Digging Graves is Dangerous

Here’s a piece of news that hit uncomfortably close to home. A grave digger in Eslöv, southern Sweden, fell victim to a work-place accident yesterday. While the man was in the trench, the grave-side spoil dump collapsed onto him, killing him instantly. I am only somewhat reassured by the fact that this was the kind of grave digger who buries people, not my kind who excavates them again.

In other news. Mauretania has abolished slavery. Keep up the good work, guys! Let’s see now, it’s 1807, right? 1907? Huh?

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Book Review: Barlow, Sharp Teeth

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Dear Reader,
Would you like to read about werewolf communes?
The beasties live quietly in southern California
Doing dirty work for the drugs trade
Sharing pack mentality, each with a queen bitch
Riding their vans to the desert’s edge, changing
Into quadruped form and running long nights
Through the sagebrush, panting and exhilarated
Would you like to read about werewolf communes?

Could you chew and digest, Dear Reader,
Could you stomach three hundred pages
Of free verse narrative?
So finely done that you will often forget
That this is no ordinary novel
Page-turner poetry
Fit for loud performance
At camp fires and art festivals

The lycanthropes are among us
One may be snoozing on your sofa
Waiting for you to go to work
So he can turn a man and slip out
To take out a minor meth operation
Or raid a rival pack’s compound

Toby Barlow is the author
Of the remarkable Sharp Teeth
Would you like to read about werewolf communes?
The beasties live quietly in southern California
I did
I read it
I savoured it
And let me tell you truly
Dear Reader
I’m pretty sure it has just whet my appetite


Barlow, Toby. 2007. Sharp Teeth. London: Random House. 313 pp. ISBN 978-0-434-01767-6.


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Harbour of the Sheaf Kings

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I’ve spent the day metal-detecting for a project called Vasakungarnas Djurhamn, that is, “Animal Harbour of the Sheaf Kings”. This name may not make much sense to you, Dear Reader, so let me explain.

In the 1520s Gustaf Eriksson, the most successful of many ambitious young noblemen at the time who tended to end up decapitated, wrested Swedish royal power from the Danes with the aid of Lubeck. He soon implemented Reformation and used the riches of the church and monasteries to repay his debts and reorganise Sweden from the bottom up. A very good 2002 biography of the man has the subtitle “Father of a nation or tyrant?”, and argues that Gustaf was both.

Gustaf’s family crest depicted a crossbow-like thingy that may or may not have been intended as a sheaf of corn, vase or vasa in the Swedish of the time. Medieval historians like to mention such heraldic logotypes after the names of people to tell them apart, since pretty much everybody was named Gustaf Eriksson or Erik Gustafsson at the time. Thus Gustaf is called Gustaf Eriksson (vasa), and is currently known colloquially as Gustaf Vasa. The word vasa has dropped out of the language and most people now believe it was simply his surname. Gustaf’s dynasty, which retained the Swedish throne for two centuries, is known as the “Vasa kings”.

Djurö (“animal island”) is a fair-sized island in the Stockholm archipelago, located right where the islands start to grow small and sporadic as one moves east. Written sources document an important harbour there from about 1450 to 1700, known as Djurhamn, “animal harbour”.

Djurhamn was its era’s equivalent of a major airport. Everyone who came to Stockholm from the south or vice versa by boat (and the roads were crap) passed this place, and many spent days or weeks there waiting for wind. While waiting, a lot of them took care of their paperwork, and so the archives of the time are full of letters dated at Djurhamn. Fleets anchored there on their way to attack Stockholm or from Stockholm to attack areas in the southern Baltic during the period’s endless wars. Thousands of people would stay there at any one time, some on their ships, others in buildings or camps on Djurö. And that’s where I come in.

The project aims to make Djurhamn a tourist attraction. The area is very nice in the summers and many people have summer houses there — but there isn’t really anything to show the tourists. The 1683 chapel is nice enough, but all of southern Sweden is dotted every few kilometres with far more venerable parish churches. From an archaeological point of view, all we currently know of at Djurhamn is a great big garbage dump on the bottom of the harbour basin and a cemetery revealed by house construction efforts near the shore. Also a heavily looted shipwreck site some ways off, the remains of the Riksvasa, a huge man-o-war. It caught fire in 1623 while riding at anchor in Djurhamn and was tugged away to keep it from setting other ships ablaze.

The project hired me as a consultant after I suggested that there must be remains of buildings, quays, jetties and wharfs on dry land around Djurhamn. The shoreline has receded two vertical metres since AD 1600, so all the land and shore installations’ remains must be conveniently (and cheaply) available for study though no organic material is likely to survive.

Much of the harbour basin’s shores are bare cliffs, some of them steep and all of them unable to hide any archaeological material beyond the odd rock carving. I thus started by scoping out where there are reasonably flat earth-covered surfaces. Turns out there are two sites, both of them now partly wooded, partly the gardens of summer houses, on either side of Gransberget Hill (“spruce mountain”). With the land-owners’ and county archaeologist’s gracious permission, today I went over the western area with my metal detector.

Sadly I found nothing that I can definitely date before AD 1800, and most of what I did find is 20th century stuff. Also, I discovered that a mysterious land formation that looks almost like the remains of a drydock and shows up clearly in the altitude curves on maps is in fact an old sand quarry dug inward from the shore, probably in the 1800s judging from coins and the size of trees growing in it.

