Impressions of Luoyang

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Came to Luoyang in Henan province on the Yellow River by train yesterday morning, passing factories and quarries, fertile fields and homes cut into hillsides like hobbit homes. We were booked into the Yaxiang Jinling hotel, a high-rise in Luoyang’s vast new area of airily spaced skyscrapers outside the old town. Such developments surround all major Chinese cities these days and give a strange impression, as if Manhattan had been stretched out to cover all of New York State, the intervals filled with car parks, lawns and expressways. The hotel has 23 floors, all decorated in a space-themed style. The hallways and elevators are straight out of Star Trek, and our room was classic Kubrick.

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The bar is named the Apollo, and NASA colour photographs from the 60s and 70s adorn every wall. I wonder if the decorator realises that what s/he has achieved is retro-futurism, far from most current ideas about what the future will look like. And looking at the details I got an eerie feeling that it was all a stage set: laminated chipboard, primitive plumbing and unconnected electrical wires dangling behind fake bulkheads. Ten years from now the place will be a shabby dive unless a continued economic boom allows the management to re-decorate. My son reported that his gameboy couldn’t find a single wireless access point in the whole spacy edifice. But we slept, showered and breakfasted in excellent comfort.

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On to Baima, the Temple of the White Horse, founded in AD 68, birth place of Chinese Buddhism. Here two Indian monks translated the sutras and taught local disciples under the patronage of a Han emperor. The oldest stuff visible today is a few post bases of a Tang cult hall, an exquisite Song pagoda and some Yuan religious sculpture, that is, nothing older than the 7th century.

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Seeing the breakneck development of Chinese cities I have often winced at the thought of the archaeology that must be obliterated every day. But I was heartened to learn that a vast Sui and Tang cemetery in the new developments had been spared construction and laid out as parkland because of the cost to excavate all the graves. So at least they’re digging their cemeteries. One of our hosts, an eminent Umea biochemist, proudly told me that his family was once reknowned antique dealers and that they had found some of the most famous inscriptions known from the area. I refrained from asking by which methods they had found these stones, what else they had found and whether perchance they had kept any records of the find contexts…

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Today to the Longmen Buddhist sculpture site, Dragon Gate, a stretch of the River Yi where it has carved itself a wide channel through limestone. For about a millennium from the 5th century AD on, the cliff walls here received thousands upon thousands of carved niches, all harbouring images of Buddha, many of which were themselves carved from the living rock. Today, most of the niches are empty and those Buddhas that remain often lack heads or faces. This is not only due to 20th century looting, but largely also to three episodes of Imperially sanctioned anti-Buddhist iconoclasm either side of AD 1000. I was wowed and delighted by the serene majesty of a HUGE and well-preserved Tang Buddha. And I kept thinking of the generations of stone carvers that laboured here for so long, and the painters, and how different the sculptures must have looked in their original garish colours.

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As for Luoyang city itself, it is largely charmless busy grimy post-war 7-floor housing, but the area along the old main street has been preserved with lower buildings and alleyways, and the town gates and preserved wall section are most impressive. Our hosts seemed to labour under the misapprehension that at least someone in our group might be or know a venture capitalist, and so we were encouraged to place orders for heavy machinery and ball bearings and given price quotations for up-scale apartments. The latter cost 2000 yuan per square meter, that is, peanuts.

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Beijing in October

Third day in Beijing, and I think my internal clock may finally have synched with local time. The past two nights have seen me spinning sleeplessly in bed in the small hours and finally reading Proust in the lobby. I padded around the hotel before four o’clock, listening to the snores of the night man, watching from the roof terrace as a night-shift demolition man in an excavator took down another low old house to build a shop or hotel for us, the tourists. A Hanoi-style temporary sidewalk restaurant had sprouted in our hutong lane near the Gulou bell tower. There was no sign left of it when we went out at nine.

