your knots, and her trousers drop by magic. If she pulls them up and refuses, you untie another knot, etc.
  • Movie: The Wicker Man (1973). Policeman goes to remote Scottish island to seek a missing child, discovers neo-Pagan sex cult. Lots of gratuitous breasts and Golden Bough references. Grade: OK.
  • One reason I didn’t think The Wicker Man was great is the big nude posing & butt shaking scene in the middle. I really don’t like having my porn and my storytelling mixed. Don’t yank my randy reflexes (not insignificantly developed) while trying to get me invested in your narrative. I lose track and I feel cheaply manipulated. (Of course, no moviegoer in 1973 had infinite amounts of internet porn available on their home and workplace desks.)

September Pieces Of My Mind #2

Go watch Villeneuve’s new Dune movie. Trust me!
  • Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Growing paranoid fear that the people around you might be alien impostors. Sketchy plotting and too long. Grade: OK.
  • So, who wants me to call them “Arne Saknussemm”?
  • Woah. If I want my upcoming paper in the Post-Medieval Archaeology journal to be Open Access, then that would cost €2,475 = $2,900 = SEK 25,000. That’s about ten times what I would have guessed.
  • The Haunting of Hill House is a pretty boring book, except inadvertently. “How weary one gets of this constant pounding”, Theodora said ridiculously.
  • Came up belatedly with a few points I should have made in my talk this past Saturday. ”I certainly don’t want to say that the study of early iron production is in any way disgusting or unnatural. It has become a fully respected part of our discipline. If people enjoy doing research into early iron production, then I think they should be allowed to and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just not my own personal inclination.”
  • Wonder if the Thin Lizzy “Jailbreak” pick-up line works — “Hey you, good lookin’ female, come here!” — even if you’re not Phil Lynott and it’s not 1976.
  • Movie: Dune (2021). Tragic, heroic, operatic, darkly beautiful. Will no doubt be remembered as one of this decade’s best SF movies!
  • One of the most pointless aspects of proof-reading today is that a lot of graphic design software does not reliably import italics, so the designer has to do them all by hand, and s/he always makes a mess of this to some degree.
  • There’s a Chinese food underground in Stockholm that I occasionally glimpse through my wife. People who grow vegetables no Swede has ever heard of on suburban allotments and sell them to restaurants. A WeChat group where you can order bespoke cold dishes and moon cakes for delivery to a few parking lots around town — provided that you can read and write Chinese.
  • I easily got used to having kids to mind. I’m finding it much harder to get used to not having kids to mind. Of course I’m happy that they grew up strong!
  • There’s an annoying inconsistency in the fact that Sweden’s two large Socialist parties have loads of members and voters who are also members of the Swedish Church.
  • Fredrik Strage played a Mob 47 track on his podcast. I was impressed and intrigued. Mid 80s hard-core punk music was clearly a much more important root for later extreme metal styles than mid 80s metal itself was.