New Picture Stone Found at Stenkyrka

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Per Widerström called me today and told me he’d just found a picture stone. This is breaking news, mainstream media not yet alerted. Photographs courtesy of the finder, and I hope to get some shots in horizontal lighting too where the relief scenes will be visible.

Scandinavian 1st Millennium art isn’t very rich in figural scenes, focusing more on abstract or heavily stylised decorative motifs. But the picture stones of Gotland form an exception. Starting in the 5th century and surviving into the 12th, this tradition offers a rare peek into the mythology of eastern Scandinavia, far from the Norwegian coast where the Icelandic literature originated. Lovely, lovely stuff.

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Per found the new stone during a watching brief in Stenkyrka churchyard, north of the church, where it lay buried face-down near the surface. There was no sign of any foundation stones. The stone’s a little less than two meters tall and features two (?) Viking ships and a number of human figures. Most likely it dates from the 8th or 9th century, and it is unlikely to have been found in its original location. Most such stones are found re-used either in churchyards or in 11th century late pagan graves (as I have discussed in my dissertation, vol. 2, p. 73).

Per and myself talked a little about how bizarre it is that Swedish churchyards (often going back to the 12th or even 11th century) are not registered ancient monuments. Congregations are allowed to continue digging graves there with impunity, constantly wearing away at valuable archaeological source material. In my opinion, they should be required to fund a proper rescue excavation every time they want to dig a grave, or preferably establish a new cemetery in some nearby field that can be machine-stripped and freed from archaeological remains in advance. Such a reform would probably prove impopular among the locals. But they’re too few to pack a lot of democratic punch, mwahaha. Almost everyone lives in cities these days and are buried in cemeteries established in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Per Widerström, by the way, runs a one-man archaeological consultancy firm. He has my heartfelt recommendations.

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Here’s an example of what these picture stones can look like once the figural scenes have been made out.

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Sweden Reinforces Ban on Religious Schools

Freedom of religion wasn’t formally codified in Sweden until 1952, but for decades Swedish law has forbidden religious teachings in schools. Children are required to attend a government-approved school, and one of the criteria for approval is no religion. This of course refers to the teaching of religion, not teaching about religion: comparative religion studies replaced the subject “Christianity” on the syllabi of Swedish primary schools and high schools in 1969 and still remains. In recent years, however, privately run schools have proliferated in Sweden, many of them backed by religious organisations of various stripes. Thus a new initiative from the multi-party conservative Reinfeldt government to explicitly forbid religious school teaching, e.g. creationism and intelligent design in biology class. They will double the number of inspections of schools regardless of who runs them, ban anonymous donations to schools and make it easier to close schools that break the rules. Well done, say I.

Thinking back on my own school days, I remember a time when things were different. Private schools were almost unknown and mainly associated with the upper class. In my publically-run school in the late 70s, a lukewarm Christianity still lingered in the form av psalm-singing in the mornings and church visits at Christmas. But none of our teachers ever seemed religious. Nobody’s parents were religious. My high-school religion teacher was easy-going and neutral about the various religions we discussed, and only after graduation did I learn that she was actually a member of Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen, an old missionary outfit inside the Swedish Lutheran church. Sweden was different back then, still incongruously sporting a State Church, with few evangelicals and Moslems making the news.

Says Minister for Education Jan Björklund, “Pupils must be protected from all forms of fundamentalism”. Indeed.

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Archaeobooks Blowout 27 October

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My part-time employer, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, has been publishing books for over two centuries and rents a huge storage space for books in central Stockholm. Most of the stock isn’t moving very fast. In fact, a lot of it hasn’t moved at all since Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.

Storage is expensive. The Academy now feels that a lot of the funds devoted to storing these old books would be better used in, for instance, scanning the books and putting them on-line for free.

On Saturday 27 October, the Academy’s book store is opened to the public, and most of the books will be sold for 50 kronor (c. $8). A bag. Yes: fill a bag with books, pay 50 kronor, walk out into autumnal Stockholm a richer and happier person.

Most of the books on sale are scholarly ones published from 1920–2002, mainly on archaeology, numismatics, history, Medieval art and architecture, building restoration, churches, runology, heritage management, philology, lit-crit and theology. Also excavation reports and a few children’s titles.