The funny thing about Beijing’s tourist make-over for the Olympics is how patchy and piecemeal it is. Along the lanes intended as tourist traps, every third property is a knick-knack shop, every third is a newly demolished ruin and every third remains the run-down home of a poor family. Ostentatious 19th century Qing architecture, which is rather amply preserved around the city centre, is largely in pretty poor shape, plaster and paintwork flaking, the reinforcing straw sticking out. This goes even for the Imperial private apartments in the Forbidden City! Yet I’m not entirely unhappy with these signs of decay, as they signify authenticity. The Chinese are all too fond of tearing down the real thing and re-building because they are ashamed to display anything that looks old and worn.

Travelling with children adds new pleasures and takes accustomed ones away. Forget lounging in a park with a book unless there’s a set of swings nearby. Forget concentrated study of architecture and museums. Forget walking for walking’s sake. But we get a lot of friendly attention from the locals thanks to the kids, particularly our Swedish-Chinese daughter. A pretty Asian-looking four-y-o with chestnut curls can pull quite a crowd even in Beijing where foreigners are a common sight. With a bit of luck the world will have more kids like that soon, as a consequence of tomorrow’s wedding. I hope my suit hasn’t become too rumpled in my suitcase. And that I’ll still remember how to do my tie.

Gone to China

Junior and I have gone to China to join wife & sis in Beijing. We’re attending the wedding of two old workmates of my wife, a Swedish lady and a Chinese gentleman who met while working as guides in Stockholm city hall. After the festivities we’re taking the train to the groom’s home town of Luoyang in Henan. I’m really looking forward to the trip: I’ve never seen Beijing, I’ve never been to Henan and I’ve never attended a Chinese wedding. Though my quite non-revolutionary mom did hoist the red banner when my wife and I got hitched…

I don’t know what kind of internet access I’ll have this time over in the People’s Republic, so blogging may be patchy up until 5 November. If nothing comes up here, then check my old site to which I may be able to post via e-mail from my handheld computer. And feel free to chat among yourselves in the comments section.

Upscale Night Clubbers, Wherefore Art Thou?

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I’ve never understood the point of bars or night life. Most people seem to go to bars and night clubs to meet their friends, get drunk and possibly get laid. I don’t drink, from a very early age I’ve been in steady relationships with vigorous women, I see my friends on-line or at our respective kitchen tables, and I get really sleepy around midnight. So night life has nothing to offer me.

I was once single for eight months, which meant that I did have to do something to get laid. But what took care of that certainly wasn’t my exploration of clubs: I hooked up with women everywhere except in clubs. Though I did visit them: I chatted amicably with a lot of clubbing ladies, and my male friends were happy to bring someone as gregarious as myself along, but nookie was not forthcoming. I probably simply got fed up and went home before anybody entered mating mode. Or maybe I seemed scary because I was sober. Anyway, my general impression was that in night clubs, women are largely defensive, even hostile toward men, clearly not feeling relaxed and happy. I recommend all men with similar experiences to crash more private parties or try the checkout line at the grocery store instead.

So night life is alien to me. Expensive, ostentatious upscale night life doubly so. There are few places I’d feel more out of place than around 2 am at Stockholm’s night-club ground zero, the little square of Stureplan. Here you’ll see stock brokers and hardened criminals snorting coke and drinking champagne with scantily clad 18-y-o blondes in the wee hours. Drop me off there and see me run as fast as I can toward the southern part of town, where workers and leftie academics go out, and where more importantly the terminal of my commute train is (at the Sluice).

There’s an absurd little media affair going on in Stockholm right now. A 26-y-o journalist specialising in celebrities, fashion and night life has been permanently chucked out of a number of clubs at Stureplan. And now this person strikes back, telling the country’s main newspaper that “Stureplan is a brutish and cold meat market. You need to know the codes, to know and talk to the right people to achieve maximum visibility”. At this point the interviewer poses the big question: “You’ve been part of it yourself, why?”.

To me, the reply is actually a valuable piece of information. It’s an opportunity to learn something about the minds of those incomprehensible space aliens queuing at the doors of Stureplan’s bars on Saturday nights, long after I’ve gone to sleep. Why are they there? What do they seek?

