Åke Hyenstrand 1939-2007

Professor Åke Hyenstrand, chair of archaeology at the University of Stockholm from 1988 to 20013, died on Wednesday 28 November, aged 68. He was mainly known for his large-scale analyses of the Swedish sites and monuments register and for studies of late-1st Millennium political organisation. A characteristic piece of his work is the 1978 opinion paper “Fornminnesinventering, kulturminnesvård och arkeologisk samhällsforskning” (“Site surveying, heritage management and archaeological social science”, with an abstract in English).

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]


Psycho Killer Not Psycho Enough

Back in June I posted a translation of a remarkable opinion piece written by two senior psychiatrists, commenting on their examination of a mentally ill man who had just committed his second murder. Today the papers report that Socialstyrelsens Rättsliga råd (“The judicial council of the social directorate”) has found the man insufficiently crazy to qualify for forced psychiatric treatment. This is bad news, because it means that he will likely be sentenced to jail, and Swedish jail terms for murder being surprisingly brief, he will probably be out again before long.

As I’ve written before, to my mind violent crime is a symptom of insanity.

Questions of the perpetrators’ sanity in cases of violent crime always have me shaking my head. To my mind, the ability to commit a highly violent crime is, in itself, a symptom of insanity for all societal intents and purposes. Insanity is defined by violent behaviour among other things. And as we have no sure methods of curing such insanity, we must simply keep violent madmen locked up and sedated indefinitely for safety’s sake. Whether this is called a jail sentence or a one-way commitment to a mental hospital is to my mind irrelevant.

My position is utilitarian: I don’t care much whether the criminal can be held philosophically responsible for the crime, and I see no point in society avenging itself on the criminal. My main priority is to minimise the risk of repeat offenses. (And many with me believe that jail time is highly counterproductive in this respect: it encourages repeat offences and a criminal career.)

A really drunk person is for society’s practical purposes insane. And people who get drunk and become violent rarely choose to do so only once. So we should keep them from drinking.

In the case of roid rage murders, we have the similar knowledge that certain individuals have taken steroids and gone nuts. This makes them a societal liability. We should make sure they don’t do it again.

Criminal “justice”, to me, should be seen as societal hygiene, health care and risk management.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , .]

A Runic Farewell

i-bf86e66eed5b22f0ecd68f9a5bbd0c61-farvael.jpgFrom about 1845 to 1930, Sweden saw massive emigration to the United States. According to one estimate, about a third of the country’s population left. In 1900, more Swedes lived in Chicago than in Gothenburg. Many factors conspired to send people on their way: population expansion, a lack of agricultural land, failed crops, economic recession, and the simple pull of the virtual population vacuum beyond the American frontier, the pull of enormous opportunity, as industrialised Europeans encountered the Stone Age societies of the native Americans.

The emigration left its share of archaeological sites, mainly abandoned torp buildings in poor districts. But by Fullersta mill pond in Huddinge parish south of Stockholm is an unusual kind of emigration site. On a flat ice-polished rock outcrop (registered site Raä Huddinge 176:1) is an inscription in longhand and runes (and I translate).

thou beloved

The inscription was made by the miller’s hand Johan August Andersson, who left for the U.S. in 1872. I don’t know what became of him there.

Thanks to Roger Wikell for telling me about the inscription.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , .]

The Relics of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins

i-3e5eb3648f4b75958a8987c8cdefa490-St_ursula.jpgReading a good paper by Sten Tesch (in Situne Dei 2007) about porphyrite tiles scavenged from Roman ruins and re-used as portable altar slabs in 11th century Scandinavia, I was reminded of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. It’s a really good story about relics, up there with the cross of Jesus being tens of meters tall if all its alleged fragments were actually genuine.

St. Ursula is most likely a fictional character, but according to legend she was a Christian British princess who went on a pilgrimage to Rome before her planned marriage to the pagan Roman governor of Armorica. Early versions of the legend have it that Ursula was accompanied by eleven virgin handmaidens, but for some reason these girls were multiplied by a thousand after a few centuries, thus the 11,000. Anyway, whatever the number of virgin pilgrims, they got in the way of some Huns who were besieging Cologne in AD 383, and slaughtered all and one. If I understand correctly, the idea here is that Ursula is holy because she went on a pilgrimage and got killed by pagans rather than marry a pagan and lose her virginity, and her 11,000 girlfriends are holy because… something about virginity and Huns and stuff.