No pre-orders accepted. Be at Lagerhotellet, Rosenlundsgatan 34 A, Södermalm, Stockholm, from 10:00 to 16:00 on Saturday 27 October!

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Dimitri Kouznetsov, Repeat Offender in Science Fraud

In the autumn issue of Antiquity is a fine debate piece (behind a pay wall) by William Meacham of Hong Kong about the Russian Baptist science fraudster Dimitri Kouznetsov. In 1989, 1996 and 2000, Kouznetsov managed to trick three peer-reviewed journals to publish papers full of faked data, references to non-existent journals and thanks at the end to fictional scholars. And all three papers are in different fields. Much of the information about the Russian’s scams has been unearthed by Italian skeptic Gian Marco Rinaldi who published his findings in his mother tongue in 2002.

Kouznetsov’s 1989 paper in International Journal of Neuroscience reported fake findings about voles intended to call evolutionary theory into question. After five years, my Swedish Skeptics buddy Dan Larhammar became the first to blow the whistle on that.

In 1996, Kouznetsov reappeared with a paper in Journal of Archaeological Science. Here he claimed to have found a mechanism by which the Shroud of Turin might have a High Medieval radiocarbon date but still actually originate around the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Radiocarbon specialists protested vigorously, and the following year Kouznetsov was arrested in Connecticut for passing stolen cheques.

In 2000, Studies in Conservation published a paper titled “Biochemical methods in cultural heritage conservation studies: an alkylation enzyme, S-adenosylmethionine”. This paper featured a list of archaeological textile samples from Ireland, including the shroud of a man named in the Annals of the Four Masters, who died in AD 640! All samples were fake.

This is chilling but fascinating stuff, particularly if you happen to edit a scientific journal. A Swedish translation of Meacham’s paper will appear in the winter issue of Folkvett.

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Psychic Data on Djurhamn Sword

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A letter sent to me on 8 October. I translate:

I write to you because of the sword find I had the opportunity to watch on ABC-nytt together with my mother. […]

Please take the following for what it is worth. As it touches upon the sword you found, I write to you and leave it to you to handle the information.

My mother, N.N., has the second sight, reads cards and receives images out of the lives of people. Apart from the future, she also sees images from the past. […] To a skeptic and academic, this may sound like complete nonsense. I am an academic myself […] I must also emphasise that the second sight is no exact science, no science at all really. Perhaps it may be described as a feeling, it’s there and it tells us things, but strictly scientifically speaking it is difficult to measure, define and repeat under controlled circumstances. […]

[…] when watching the news clip about the sword and speculation as to how it may have ended up in the water, I said spontaneously that someone with the second sight should be allowed to touch the sword to possibly learn more. Hardly had I said this before my mother told me the following, albeit vague, images.

A man is standing in the prow of a small wooden boat with his sword raised. His looks, bearing and position in the boat hints that he is in command. […] The man is wearing voluminous pants of black or dark blue with vertical wedges in gold or yellow. His jacket is tight.

On his head is a large black or dark blue voluminous, soft, brimless hat […] yellow stripes from the apex […] a yellow (?) feather. He drops the sword because the boat runs aground (beach/sand/shallows). Mother feels that things are hurried (perhaps someone not very friendly is expected), which is why nobody tries to retrieve the sword.

I asked my mother if she can find out a name — she says something beginning with an A — perhaps Alrik, Alarik, but nothing clear appeared.

[…]

If one wanted to make a somewhat more scientific investigation of this unscientific matter, without having to fumble haphazardly through archives on the basis of this extremely shallow and unscientific information, then one might contact other people with a well-established second sight […] and ask them what they can see about the sword, without telling them what anyone else had said, where the sword was found or what the conditions were. The likelihood that a number of people who knew nothing about each other would describe the same images as my mother would then be statistically and scientifically negligible. If however they did describe similar images, colours and maybe a similar name, then there would be more of a lead to follow and also more to think about…

Be that as it may, perhaps the above may serve as an entertaining anecdote about the find, something for the imagination to build on in the absence of more solid facts.
[…]

Good luck with the find — it must be what every archaeologist dreams of!

[…]

P.S. I append a little quick sketch that my mother made of the hat — but she says that it most likely should be larger than in the sketch.

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Mutating Genre Meme

A blogging and scientific experiment.

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, “The best [subgenre] in [genre] is …”.

