The Rude Implements of Savages

i-1b01f4bebce5911952ec7a7010a166cf-svennilsson.jpgA very early classic of Swedish archaeology is the zoologist Sven Nilsson‘s 1838-1843 book Skandinaviska nordens urinvånare. The work is a seminal exercise in ethnoarchaeology, where Nilsson used contemporary ethographic accounts of lo-tech societies to interpret Stone Age finds. Nilsson opens the first chapter as follows (and I translate, as the 1866 English edition doesn’t appear to be available on-line):

“Everyone knows that in Scandinavia, as in many other countries, one often finds in the earth artificially shaped stone objects that have clearly been wrought by human hands and made for some particular purpose. Studying a collection of such antiquities closer, it is impossible not to recognise shapes similar to certain implements that are still in use among fishers and farmers, though made of worse materials and more rudely fashioned. The most common shapes are similar to the chisel, axe, adze, harpoon, arrowhead i.a., and it would hardly be possible for anyone familiar with these iron implements, and capable of envisioning how they might look if made of stone, to mistake them.

Having thus sufficiently convinced oneself, it should also be an easy realisation that people who used stone for such everyday tools must have been ignorant of the use of metals, and that they must thus have occupied the lowest grade of human education, being what is commonly called Savages. If this is accepted, and it can hardly be argued against, then it also appears obvious that the only method to gain certain and complete knowledge of all these implements, of how they have been shafted and used, and of the various tasks performed with them etc., is to investigate whether such stone implements are still in use among the savages of today, and to observe how they are used there.”

Skandinaviska nordens urinvånare has been scanned by Google Book Search and entered into Projekt Runeberg’s on-line library. Anyone interested in proof-reading bits of the e-text is welcome to sign up for duty.

Update 19 June: Dear Reader Ahcuah tells me that the third English-language edition of Nilsson’s book from 1868 is available for free as a 9 MB pdf file from Google Book Search. Select “Full View”, and put in “nilsson” for the author. I can’t seem to get at the full text there, but I did get an edition in German from 1863. Love Google!

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If It Was Green, Then I’ll Replace It

i-518f596ffdfc00b81ed3b54ba81d92ce-Eddie3.jpgHere’s a translation of one of my first brushes with absurdism, Swedish rocker Eddie Meduza’s 70s song “Va den grön så får du en ny” (original lyrics here with ugly popups).

If It Was Green, Then I’ll Replace It
By Eddie Meduza

I’d bought myself a vacuum flask
In a store down in Målilla
It was real pretty until I poured coffee into it
But then it broke into pieces

So I called Mr. Chin
He’s the man with the store
(You see, he’s got a really big chin)
And I told him, my flask is busted
Do they come with a guarantee?

Yeah, said Mr. Chin, gravelly and really slowly
He was speaking really slowly and gravelly
Son, if it was red, then you’re out of luck
But if it was green, then I’ll replace it
(You see, he only ever replaced green goods)

Then I told Mr. Chin
I grieve greatly and am forlorn (as they say)
The vacuum flask was green like a summer lawn
It was such a poetic thing to say that he started to cry

In a choking voice he told me, I’m gonna give you two new flasks
I’ve got a couple sitting around the store room
That they’ve paid me insurance money for
And both of them are green

You can’t get a replacement for red vacuum flasks but green ones will get replaced, replaced, replaced if you like if you buy them from Mr. Chin in Målilla that is.

Tangerine Carousels and Marmalade Tapirs

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Invited by my wife’s employers we spent the day at Parken Zoo, a highly original amusement park outside Eskilstuna, an hour and a half by car from my country seat. Originally a Folkets Park (People’s Park) established by the victorious early 20th century Labour movement, it has a great big stage, two dance halls, much greenery and loads of bronze sculpture, including a bust of Hjalmar Branting right at the entrance. Since that time, it has also acquired a full complement of really tacky fairground attractions and sprouted a zoo to one side. The zoo specialises in threatened and unusual species: I could spend days there with the marabou storks, flamingoes, Komodo dragons, meerkats and tapirs.

One of the rides was unbelievably psychedelic. I find that the crappy camera in my handheld computer actually enhances the visual effect of this day-glo monstrosity. Fear and loathing in Eskilstuna! If you have a firm grip on reality or don’t mind losing whatever grip you have, see below the fold.
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Norwegians Dig Rock Art

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Most rock carvings have very little archaeological context: people who search for them tend to remove hastily any layers on top of them, and they quit digging when they reach the edge of the carved panel. But in recent decades, there has been a trend among Bronze Age scholars to dig beside the panels and try to find ones that are still covered by culture layers. Such digs tend to turn up carving tools of stone, pottery, enigmatic clay marbles and above all lots of evidence of burning. Cultic fires illuminating the carvings as drunk fertility cultists cavorted and copulated in Mycenaean finery…

Recent pentagenarian Christopher Precott (congrats!) in Oslo tipped me off about a Norwegian fieldwork blog by students covering this type of work going on in SW Norway. Loads of artefact finds and buried carvings coming to light after millennia!

