The Star of Al-Qaeda

i-4c04f10a3d3e94703ee3cc8a126ccbfb-alkaid_UM.jpgHere’s something I’ve been wondering about. Anybody know Arabic historical linguistics?

Al-qaeda is Arabic for “the base, basis, foundation, military base”. Alkaid is the Arabic name for Eta Ursae Majoris, a star in the Big Dipper. It’s short for al-qaid al-banat an-nac, meaning “the leader of the daughters of the bier”, because the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were seen as mourning maidens, wailing at the bier of their father who had been murdered by Polaris.

So qaida is foundation and qaid is leader. Are these words true cognates? Does Al-Qaeda have its own star in the sky? The terrorist organisation has sure set a fair number of maidens a-mourning through its murders.

Update same evening: Dear Reader Bo explains that the two words do indeed share a root meaning “to sit down; to remain, stay”. Qaid can be translated as “companion; one with whom one sits together; keeper, guardian, supervisor”.

Update 8 October: Says Dear Reader Dilworth (who should know, being a professor of Arabic), “The star in the big bear constellation is called al-qaa’id in Arabic (I checked this on several Arabic astronomy sites) with a hamza in the middle (not an Ayn) which means that it is the active participle of the verb ‘to lead’, with the root qaaf waaw daal. Al-Qaeda is spelled with an Ayn in the middle (root qaaf, Ayn, daal) and it has the basic meaning mentioned: to sit. The two words are not only not cognate, they are not at all related.”

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Blog Carnival Call for Submissions

Wednesday 10 October will see the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival appear in all its archaeo/anthro glory at Remote Central. If you have read or blogged anything good on those themes lately, then make sure to submit it to Tim 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.

Internet Public Perception of Sword Find

Monday’s entry about the Djurhamn sword rocketed up the lists at the social bookmarking sites, and so Wednesday became the best day for traffic ever here at Aard. On an average day in the third quarter of this year, the blog saw about 650 unique visitors. For Wednesday, the number was 52,200. Someone to whom I owe thanks submitted the entry to Digg — under the heading “Offbeat News”, the section for entertainingly shaped carrots and blurry phonecam clips of poor dear Britney Spears’ genitalia.

Looking at sites that linked to the entry, I soon found with some amusement that the whole thing was being received in quite another way than the one in which I saw it myself. To my mind, it’s “Archaeologist Makes Rare and Illuminating Find”. But the archaeologist bit got lost almost immediately. The reported date of the find started to vary alarmingly, and a number of commentators appeared to believe that the mention of Djurhamn referred to the sword’s type instead of the find locality, that is, what had been found was “a Djurhamn sword”. In many readers’ perception, what had happened was that some dude with a metal detector had stumbled upon a cool sword and would probably make a fortune off it on eBay.

People apparently don’t think of the metal detector as an instrument used by scientists. Statistically, they are of course right: most detectorists are amateurs. And the entry is linked to by scads of web forums for detectorists and reenactors.

  • Unknown Highway (“… a strange journey into the offbeat, fringe areas of the Internet!”): “Metal Detector Dude Finds 16th Century Sword. Photos of an early-16th century sword unearthed from the depths.”
  • Clicked: “Using a metal detector this guy found a buried sword from the early 1600s. Following the headline, I was relieved to find that it’s not one of those ‘news of the weird’ stories about a retiree zig-zagging the beach at sunset. It’s an archaeology blog and the sword was found in a forest that used to be an active harbor.”
  • American Relic Hunters: “I’d have loved to see this guys chicken dance.”
  • SwordArts: “A Little Luck And A Metal Detector, yields 500 year old sword”
  • Digg:
    • “give it a month or so and im sure itll be on ebay”
    • “damn thats cool. i wanna find a kickass old sword. and then make a replica of it and put them side by side so you can see a before and after type thingy”
    • “This is why Europe is awesome: you can find f*cking swords in your f*ucking backyard.That is all.”
    • “someone is gunna be rich!. Good on him.”
    • “Oh dude Blizzard already put this sword into WoW, I think it’s the best one yet.”
    • “sick. did it say how much it was worth in there?”
    • “See OldPeople Still have a important things to do other then going 40mph on the freeway when the limit is 75mph”
  • Treasure Hunting: “A 16th Century Djurhamn sword was found by a man and his metal detector on August 30th, and now they’ve gathered a team and have managed to excavate it.”
  • Le Douche: “Some guy found this sword by using a metal detector around Harbour of the Sheaf Kings in Sweden.”
  • Viva la Revolution: “This dude geeking out with his metal dector and ends up finding a sword. Not just any sword. Its a sword that is over 300 years old.”
  • DrugMonkey: “Now this is one reason why science blogging is cool. Check that, this is why being a scientist is cool. I don’t care what your discipline, if you don’t get a little excited just reading about this discovery there is something wrong with you…”