“Everybody knows that Stureplan is where the celebrities and the expensive designer handbags are. It’s the place where champagne records are broken, and where sports stars mingle with royalty.”

Celebrities. Designer handbags. Champagne. Sports stars. Royalty. I just want to say one thing to these people: “You mindless vapid boring distasteful morons”.

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Stuffy Inquirer

The Skepticality podcast and Skeptic Mag’s web site (9-page PDF file) have picked up on something I wrote on 5 July 2006. Thus, to keep you in the know, Dear Reader, I’ve copied the entry to Aard as well.


Skepticism, for those of you who don’t use the word fifteen times a day, means an unwillingness to believe anything without good reason. These days, it’s also an international movement that can be seen as the antithesis of a) New Age, b) pseudoscience. Skeptics don’t believe in herbal remedies, astrology, spiritism or self-improvement coaches. But they do believe in rational scientific enquiry and deliberation.

I’m one of the editors of the Swedish skeptic magazine Folkvett. It’s a quarterly publication of the Swedish Skeptic Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning. (This actually means “The Society (for) Science and Popular Enlightenment”.) I’m also a subscriber to two big US skeptic magazines, Skeptical Enquirer and Skeptic Magazine. Skeptic Magazine is good fun, always a lot to read. But I’m dropping Skeptical Inquirer. It takes me a quarter of an hour to flip through it, because there’s very little in it I want to read. Here’s why.

S.I.’s content appears to be written by old men for old men. Now, many elderly people of course retain their intellectual vigor and curiosity. But many don’t. And few of them realise what they’ve lost. We all run the risk of becoming slightly pompous, a bit too fond of hearing our own voices, of losing touch with what happens now, holding on to what we learned in the prime of our lives as if it were timeless wisdom. (Ask me about this in 2046 and check out how I’m doing.)

The summer issue of S.I. reached me today. On the cover is a lady of about 65, holding a giant magnet to her head: the cover story is about medicinal magnets, which are of course a load of crap. It was written by the celebrated professor Bruce L. Flamm, who has practiced obstetrics and gynaecology for over 20 years and looks fiftyfivish in photographs.

Other features and columns in this issue were written by:

  • D. Alan Bensley (57)
  • Mario Bunge (87)
  • Kendrick Frazier (about 65? S.I.’s editor-in-chief. He’s been an journal editor at least since 1969)
  • Ragnar Levi (45)
  • Joe Nickell (62)
  • Massimo Pigliucci (42)
  • Massimo Polidoro (about 35?)
  • Paul Quincey (about 50?. PhD 1986)
  • Robert Sheaffer (about 60? CSICOP Fellow since 1977)

They’re all men, and their mean age appears to be about 55. This is perhaps not surprising given the age and gender of the editor-in-chief. And there’s no denying that these guys have seniority and authority. But there’s something lacking. A lot of the articles in S.I. seem to be about hoaxes and “mysteries” current when I was a kid. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I. And in the current issue they discuss Central American crystal skulls again! Every issue carries an ad where the reader is invited to provide for the journal in his will.

I certainly don’t mean to say that all old folks are boring. But I do believe that, sadly, most old folks were a bit more fun back before they became old. Ideally, I think a journal should have contributors of various ages and genders, to tap the insights of people whose minds have been formed in different times and environments. So until Skeptical Inquirer lowers the mean age of its contributors and finds a few more ladies, I’ll stick to Skeptic Magazine.

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Blog Carnival Call for Submissions

Wednesday 24 October will see the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival appear in all its archaeo/anthro glory at The Primate Diaries. If you have read or blogged anything good on those themes lately, then make sure to submit it to Eric ASAP. (You are encouraged to submit stuff you’ve found on other people’s blogs.)

There’s an open hosting slot on 5 December and further ones closer to Christmas. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me.

Yay, Presents!

i-64f391e800c05d82db48daafaaee16c9-DSCN8090-crop-lores.JPGYesterday I received a large package by mail from Dear Reader Twoflower in New York. He’d asked me for my address, and I was expecting a book or an off-print, but the minute I saw the box I realised I had been wrong. Guess what he sent me.

