Prof Steve Hits Scandinavia


Internationally reknowned evolutionary biologist and legendary party animal Professor Steve Steve is on tour in Scandinavia. In the above image, taken moments ago, the professor and I discuss evo-devo on the Rundkvist family’s balcony in Fisksätra outside Stockholm. I hear he’s got some radical new discoveries in zebrafish teratology in the publishing pipeline, apparently the fortuitous result of dropping a bottle of Bushmill’s into a bar aquarium. Tomorrow we’re off together to the Sachsensymposium in Trondheim, Norway, the main conference for post-Roman, pre-Viking archaeology in northern Europe.


Jonathan’s Mortuary House

i-070b5748450db9b5737096a784131219-dodshuset.jpgMy friend and colleague Jonathan Lindström is a talented man. He started out as a teen amateur astronomer and local historian of his dad’s coastal Estonian heritage, became a field archaeologist, then an ad copy-writer, then a museum staff writer and artist, and now he’s a freelance science writer and artist contracted by Sweden’s largest publishing house.

Jonathan called me the other day and told me a new kids’ book he’s been telling me about had come from the printers. It’s named Dödshuset. Mysteriet från stenåldern, “The House of Death: a Stone Age mystery”, and it’s all about a contract excavation he directed back in 1993. I went by his place after work and received an inscribed copy — incredible stuff!

Get this. The man excavates the well-preserved remains of a unique mortuary house full of cool finds from about 2400 cal BC (very late Corded Ware or Battle Axe Culture, if you must know). He produces a report, a monograph and a number of papers. And now he’s turned all his data and 14 years of thinking about the site into a lavishly illustrated 62-page pop-sci book for kids! And he covers every imaginable aspect of the site, from discovery and documentation through architectural reconstruction, osteology and interregional cultural context to cosmological models and religious beliefs. Our shared archaeological hero Mats P. Malmer even makes an appearance. I stand in awe.

If you know Swedish, buy the book for yourself and any kids you happen to have around. If you don’t know Swedish, buy the rights to the thing and publish it abroad!

Lindtröm, Jonathan. 2007. Dödshuset. Mysteriet från stenåldern. Stockholm: Bonnier Carlsen. 62 pp. ISBN 978-91-638-4173-6.

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Skeptics’ Circle 68


Welcome to Aardvarchaeology and the 68th Skeptics’ Circle blog carnival! For first-time visitors, let me say that this is a blog about whatever runs through the mind of a skeptical research archaeologist based in Stockholm, Sweden. For first-time carnivalers, let me explain that here, skepticism means to not believe anything without good reason, and to reserve judgement in uncertain cases. This carnival is about reason and critical thinking from all around the world. Onward to glory!

The next instalment of the Skeptics’ Circle will come on-line at Unscrewing the Inscrutable on 13 September. Submit good skeptical blog entries (your own or even better somebody else’s) here.

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The Intelligence of Game-Playing Software

i-c7df6f56656ecbbac1eac39ad52f7927-king_geirraudr_red.jpgThere’s been some discussion lately about chess-playing software and intelligence. Some smart humans play chess well. Certain software can beat them at chess. Does this mean that the software is smarter than those humans? Of course not.

For one thing, intelligence is about versatility, about being able to perform innumerable different and unfamiliar tasks that take smarts. No software in the world, least of all chess software, is anywhere near passing the Turing test. If you talk to present-day software you soon become aware that there’s no intelligence in the box. If we came across a human that played kickass chess but had no other mental skills, we would classify her as severely retarded on the verge of brain death.

Secondly, intelligence is not simply about outcomes, it’s also about process. Chess-playing software doesn’t arrive at game decisions in the same way as a human player does. The software simply uses brute number-crunching force to calculate its chances of gaining an advantage with a certain move. Chess is a tightly bounded system where the number of possible situations is smallish and a player can make only a very small number of easily identified moves in each situation. Such a brute-force approach is useless for more intricate open-system games. Here, instead, the programmer has to establish rules-of-thumb for the software to follow, and it can never be any better at the game than the person who formulated those gaming methods.

I’ve seen this recently since I took up Civilization IV. This is an intricate game where the number of possible situations is astronomical. The game’s creators call their game-playing engine “an AI”, an artificial intelligence, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a collection of methods that allow the computer to offer adequate resistance to the player’s attempts at winning. But often, the methods make for mind-blowingly stupid game play.