In the early 12th century, a Roman-era inhumation cemetery was discovered in Cologne (which had been a major city already from AD 50 onward). Soon someone had the idea that the cemetery belonged to the 11,000 maidens, and so every scrap of bone counted as a relic of St. Ursula. How awe-inspiring! And lucrative. For about three hundred years, the cemetery was quarried, supporting a booming trade, until the Pope cracked down on this quite uncommonly silly source of relics.

Tesch reports in a note that Sweden’s first known prose writer, Peter of Denmark (!), studied in Cologne in the late 13th century and bought some relics. Nine skulls of alleged ursuline virgins he brought home to St. Nicholas church in Visby.

St. Ursula is the patron of archers, orphans and students. However, since 1969, not even the Church of Rome believes in her anymore.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Chris at Highly Allochthonous Gets It

Yay, for once somebody at Sb except me is writing about European archaeology! SciBling Chris at Highly Allochthonous offers a long thoughtful writeup of a recent geology paper on the post-glacial flooding of the Black Sea basin and its possible effect on neolithisation. With a beautiful colour map of the European neolithisation wave!

Note that all the radiocarbon dates in Chris’s entry are uncalibrated ones. 8300 BP is the raw radiocarbon date for the flood event, but that isn’t equivalent to 6300 BC, it’s more like 7400 cal BC. (The Maglemose era, for you Scandies.) Free on-line radiocarbon calibration and an explanation for why it’s needed can be had at OxCal‘s site.

Royally Furnished Cemetery Found in NE England

i-b71af27df885c360603b83f3d21e512b-loftus.jpgA royally furnished inhumation cemetery of the 7th century has been excavated at Loftus in Teesside, north-eastern England. The finds are sensational as they hail from the “final phase” of furnished burial, when England had already been re-Christianised and grave wealth was in steep decline. Among the remarkable finds are gold-and-garnet jewellery in a southern English style. The cemetery centred on a bed burial, which is exceptionally rare. Historical sources suggest an explanation:

“The speculation is that the royals buried on Teesside are linked to the Kentish princess Ethelburga, who travelled north to marry Edwin, King of Northumbria.

She brought with her the Bishop Paulinus who baptised Northumbrian converts at Edwin’s Ad Gefrin royal palace site at Yeavering, near Wooler, in Northumberland.”

Update 23 November: More info collected at Carla Nayland’s blog.

For an in-depth analysis of the period’s grave customs, see Helen Geake’s 1997 book The use of grave-goods in Conversion-period England, c. 600 — c. 850. Thanks to Ian Rogers for the link.

[More blog entries about , , , , , ; , , , , , .]

Viking Army Councils

i-a18886c4ffc9357efafa7bc85ac2a10f-Haradskarta_28 copy.jpg

The other day, I started writing my Östergötland book in earnest, and I’m really enjoying myself. Here’s a snippet of today’s work.

The oldest known territorial unit in Östergötland is the härad district (etymologically, “army council”), of which the province originally had eighteen. This division is generally taken to have been established at a single event in the Viking Period. There is little evidence to allow us to date that event closer, and it may have taken place after AD 1000 [the end-point of the period under study]. Most likely the härad division event had something to do with the military duties of the Östgötar to a king — of Östergötland, of Sweden, even of Denmark, we cannot tell.

The division follows a neat baseline down the middle of the plains belt and generally does not correlate with natural features. It is thus unlikely to preserve vestiges of earlier territorial divisions. When parishes were laid out across the province in the 13th century, they were not made congruent with the härad system, though the judicial organisation continued to use it (with some modifications) as an organisational backbone throughout the Middle Ages and later. Thus, all in all, it seems that the härad system was used as originally intended only for a rather short period after its establishment, and that it is not relevant to earlier periods.