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Three Good Albums

Three good albums, listened to in the car when driving to & fro the Djurhamn dig.


Silverbullit, Arclight (2004). This is dark and Gothamesque rock, sort of the Cure + the Stooges + Kraftwerk. The band searched high and low until they found a drummer who could and would play like a drum machine. One of the best Swedish records of the decade.


Olivia Tremor Control, Black Foliage (1999). The Pet Sounds era Beach Boys discover musique concrète just as the water supply becomes heavily contaminated with mescaline. Completely otherworldly yet drenched in the sweetest vocal harmony.


Skip Regan/Opia, Welcome To My Head (2000). Catchy and bluesy psychedelia with Lennon-soundalike guitar virtuoso Skip Regan singing about women and psychoactives. Available for free on-line from the talented stoner web developer himself.

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Mistranslations of the Third Kind


Over at David Nessle‘s, his witty readers are discussing translations — more particularly, bad translations. I collect crap translations from English to Swedish, so I decided to offer some to you, Dear Reader. To make this palatable to non-Swedish-speakers, I’ll add a second step to explain what the Swedish mistranslation means literally in each case.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Main character drives around on a rainy night looking for a place called Cornflower. Meeting someone, he asks for directions, but the other guy just drives off and our hero yells an insult after him.

“Excuse me — is this the way to Cornflower? … Turkey!”

Ursäkta, var ligger Cornflower? I Turkiet?

“Excuse me, where is Cornflower? In Turkey?”

Thriller novel about crazy man who takes a hostage and barricades himself with a bomb in Central Park. (Don’t remember title, please help.)

“He was very proud of his small arms.”

Han var mycket stolt över sina små armar.

“He was very proud of his small upper extremities.”

“Tanks were assembling in nearby streets.”

Tankbilar samlades på gatorna runt omkring.

“Tank trucks were assembling in nearby streets.”

“He stopped dead.”

Han stoppade döden.

“He stopped death.”

“We’ve got to do something about that flat [tyre].”

Vi måste göra något åt den där lägenheten.

“We’ve got to do something about that apartment.”

Finally, a tale told by my good friend Ylva about one of her first translation jobs, taken on while she was still in high school. (She later went on to become one of Sweden’s best and most prolific translators of speculative fiction.) Teen Ylva calls her mother, a teacher, and says, on the verge of tears, “Oh Mom, I just can’t figure this out! It says here that the hero is wearing a piece of cod!”

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Medieval Soapstone Quarry


On the excursion during the Sachsensymposium in Trondheim last month we visited Slipsteinsberget (“Grindstone Hill”). Not only did we visit the place, but the entire conference (some of whose participants were in their 70s) climbed around the whole hill (rain-sodden, wooded and steep) like mountain goats. Our guide was the charming Bodil Østerås, head of Egge Museum. Her 2002 Augmented Master’s Thesis (No. hovedoppgave) Slipsteinsberget i Sparbu : kva eit klebersteinsbrot kan fortelje om gamle steinhoggartradisjonar deals mainly with the site we visited.