Apparently, I have pained Twoflower by publishing ugly pics of nice finds and fieldwork here. I believe that specifically, this pic and this pic hurt his sense of archaeological aesthetics: a lovely new find, shot first with a spade for scale and then with an ugly folding rule. Well, Twoflower, you kind and generous man, thanks to you I will no longer have to rely on such second-rate gear! As demonstrated by Captain Pyjamas in the pic, I now have a handsome collapsible fiberglass meter rod, a 20 cm compass arrow, a 25 cm artefact scale and a 10 cm scale, all from Stoney Knoll Archaeological Supplies in Maine. They do on-line mail order.

I usually borrow fieldwork tools from friendly colleagues at local excavation units. Most of the archaeogear I actually own has been given to me. My English trowel is a present from my friend Howard. My Gothenburg buddies got me a discount on my metal detector. And now I have photography scale-rods from Maine. I’m just waiting for someone in New Zealand to send me a mechanical excavator!

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Andrén and Baudou on Malmer

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Mats P. Malmer in 1989, holding a miniature replica of a Bronze Age sword. Photograph by Dr Rune Edberg, published with kind permission.

Yesterday, 18 October, was Swedish archaeology professor Mats P. Malmer’s 86th birthday. Sadly he passed away on 3 October. I wrote a brief appreciation when I heard the news. Here’s a longer one by Anders Andrén and Evert Baudou, both professors of archaeology and members (like Malmer himself) of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters. Andrén is the current holder of Malmer’s chair in Stockholm, having succeeded the man’s successor Åke Hyenstrand. I’ve translated the obituary from Dagens Nyheter for 16 October with the authors’ permission.


Mats P Malmer
A brilliant archaeologist

By Anders Andrén and Evert Baudou

Former professor of archaeology at the University of Stockholm, Mats P. Malmer of Lidingö, has passed away after long illness, shortly before his 86th birthday. He is survived by his wife Brita, professor emerita, and his daughter Elin with family.

Mats Petersson Malmer grew up in an intellectual and debate-friendly teacher’s family in Höganäs. After high school graduation from the reallinjen program and military service during the war, he embarked on studies of the humanities in Lund with Latin, pedagogics and history. Thanks to inspiring teachers, archaeology caught his interest, and he took a fil.lic. degree in that subject in 1953. Six years later, Malmer left Lund with his family to head the Stone and Bronze Age division of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. During his museum years he defended his doctoral thesis in Lund in 1962 and was immediately awarded the title of docent as well. From 1970 he worked as a professor of archaeology, first in Lund until 1973 and then in Stockholm until 1987.

Malmer was that rare thing, a brilliant practical and theoretical archaeologist in one person. Already in the late 1940s he showed, investigating the Medieval hospital of Åhus, how important the details of the find context is for archaeological interpretation. He always emphasised that advances in archaeology, in the shape of new horizons of understanding, are the result both of new finds and of new thoughts. Malmer himself was greatly influenced by analytical philosophy, not least Wittgenstein, as is plainly visible in his doctoral thesis Jungneolithische Studien from 1962. It treats the Neolithic Battle Axe Culture of Sweden and Norway and its European connections. This work forms a critical reappraisal of ethnic interpretations in the archaeology of the inter-war years. Instead of equating archaeological cultures with separate peoples, Malmer argued that what lay behind different material expressions was the diffusion of ideas about material culture and varying local conditions. But the doctoral thesis was equally a methodological attack on what Malmer called “impressionism” in archaeology, that is, the lackadaisical way in which many archaeologists classified their material. He demanded clear definitions of basic categories such as time, space and typology. Thus he set the stage for a theoretical and methodological debate that would later be named New Archaeology in the Anglo-American tradition.

Already the year after his dissertation Malmer continued to challenge archaeological impressionism in Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria, and later in work on Bronze Age rock carvings as well. Nevertheless, the culturally complex Neolithic remained closest to his heart. He returned to problems treated in his dissertation with excavations of a pile dwelling at Alvastra in the 1970s, and as late as 2002 he summarised his ideas about the period in The Neolithic of south Scandinavia.