Each härad had a central judicial assembly site in the High Middle Ages, though in some cases there is evidence for assembly sites moving or competing. Whether these sites also had Viking Period pedigree is unknown.

Map from here.

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , , .]

Them Doggone Carnies

Blog carnivals!

  • The twenty-eighth Four Stone Hearth is on-line at Hot Cup of Joe. Archaeology and anthropology to a most awe-inspiring extent.
  • The next open 4SH hosting slot is already on 5 29 December. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me. No need to be an anthro pro — come as you are. And do it NOW.
  • A very fine Skeptics’ Circle may be found at Med Journal Watch. So fine, in fact, that I am on it despite forgetting to submit! Thanks Chris!
  • And all you biology types, check out the latest Tangled Bank at From Archaea to Zeaxanthol.

A Century of Fornvännen Free On-Line


Fornvännen is one of Scandinavia’s main scholarly journals about archaeology, Medieval art and adjacent disciplines. Its first volume appeared in 1906, and for the past several decades it’s been issued quarterly. I’ve been an avid reader since 1990 and one of the journal’s editors since 1999.

I’m very proud to announce that the first 100 volumes of Fornvännen are now available freely on the web! Roughly 3000 PDF files including complete scans, illustrations and all, and searchable text! The site has an excellent search & browse engine.

Most papers in the journal are in Scandinavian languages, but for decades each one has had an English abstract, summary and figure captions. Also, papers are increasingly being written entirely in English.

My warmest thanks to Kerstin Assarsson-Rizzi and Gun Larsson of the Library of the Academy of Letters for making this happen, and to the Academy itself for funding the project!

[More blog entries about , , , , , , , , , , ; , , , , , , , , , .]

Passenger Flight Needs to be Heavily Taxed


For a Swede, I believe I have an unusually small environmental footprint as my income is low and my habits relatively ascetic. But compared to most people in the world, anyone with half my standard of living is of course a huge culprit. The only thing I might brag about is having relatively few children, as I’ve fathered only one in each of my two marriages. Still, so do most Chinese, regardless of income, thanks to the admirable foresight and regrettable heavy-handedness of their dictatorship.

An obvious thing I could do to improve my enviro-karma is to fly less. I generally make two or three return trips by air each year, going to conferences and taking vacations. One of my blogger friends, Kai of Pointless Anecdotes, seems to make a lot more money than me, but he steadfastly travels by train. Still, I don’t think individual decisions to fly less are an effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.

What happens when the demand for a service lessens? Prices drop, re-establishing demand. To voluntarily put a serious dent in the demand for air-travel, affluent Westerners would have to be far more idealistic than they are ever likely to become. No, the only way to reduce passenger air travel is to make it too expensive for consumers. This will happen automatically when the fossil fuels run out, but that won’t happen until long after we’ve lost the battle against global warming.

Today, even dirt-poor Westerners like me can afford to fly. Being Swedish, I believe in a bit of social engineering. I say, let’s tax the muthas to death. We need to crank up the prices until it hurts to fly.

My planned January jaunt to the US highlights another absurd aspect of air travel. Current pricing structure strongly discourages fuel-efficient itineraries. An air trip actually becomes cheaper the less fuel-efficient it is, partly because there is greater demand for fast, direct trips. Ideally, I would go from Sweden to North Carolina to Florida to Sweden. But for some unfathomable reason, a one-way ticket across the Atlantic is almost as expensive as a return ticket. This is really unforgivable in the era of automatic web-based flight booking, where no expensive staff is involved in organising my itinerary.

Having more time than money, I have to go from Sweden to North Carolina to Florida, then back to North Carolina, and only then home to Sweden. Furthermore, domestic US flights become cheaper the more convoluted and time-consuming your itinerary. So I’m not going straight from Stockholm to Raleigh/Duram, NC: I’m touching down in Newark, NJ and Charlotte, NC on the way, both ways.

The system is grossly inefficient. A bit of tax pressure would do wonders to tighten it up. Saving the planet from heat death can’t realistically be left to the good will of individuals and corporations.

[More blog entries about , , , , ; , , , , .]