Gullhögen Barrow Report On-Line

i-05f691b6b2b5dddb77b10a5c0fc6e355-gullhogen-sword.jpgAs an undergrad and PhD student in the 90s I heard a lot of rumours about the 1988-93 excavation of Gullhögen, a barrow in Husby-Långhundra parish between Stockholm and Uppsala. These rumours held that the barrow was pretty weird: built out of charcoal (!), unusually rich, and sitting on top of unusually rich Roman Period graves. Supposedly, someone was out here re-sieving spoil dumps to collect individual gold filigree grains.

Few really knew much about Gullhögen. In a 2001 Fornvännen paper, Kent Andersson could make only the briefest of mentions of some Roman glass and a gold ring found at the site. (More about Kent below.) But that’s changed now: a full 127-page report in Swedish (10 MB pdf file) is on-line! Gunilla Eriksson of the Archaeological Research Laboratory has edited it and it’s full to the brim of specialist reports.

As it turns out, the barrow (diameter 31 m, height 4.8 m) was actually mostly built out of turf, which is a common barrow material, with a central cairn. But under the barrow were three concentric ring ditches filled with charcoal that had apparently been charred in situ, and there was also a charcoal layer on part of the central cairn. Must have been quite a spectacle when it burned!

The barrow (in itself a huge labour investment) was erected in the Viking Period (c. AD 900) like the Sjögestad barrow I took part in dating a few months ago. Its date is given by a damascened sword with a silver-sheeted, brass-encrusted type H hilt stuck into the top of the central cairn. The burial deposit was all cremation and not very rich: three ugly local pots, a young woman with a whetstone, and a man with a horse, a dog, some beef and mutton and unburnt poultry.

i-6b3cd5188ea156ba393d53d361a9b952-gullhogen-gold.jpgAppropriating the apex of the cemetery hill, the Viking Period folks at Vackerberga farm built the barrow on top of two small cremation graves of the Early Iron Age. One turns out to be among the richest Late Roman burials known from Uppland, dating from phase C2 in the late 3rd century. Its furnishings were fragmented: a chopped-off piece of a golden snakehead ring, Sweden’s first circus glass beaker, one or two Schlangenfäden glass beakers, a ruined silver object, a bone comb, an amber bead, at least two glass beads, a knife with a bronze-trimmed handle, phalanges from a bear skin and potsherds. No bone-sex data.

The oldest burial under the barrow dates from the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age, probably the 1st century BC. It harboured an adult individual with two iron spiral-head pins, a bone toggle (?), a resin-caulked bark box and and some mutton. A fourth burial down the slope from the barrow has a similar date and gave two lance heads, a bridle bit, and some pottery.

Nice dig, good report, I’m glad it’s on-line now.


In other news, my buddy Iron Age scholar Kent Andersson of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm has announced that he will replace Neolithic scholar Jan Apel as head of the SAU contract archaeology unit in late 2007. As for Jan, he only mumbles mysteriously about believing that “something will probably chrystallise”. I wish him the best of luck and I hope (vainly) that he doesn’t chrystallise into any job I’ll apply for!


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Chinese Pop Lyrics

i-eb1e4c0f61953fa6ace63edbaedbb709-fayewong.jpgI am almost completely unable to enjoy Chinese pop music. In fact, I can barely stand listening to it: I find it saccharine-yet-bland and silly and clichéd. But there’s one aspect of it that’s kind of fun, though I can only appreciate it with the help of an interpreter. Chinese musicians record cover versions of a lot of Western pop hits, and the lyrics they write are amazing. When compared to the originals, that is.

Here are snippets of two late-70s song lyrics, translated by my wife from Chinese to Swedish and by myself from Swedish to English.

The birds are singing and cawing
Telling me to hurry home
The sun is going down soon
And the shepherd-boy should get on home
The kind and loving parents
Are waiting for me to come home

Recognise that? No? It’s Boney M’s “Gotta Go Home”! Coked-up Caribbean expats in a studio in Germany!