In a Civ game recently, my country was invaded by a warlike neighbour who had somehow drummed up enormous numbers of troops. He sent them straight to my closest city. I responded by desperately sending almost all the defensive troops I had in my other cities to the besieged one, which I could do swiftly thanks to a railroad network I had just completed. The besieged border city was now extremely heavily defended. What did the invaders do? Did they perhaps split into a number of smaller forces and go off to find my other cities, forcing me to split my defenders too? Of course they immediately cut off my railroads at strategic points? Nope. They stayed where they were and threw themselves repeatedly against the border city until there wasn’t a single invader standing anymore.

But don’t think that Civilization is an easy game to win. To begin with, you may not know exactly how the game works, but the software does. And there are a number of levels of difficulty, ranging from the easy to the almost impossible. You might think that the difference between these difficulty levels would be how smart the software is. Sadly, no. The main difference lies in how much the software cheats.

In Civilization, when playing against the computer, you aren’t necessarily constrained by the same game rules as the software. This affects things such as how many troops you start with, how long it takes to train new troops and how fast your cities grow. Choosing a more difficult level doesn’t make your opponent smarter, it’s more like you’re assuming a lower handicap in golf. (The golf handicap system is, BTW, in my opinion completely pointless. It allows an unskilled golfer to “beat” a skilful one if he plays better in relationship to his own skill rank than the skilful one does in relationship to hers. But this really just means that one player’s handicap needs to be adjusted, leading to an infinite regress.) So when the computer beats you at Civ, it’s usually because the two of you aren’t really playing the same game.

I’d like to play Civ against other people one day. But a game that takes ten hours when most of the players are computer simulations would take a week if they were all human. Maybe at the old people’s home.

If the ecology doesn’t collapse first, we will have real AI one day. But it won’t sprout out of specialised game-playing software. It’ll arise as one of those elusive “emergent properties” that can be observed when a very large number of dumb particles with intricate communication capabilities are packed together in a convenient container — such as a human cranium.

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Ernie Alarm Clock


My friend and colleague Robert is a collector, and so is his wife. She’s into Oscar II memorabilia and vintage lingerie in its original packaging, he’s into almost everything. Robert’s collector’s heart of hearts, though, is with cartoon figurines. Wallace and Gromit in particular, but he ranges widely. Above is shown his latest acquisition: a 1970s Sesame Street alarm clock with Ernie in the Bedroom Scene! Many thanks, Robert! And check out the Bert figurine to the left — that’s Robert’s own handiwork. He has a morbid fascination with the Evil One.

(You do know, Dear Reader, that Ernie is a battered spouse and that Bert is evil?)

Michael Shanks on Seed Salon

i-e341a2eb2f42b731dc10c1aa7c9ce96f-shanks.jpgIt is with mixed feelings that I note that Seed has recruited an archaeologist for its Seed Salon dialogue feature (“yesss!”), and that the one they’ve chosen is Mike Shanks (“nooo!”).

Now, why would anyone dislike Mike Shanks? Well, because of, in one word, post-modernism. I read Shanks’s dreadful 1987 co-authored book Social Theory and Archaeology, and nothing I’ve seen of his activities since has suggested that he has become any less of an obscurantist jargon-spewer, academic joker and opponent of rationalist science. He’s archaeology’s equivalent of Jacques Lacan, whom Noam Chomsky considered “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”.

Shanks has advocated politically motivated propagandistic interpretations of the archaeological record (“only nice leftie propaganda, please”), he walks around conferences trailing an actor and performance artist, he’s one of the originators of “critical archaeology”; in short, he’s the very embodiment of the worst kind of pretentious 90s pomo garbage in archaeology. If I had to choose my least-favourite archaeologist, it would be either Shanks or his accomplice/co-author Chris Tilley. These men should be selling bus tickets in rural Surrey, not teaching archaeology.

So, what is Shanks up to these days? Alas, he’s a professor of Classical Archaeology at the “Humanities Lab” at Stanford, and he hasn’t changed one bit.

“In 2005, Michael Shanks […] and three colleagues started The Presence Project to explore issues of presence and documentation across the arts and sciences. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson … joined soon after and, together with Shanks and others in the Stanford Humanities Lab, created Life to the Second Power, an online encounter with her archive. As they see the project through to its completion in 2010, Shanks and Hershman Leeson plan to further explore memory, identity, and place.”

“Explore issues of presence and documentation”. “Explore memory, identity, and place.” Explore navel lint, I say.

Archaeology is about answering questions about past societies using scientific methods applied to their material remains, basta. You don’t aim at finding out about past societies? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t study material remains? OK, you’re not an archaeologist. You don’t use scientific methods? OK, you’re not an archaeologist.