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

  • You can leave them exactly as is.
  • You can delete any one question.
  • You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…” to “The best time travel novel in Westerns is…”, or “The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is…:, or “The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”.
  • You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] in [genre] is…”.
  • You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the “parent” blog you got them from, e.g. Life before death, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

The best epic novel in SF/Fantasy is: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The best sexy song in metal is: “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.

The best cult novel in fantasy is: The Dream Quest for Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft.

My ancestor 1 is Pharyngula.
My ancestor 2 is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My ancestor 3 is The Flying Trilobite.
My ancestor 4 is Life Before Death.

I call upon the following to continue this scientific experiment:

Anyone else who wants to play out this science experiment, please do, and let me know!

High Standards in Swedish 70s Reggae

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Peps Persson is both one of Sweden’s heaviest blues men and the single most authoritative reggae artist the country’s produced. The sleeve of his 1975 hit album Hög standard parodies the sleeve from a likewise excellent ABBA album released earlier the same year. Yet the music is intricate studio-built stuff, far from the lo-fi live aesthetic popular with Swedish lefties at the time (who hated ABBA as a matter of political principle).

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The album is sung entirely in a broad Scanian dialect, including a charming cover of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up”. That song’s Scanian lyrics are cheerfully lewd and can’t have been entirely uncontroversial at the time: Styr den opp, min lilla älskling… Kom rör ihop en liten pepparkaka / Jag har en slickepinne som du kan få smaka, “Guide it in, little darling… Come on and mix me a gingerbread cake / I’ve got a lollipop and I might just let you have a taste”.

The title track is an ornate reggae tune with accordion and strings. The lyrics are typically pro-environment and anti-consumeristic, but more enigmatically also reveal a conspiracy theory about the foodstuff industry, livsmedelsmaffian.

Dear Reader, here’s a literal translation of the lyrics to “Hög standard“.

High Standard
By Peps Persson

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

Do you trust the myth about the wealthy West?
Are you feeling safe and satisfied, my friend?
Or is doubt gnawing at you like a bad tooth?
Are you feeling tricked somehow?

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

What good is your house and car
When what you’re eating and drinking
Is making you feel so sick
That you’d really just like to throw up?

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

You don’t need a colour TV
When your brain’s getting filled with PCB
And you’re slowly being poisoned in time with your breath

They’ve dropped starvation and sent it abroad
The foodstuff Mafia are having golden days
They’re stuffing us with every poison they can get their hands on
And make a fine living out of our swollen bellies

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

There’s nothing wrong with your appetite
But still you’re feeling like shit
But you keep on chewing and swallow your dose

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

Is it connoisseur fois-gras
Created just for you?
To make your chromosomes multiply

Do you believe that happiness fits in a purse of gold
Or that it’s sold in a single-use package?
Do you believe the ads, that they’re gonna make you forever young?
Are you falling for their affluence bullshit?

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

Is it buying on credit and signing slavery contracts?
Or competition and chasing status?
Until you’re hunted and stressed out and lonely and scared?

High standard
What the fuck is a high standard?

You’re wasting your energy
Walking around thinking you’re free
Until one day you realise that you’ve been had
Ha ha, you’ve been had

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Unsworded by Find-Conservators

Yesterday by train to Gothenburg with the Djurhamn sword sitting in its package on the hat rack above my head. I spent much of the trip in the pleasant company of the Realm’s Herald, numismatist Dr Henrik Klackenberg, who happened to be on his way to a church excavation near Skara where he was going to classify newfound coins.

In sunny Gothenburg I caught a ride with a soft-spoken Kurdish taxi driver to Gamlestaden, the site of a 15/16th century predecessor of Gothenburg, currently an industrial suburb, where Studio Västsvensk Konservering resides in a refurnished textile plant. Here I was received by friendly conservators and showed around.

I love visiting conservators’ studios. They always have these really wild new finds that nobody’s heard of yet. Often even their excavators don’t know what they’ve found, as a lot of metalwork is lifted in soil blocks. Nor was I disappointed this time.