He was elected a member of several Swedish and foreign scholarly societies, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Society of Antiquaries and the British Academy. It is symptomatic that Malmer is the only post-war Scandinavian portrayed in The Great Archaeologists from 1999.

To many people, Mats Malmer appeared quiet, almost retiring, but in a smaller circle of friends he was very friendly, interested and debate-happy. His pedagogical gifts made him an appreciated yet demanding teacher. As a researcher and debater he was analytically sharp but also curious, avid and deeply interested both in the present and the distant past. Throughout his life, Malmer remained true to his critical realist view of knowledge. He sought the human and multifaceted truth about prehistory, at the intersection of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Thus the post-modernist currents of our time were entirely foreign to him. He felt that they opened the door to a relativism and political overinterpretations that he associated with the archaeology of the 1930s, ideas he spent his entire scholar’s life combating.

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Greed and Buffoonery in Academic Publishing

I’ve just signed another one of Sage Publications’ ridiculous publishing agreements, prompting Aard’s first re-run of an entry from my old blog. Here’s something from 29 September 2006.


i-407f4a5b72159fb7230565b69377706a-eja.gifI agreed to a really crappy business deal today.

For a long time, academic journals from commercial publishers have grown in number and become more and more expensive. Individual scholars can no longer afford subscribing to them at all, and most research libraries have to prioritise strictly when choosing which ones to take. There is a successful resistance movement against these tendencies, Open Access publishing on the net. But culture changes slowly, and commercial journals are still indispensable reading in many fields of inquiry.

Last spring, Cornelius Holtorf at the European Journal of Archaeology kindly offered me a review copy of Martin Carver’s massive publication on the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the 80s and 90s. I accepted gladly, I got the book, and recently I read enough of it that I could write a review. Great book on heroic fieldwork, I’m glad to have it. So far, so good.

You never get paid for writing in academic journals. Scholars and journals have a symbiotic relationship where one could not survive without the other. We feed the journals material, and they feed our CVs. A review copy of an expensive book is all the tangible remuneration you can hope for as a contributor. But in this case I had to pay to get my review published.

“Author pays” is a common funding model for Open Access journals. The idea there is that instead of paying exorbitant prices for journal subscriptions, university departments will pay a sum to the OA journal when it accepts a piece of work by one of the department’s staff for publication, and the work will then be disseminated for free. But the European Journal of Archaeology isn’t OA. It’s a commercial product put out by Sage Publications.

After I had written and submitted the review, Sage informed me that in order to print the piece they need me to cede my copyright to them. They try to sweeten the deal by allowing me to use the text in certain ways (including putting it on-line at my web site) once a year has passed after the publication of the piece. But still, what they’re saying is that they don’t just want to borrow my stuff and print it once for free, like a civilised journal: they want me to give them my stuff for free and then they will lend it back to me under certain controlled circumstances.

This is really silly. Because the piece of intellectual property we’re discussing here is not the new Beyoncé record or Harry Potter novel. It’s 1400 words of scholarly prose about a book with an estimated readership of maybe 200 people in the whole world. There’s no way for Sage to make any money out of owning the copyright. But they will own it once I mail the contract. And I will mail it, because I mildly want to publish in the EJA, and I don’t want to cause the unhappy reviews editors trouble. And finally, I understand how little the copyright on this thing is worth. But I find it aggravating that Sage are willing to alienate contributors over such a small value.

I wonder what Sage would do if I broke the contract and, say, put the review on-line the minute the journal was published. It would almost be worth the hassle if they sent lawyers after me over such a pittance, just to see them make fools out of themselves. But I guess all that would happen would in fact be that no more review copies be sent my way from that particular journal. And I guess I could probably live with that too.


Update same evening: Very timely, a bill is being voted upon in the US Senate to require anyone who receives research funding from the National Institutes of Health to publish their results openly on the net.

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