Headin’ for the islands
We’re ready man and packed to go
When we hit those islands
There’s gonna be a big hello
Diggin’ all the sunshine
It’s easy not to say goodbye

Headin’ for the islands
Hey yeah, we’re really flyin’ high
Gotta go home, home, home

Here’s another one. This one’s easy.

Her name was Lola
Everybody loved her
She was smart and good-looking
And her hair was long
Streaming in the wind like the leaves of a willow tree
She’s always cheerful
My fondest dream is to hear Lola sing that love song
And when she dances, she is enchanting

Not quite what Barry Manilow sang on “Copacabana”:

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from 8 til 4
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?

The Chinese version of “Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree” is apparently about an effing hair dresser. And Faye Wong has recorded a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. *shudder*

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Antiquity Editor Quotes Blogger on Creationism

Antiquity is the world’s most respected and widely read academic journal in archaeology, our equivalent of Nature or Science. Its summer issue reached me last Friday and yesterday I brought it to the beach. On the first page of his editorial (entertaining, anti-po-mo, available on-line behind a paywall), Martin Carver attacks creationism and quotes a blog entry from March last year by Aard regular Chris O’Brien of the Northstate Science blog! After quoting Turkish creationist Harun Yahya and describing his propaganda efforts, Carver continues:

Here is Christopher O’Brien, a Forest Archaeologist in northern California, bravely setting out our stall : Just like other disciplines, he says, “archaeology is being used and abused by creationists of all stripes. It’s time to start pointing out the falsehoods. … “. First we must champion our own dating methods: “because many of us deal in time scales measured in millions of years, archaeologists must also fight the same inane arguments against the efficacy of radiometric dating methods as any palaeontologist”. Then we must not allow the numerous cohort of amateur archaeologists to try and prove the Bible was right after five minutes working as a volunteer on an excavation.

The archaeological reality of Jericho, he reminds us, no more “proves the Bible” than the archaeological reality of Troy “proves the Iliad”. “In the context of archaeology, the Bible is simply another historical manuscript (one of thousands throughout the world and across time) that may or may not be useful for aiding interpretation of the archaeological record”. Amen to that. And as a final abuse of archaeological reasoning, creationists seem to think there is an analogy to be drawn between an archaeologist’s recognition of intelligent design in artefacts, with their own identification of intelligent design in biological systems.

In other words, O’Brien shows that far from countering the benighted influence of creationism, we are providing it with ammunition. For the sake of our children, archaeologists must confront it, but confrontation of the tis-tisn’t kind won’t be enough on its own. To take the dating issue: the supposed moment the world was created has moved back from Archbishop Ussher (4004 BC, worked out from the Bible) to an origin about 10 000 years ago. Yahya is even happy to cite a 40 000 year old flute as proof that man did not evolve from something more primitive (primitive persons can’t play flutes). Radiometric dating may even be recruited to the creationist cause, proving that man is actually eternal and Noah’s flood could soon reappear as the explanation of the Pleistocene. And what would creationists say if they knew that we no longer believed in evolution as an explanation either — at least not for handaxes or human societies. No, the real case against creationism is that it is unimaginative, small-minded and dull.

Go, Chris, go!

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Used To Be A Kobold

i-97771998a9e679df0e00647019247453-kobold.jpgFrom age twelve to twenty-five, I was a gaming geek. It started with the Swedish version of Runequest (Drakar och Demoner) and the Lone Wolf solo adventure series, and soon branched out into computer games and sundry board games. Gaming was a big part of my life and I had a lot of fun with it.

In my teens I used to hang out at a gaming store and go to gaming conventions. There my friends and I encountered innumerable somewhat younger and even more enthusiastic gamers who milled around at belly height of us big guys. We scoffed at their “hack ‘n’ slay” gaming style, so much cruder than our own mature and serious role-playing. Everyone called them kobolds.

Dungeons and Dragons was originally conceived as a battle simulation system, not strictly a role-playing game, and to this day it emphasises the slaying of baddies. Baddies are ranked by how hard they are to kill, and the easiest baddie of all is the kobold. Variously conceived of as little goblins or small blue dog-like lizard-men, these beasties are a joke to any D&D character above the first level. Yipping angrily, they’ll show up in belligerent crowds and instantly get chopped up or fried with battle magic, the survivors fleeing squealing down the 10′ wide dungeon corridor.

Historically, a Kobold is actually a German mine sprite, like the Nickel. That’s where the chemical elements cobalt and nickel got their names.

I still remember the thrill of my first Drakar och Demoner game over at my friend Ragnar’s house. What an epiphany for a young Tolkien fan! I sometimes dream of starting a gaming group again one day, probably at the old people’s home. I’m sure some of my co-players will be ex-kobolds too.

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