So, scientifically no breakthroughs, but still fun and the weather was excellent. I watched two squirrels fighting and chasing each other up a tree, had some blueberries and raspberries, and made one rare and beautiful find that must be the material record of boys playing in the woods in the inter-war years: part of a toy soldier.

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Next I’ve got to get hold of the landowner east of Gransberget Hill to ask for permission. His lawns are on a perfect level above the sea, and the cemetery I mentioned is partly under his barn.

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The Amazing Meeting 5.5

Registration has opened for The Amazing Meeting 5.5, a skeptical conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on 25-27 January 2008. The conference takes its name from skeptical godfather James (The Amazing) Randi, who will preside over the event together with Hal Bidlack. The theme of the meeting is Skepticism & Activism. Among the speakers are 9/11-conspiracy skeptic Mark Roberts, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson, anti-psychic campaigner Robert S. Lancaster and sf author Michael A. Stackpole.

I’m going to TAM 5.5 as an emissary of the Swedish Skeptics Society (Vetenskap och Folkbildning) and will be on one of the panels. Hope to meet Aard readers there!

Book Review: Weisman, The World Without Us

i-002750ebee2a3d8d4df1c0c10f3b7f91-weisman.jpgAs an archaeologist you get a funny perspective on time — occupational hazard. For years I’ve been musing about what traces our era will leave to last into the far future. I’ve been thinking about six-lane highways with their cuttings through hills and their earthen banks across depressions. In my mind’s eye I’ve seen my housing area as a pasture, sheep grazing across gridded grass-covered rectangular mounds of building debris.

Journalist Alan Weisman didn’t stop at musing about all this. He went out and talked to a bewildering number of people around the world about it. The result is a fine, lyrically written book that will amaze you with marvels and chill you to the bone.

Because The World Without Us is really about two things. The premise — what if all us humans just disappeared? — does offer ample entertaining food for the imagination as Weisman takes us to an abandoned 1970s Greek hotel development on the Turkish side of Cyprus, to the sewers of Manhattan, to the De-Militarized Zone between the Koreas, to the artist who designed the messages affixed to the Pioneer and Voyager probes, to the subterranean cities of Cappadocia. But this leads inexorably to a hard look at the damage we’ve done and are doing to our environment. “Here’s how long it will take for the wounds to heal if we disappear tomorrow”, says Weisman. “Here are the irreparable losses we’ve already caused”. And of course, we know that we most likely will not disappear tomorrow. Our environmental footprint per capita will not shrink starting tomorrow, it will continue to grow, and so will our absolute numbers. “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late”.

Despite it’s serious message, this is not a grim book, nor a preachy one, nor a despondent one. The World Without Us gets full marks and my warmest recommendation.

Other bloggers review the book here, here and here. And the book has its own web site.


Weisman, Alan. 2007. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1.


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Open Access Journal and E-text Repository for Archaeology

On-line Open Access “journals” and e-text repositories are very nice, but archaeology doesn’t have any big or commonly used ones yet. This may be about to change with the Italian site Journal of Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Archaeology.

At the moment, much of the site is in Italian. Full-text repository searches for the words “Mesolithic”, “Mycenaean” and “Merovingian” didn’t turn up any hits. “Bronze” scored four hits, “Iron” six. Worse, the material published in the Journal doesn’t seem to have been entered into the repository, and I could find no PDF files, only texts hacked up into a number of html “pages”. But perhaps there’s a lot of good stuff in Italian there? Do tell, Dear Reader, if you find anything.

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New Age Vibes at Archaeological Sites

i-291911bd1ca270a252c98a7746c59149-stonehenge-solstice-crowd.jpgRecent discoveries by my friend Lars got me thinking about New Age archaeology. The Mid-summer hippie/druid vs. police battles for Stonehenge are legendary. A few years ago I was given a guided tour of the Salisbury Plain’s finest sites by my charming scholar friend Rebecca Montague. Entering the West Kennet long barrow’s megalithic burial chamber, I felt a marked scent of joss sticks. Becca told me about Mid-summer nights at Silbury Hill, when she was posted to kindly ask hippies not to scale the vulnerable monument. Many agreed not to, but one greying lady became very irate. Before stomping up the hill, she snapped, “I’m not going to let you keep me from sucking at the teat of the Mother Goddess!”.

It’s not uncommon to find little offerings at ancient monuments of the more photogenic kind. A bouquet of wildflowers, a colourful feather weighted down with a stone, a coin or two. There’s even a 1997 Antiquity paper by Chistine Finn about such offerings. Guest books at sites like these are full of messages about astral vibes.

My friend Howard Williams once surveyed a site popular among newagers, using an EDM total station. The instrument gave off a plaintive beep every time he took a measurement. After he had been working for some time, one of the visitors, a hippie girl, came up to him. Visibly agitated, she asked, “It’s you, right? It’s your machine!” Howard didn’t understand at first. Said the girl, “I’ve been meditating and tuning in to the vibrations for two hours now. And it’s just your silly machine!”

As long as these people don’t damage anything or demand reburial, I think it’s great that they care about the sites and visit them. The Çatal Höyük excavation project has long cultivated relations with Goddess cultist tourists. The main threat to the archaeological record isn’t erosion by visitors, it’s lack of awareness, knowledge and interest.

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