The hill consists mainly of soapstone, talcum and serpentine. Indeed, there is no mineral in it that is actually useful for grindstones. So then, why the name? Probably because an entire hillside untouched by later quarries is covered by curious circular scars where people have obviously extracted stone. There are also mine tunnels whose insides are covered with the scars. They look like they may have something to do with wheel-shaped grindstones. But in fact, they’re from Late Iron Age and Medieval soapstone pot production.


Soapstone pots are ubiquitous on Norwegian Viking Period settlement sites and coeval sites elsewhere connected to Norway by trade. The material (which is partly talcum) is soft enough to be carved with woodworking tools, and it has excellent thermal properties. To make a pot, a stone carver would carve a pot-sized little dome out of the hillside and then lop the dome off before hollowing its inside out. This left a characteristic round scar. There are also a few surfaces with rectangular scarring where building stone has probably been taken. Much of the hillside is hidden by enormous spoil dumps from the quarrying, so there is most likely much evidence for how the work was done to be found underneath. Bodil has trial-trenched a house foundation on top of a dump and got a 15th-century radiocarbon date.

Update 6 October: Dear Reader Brian points out that there’s a remarkably similar 1st Millennium soapstone vessel quarry in Newfoundland, belonging to the Dorset Culture.

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Djurhamn Fieldwork Mopup


Today we finished fieldwork at the find spot of the sword I wrote about yesterday. Sieved 5 sqm without a single non-recent find, but the only way to know is to sieve. My dad came out with a pulley and removed the hazel stump that had been sitting on the sword, so we’re pretty damn sure there wasn’t anything else of interest within the confines of that trench.


Immediately outside the trench, though, began a quay foundation, taking the form of a straight c. 20 m long stensträng, a line of stone blocks, at a right angle to the incline. You can see it as a diagonal from top left to bottom right in the above picture. Very unlikely to be a random occurrence that the sword turned up right beside it. In the foreground are the four corner markers of our back-filled little trench.


One of today’s workers was friendly local mechanic and carpenter Rune Ehrsson. He brought a fine piece of Late Medieval or Early Modern pottery to show us: a glazed earthenware tripod sauteing pan (anyone got a better fix on the date?). Rune was at the oars once in the mid-40s when his grandma Alma pulled the pot out of the water in her fishing net, not far from the Djurhamn inlet. Rune has offered the pot to a museum, but they declined because they had so many intact ones already.


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Djurhamn Sword Excavated


Happy Djurhamn project co-directors Katarina Schoerner and August Boj.

i-9039a7a3b0b37e0c47dadd4befc6dd31-DSCN8081lores.JPGAided by many volunteers and using tools borrowed from my dad and the Stockholm County Museum, I’ve spent the day getting the Djurhamn sword out of the ground.

I found the sword on 30 August while metal detecting around the Harbour of the Sheaf Kings. Today we marked out a 2.5 by 2.0 metre trench around the sword, got rid of a lot of vegetation, dug and sieved 2.5 square metres and got the sword out. Its point was wedged between the roots of a large hazel bush, so I only got it out in one piece thanks to its excellent preservation.

It’s a straight double-edged sword, 92 cm long with a single-hand grip. Nils Drejholt of the Royal Armoury tells me that it’s an early-16th century weapon, unusually designed but similar in details to the so-called rikssvärden, “swords of the realm”, ceremonial weapons commissioned by King Gustaf I.

The date tallies well with the level above the sea considering shore displacement. The sword appears to have been dropped into the water from a nearby quayside whose remains I’ve located or from a ship moored at the quay. Indeed, judging from the topography, Djurhamn was a really good harbour only until about 1600 when the entrance channel to a natural lagoon had shrunk too much to allow the passage of ships any more. The former lagoon is now a large tract of marshy forest.

We wrapped a thick wooden board in foam-plastic sheet and strapped the sword to it before sealing the whole thing in more foam sheet and corrugated box board, Sw. wellpapp whatever that kind of composite cardboard may be called in English. Next, off to the conservators. But first, another day of sieving, cleaning-up and backfilling. Today’s sieving didn’t turn up a single find, but we have two brass buttons possibly coeval with the sword from metal detecting in the vicinity.

TV News story here.



Photo by Katarina Schoerner.

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