The funny thing here is that the Seed Salon is usually a natural scientist and an artist talking, but this time they’ve managed to get a “scientist” who is almost as arty and out-there as the artist. Throughout the piece, the two are patting each other on the back, exchanging wannabe-philosophical pleasantries and wordplay, and it’s all absolutely vacuous. Airy musings. The whole piece is a cuckoo’s egg in Seed‘s nest, being about as far as you can get from science while staying on campus.

Shanks: “A lot of people think that archaeology — archaeologists — discover the past. And that’s only a tiny bit true. I think it’s more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past — maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery […] — but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what’s left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We’re all archaeologists now, working on what’s left of the past.”

Palaeontologists may be interested to learn here that trilobite studies are only a tiny bit about discovering the past. Because, you see, palaeontologists and archaeologists “work on what remains”, but they don’t find out scientific truth. We shouldn’t take it too hard though, because Shanks very likely believes that nobody in the world finds out scientific truth.

I wonder who chose Shanks as Seed‘s first archaeologist. I’m sure there’s plenty of room in the English public transport trade for that person too.

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Howard Williams Studies Memorials

i-25827c3c3203d2ef992bf3c99d92d36f-Stokenham churchyard survey.jpg

Last Monday, we had a guest entry by my friend Howard Williams about his excavation of a Devon manor site abandoned in the 1580s. Here’s his account of some other recent work of his, stuff many people may not recognise as archaeology, but nevertheless treating source material that very few non-archaeologist scholars pay much attention to.

Further Fieldwork in Devon in July 2007
By Dr Howard Williams

Churchyard Survey
In addition to the archaeological excavation, we conducted other forms of fieldwork. Very few historical churchyards in Devon have been recorded to a high archaeological standard, allowing the changing forms of mortuary commemoration to be charted in detail from the 18th century (the oldest gravestones that survive) to the present day. This year we completed the survey of Stokenham’s churchyard memorials and moved on to record most of the gravestones in the neighbouring parish of Slapton. The size, form, style, materials and lettering of each monument were recorded. Next, the precise location of each memorial was recorded through a dGPS survey. The results promise to reveal the changing character of mortuary monuments over time as well as the evolving use of the churchyard as a commemorative space.


War Memorial Survey
Another aspect of historical or contemporary archaeology that took place during the Stokenham fieldwork season. University of Exeter doctoral student and the Stokenham project’s chief supervisor, Sam Walls, is researching 20th century war memorials from an archaeological perspective. As an element of his research, the 2007 field season incorporated two investigations of visitor interaction with the famous Torcross war memorial. This is a unique memorial commemorating a unique event. Prior to the D-Day landings of June 1944, the area around Slapton and Stokenham was evacuated of its local population for over six months to make way for the U.S. army training exercises. The beaches were used for mock-landings and the countryside for war games including the use of live ammunition. The war memorial commemorates the c. 1,000 U.S. soldiers who were either killed by ‘friendly fire’ or in attacks by German motor torpedo ‘E-boats’ in Lyme Bay during these training exercises. The memorial was not commissioned by the British or U.S. governments, it is a distinctive initiative of local people. It consists of a World War II U.S. Sherman tank that sank during practices for the D-Day landings off Slapton Sands in the spring of 1944. Through interviews with visitors and observations of how visitors interacted with the monument, important information was gleaned concerning how this monument is experienced and interpreted by people today. Stokenham church and Torcross monument are places of pilgrimage for those interested in the war, for and veterans of the conflict and for their families.

The final success of Stokenham ’07 was the training of 22 first year Exeter archaeology students. Each year, archaeology students at the University have to complete a minimum of 4 weeks fieldwork. This helps them to understand the data they study during academic classes in term-time, but also gives ‘transferable skills’ valuable for graduate careers as well as essential archaeological skills for those of them that wish to pursue job opportunities in archaeology and the heritage industry.

Community Archaeology
In previous years, there was a unique facet to the community archaeology of the project: we were digging ahead of the extension of the parish churchyard. Hence we were digging ahead of new graves being put in and with the community as interested in what the dig could do for their future as much as what it revealed about their past! This distinctive relationship reveals a lot about contemporary rural attitudes towards English churchyards as places of memory. We have published about this in the journal Public Archaeology.

The 2007 field season was designed to incorporate a range of community archaeology activities. To this end, the project was funded and supported by X-Arch (Exploring Archaeology) project, a community archaeology initiative directed by myself and funded by the University of Exeter and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Through this support, the dig was ‘open’ throughout the season for site-tours and everyone was invited to join in. We also hosted weekend open days, the last one in collaboration with the Devon Archaeology Society. Overall, despite the miserable July weather England experienced, we had over 900 visitors as well as the participation of over 120 school children and 8 local volunteers.

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