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Inger Nyström and Annika Carlsson unpacked the sword and put it into the SVK’s X-ray room. It’s a giant camera: you put X-ray photographic film on the floor, rest your find on it, and then shoot X-rays at it from an emittor hanging from a ceiling-mounted winch. This way they can photograph objects several metres long. The shots (developed in a real analog photo lab with a red lamp and smelling of vinegar!) showed that the sword is very well preserved and made entirely out of iron and steel: no incrustations of more precious metals. Its immediate future will entail prolonged leeching leaching in destilled water, removal of rust bubbles and impregnation with wax. Then back to Stockholm and a prominently located display case.

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While the X-raying took place, Annika and Ebba Phillips took me down to the ground floor and showed me their freeze dryer, a large submarine-like contraption currently containing bits of the Göta wreck, an early 17th century vessel.

The ladies explained to me how freeze-drying works as a conservation technique for waterlogged wood. First you replace as much of the water in the wood as you can with PEG, polyethylene glycol. If you just leave the wood to dry at this stage, the microscopic capillaries in the wood will collapse, your object will shrink and warp and it will be a mess. With freeze-drying, what you do is you freeze the whole thing so the capillaries are rigid, and then you apply a negative gas pressure so the water left in the wood wanders out and condenses elsewhere. The capillaries, instead of being filled with water and PEG or empty and collapsed, are still wide open and filled with air, their interior walls plastered with PEG.

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Beside the freeze dryer was Ebba’s new baby, an exceptionally mind-blowing — and large — find: the Brissund cannon. It sank in 1566 off Gotland with a ship of the Danish-Luebeckian fleet, was found in the 1980s and broke the surface less than three weeks ago. It’s a complete iron cannon still in its wooden carriage, made with the same technique as a wooden barrel: eleven long iron staves welded together to form a cylinder and encircled along its length by a large number of iron hoops. Ebba showed me a large piece of rusty crust that had fallen off the muzzle-end, containing well-preserved rope that had wrapped the barrel between the hoops. Magic stuff! And insanely complicated to conserve, what with the combination of huge chunks of incompatible materials. Ebba’s going to spend years on it.

I also had a peek at finds from a Swedish Catalina airplane shot down over the Baltic by the Russians in 1952, incredible Migration Period metalwork from the Finnestorp war booty sacrifice, a High Medieval buckler shield found off Skanör and sundry other goodies. My colleague Robert Hernek showed up with a Roman Period urn burial in a soil block, fresh from his dig. Then I said goodbye, had a late Thai lunch, located a bunch of geocaches and went home to Stockholm.

Update 10 October: I have no idea why my handheld computer put the wrong time stamp on those pics.

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Mats P. Malmer 1921-2007

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My number one archaeological hero, professor Mats Peterson Malmer, died on 3 October aged 86 minus 15 days. I knew him a little starting in the mid-90s, read most of what he ever wrote with avidity, sent him most of what I wrote, tweaked bits of some work of his in a paper published only months ago. When I was a green PhD student feeling miserable under the post-modernist orthodoxy at the Stockholm archaeology department, his 1984 Fornvännen paper “Arkeologisk positivism” came as a revelation to me.

Leif Gren took the above pic at Mats’s 80th birthday party: Mats is showing myself and my wife the typescript of what would become his last book, The Neolithic of South Sweden (2002).

A 1999 collection of archaeologists’ biographies, The Great Archaeologists (ed. Tim Murray, Santa Barbara, CA) covers only two Swedish scholars. One is Oscar Montelius (1843-1921), known as the Linnaeus of archaeology (and another one of my personal favourites). The other is Mats P. Malmer.

Mats Malmer stressed the importance of clear thinking and clear writing, because in science no thinking can ever be clearer than the language in which it is presented. He also stressed the primacy and uniqueness of archaeology’s source material: most sciences deal with mute inhuman things, history with speaking human things, and archaeology alone takes care of all that is mute and human. I am very proud to count myself a malmerian archaeologist.

Update 10 October: The funeral service is on Friday 9 November at 10:30 in Lidingö church. Attendees are invited to a post-funereal gathering in Grönsta vicarage. RSVP to Arvid Wærner undertakers, 08 – 663 16 15.

The advert in SvD and DN is a semiological paradox: headed with a cross yet quoting a few lines from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, that materialistic follower of Epicurus. Taken out of its context, the extract might wrongly be construed as speaking of a life after death. But I believe that Mats was most likely an Epicurean too.

More appreciations at Ting och tankar, Testimony of the Spade.

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