Pottery Styles and Shore Displacement

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As discussed here repeatedly before, the eastern coast of Sweden is in continual flux because of post-glacial shoreline displacement. Since the inland ice melted away and relieved its pressure on the land over 10 000 years ago, the dent made by the ice has been rebounding: first very quickly, then slower and slower. This land upheaval is however only half the explanation for where the shoreline has been at a certain time: the water level in the Baltic basin has also varied. This means that while the general trend has been for the shoreline to recede, there have been periods when it has stood still for centuries or even moved upwards.

Now, imagine shore-dwelling people with sloppy habits, whose settlements are littered with various kinds of garbage. The archaeological sites they leave behind will be easy to sort chronologically: the ones on mountaintops are really old, the ones near today’s shoreline really young. And when the shoreline stops moving for a while, then there will be uncommonly many sites at that level. Nicklas Björk (with whom I had the pleasure to dig in the season of 1992) demonstrated this clustering on certain levels above the sea for the Gästrikland coast in work published during the 1990s.

Neolithic shorebound sites along the Baltic coast of Sweden are rich in decorated pottery. With the aid of shore displacement, the chronology of this pottery should be easy to investigate. A certain pottery style should always be found on the same level above the sea, right? Unfortunately, no: because land upheavel isn’t uniform across the area once covered by the ice. It proceeds really quickly near the ice’s original centre of gravity, somewhere in Middle Norrland, and then becomes slower and slower as one approaches the edge of the ice. Outside the glaciated area, there is a zone where the land actually recedes. So it’s been very hard to make sense of the Neolithic pottery chronology. Axel Bagge published important studies in the inter-war years, but he could only really study the development within individual sites such as Säter and Fagervik. There was no way for him to find out whether a certain level on one site was older or younger than a certain level on another site, unless they were located very close to each other. And worse, the pottery is rich in long-lived or local traits that aren’t useful for interregional chronology. And Bagge didn’t have access to the stringent typological methodology developed by Mats Malmer around 1960. So things have long been fuzzy with the Neolithic pottery, despite the introduction of radiocarbon dating. But a brand new piece of work seems to have nailed it down.

My buddy Niklas Ytterberg has done something absolutely audacious. He started with Björk’s level clustering concept and extended it to the entire Baltic coast of Sweden, looking at hundreds of sites. Everywhere, he found the same number of clusters, though the actual levels they sat on varied widely. Then he turned to quaternary geology, where people have been busy for decades refining regional shore displacement curves using radiocarbon. (They drill cores in lake sediments, identify the level where seawater diatoms are replaced by freshwater ones, and date organics from that level.) Using the geologists’ regional shore displacement models, Niklas figured out which level clusters in the various regions’ Neolithic site record are coeval. And in a final step, he sorted through insane amounts of pottery from each level cluster and identified traits that were shared all along the coast at that time. Presto — we have an interregional Neolithic pottery chronology with stringent type definitions, absolute dates from radiocarbon and huge interdisciplinary relevance for quaternary geology. Thanks, Niklas!


Ytterberg, N., 2007. Östsvensk neolitisk keramik i Bagges efterföljd. In: Stenbäck, N. (ed.). Stenåldern i Uppland — uppdragsarkeologi och eftertanke. Arkeologi E4 Uppland — Studier 1. SAU/Raä UV. Uppsala.


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Carnival of the Godless 79 — Pie Now on Earth

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Welcome everybody to the Carnival of the Godless, a bi-weekly collection of good blogging from a perspective unclouded by notions of friendly guys in the sky who provide pie when you die.

And Bob’s your uncle. If you’ve enjoyed the carnival, feel free to FedEx me some pie. The next instalment will appear in the virtual flesh on 25 November at Sexy Secularist. Submit here.

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Selection Pressure on Altie Medicine

Evidence-based medicine, alternative medicine and weaponry change through time because of selection pressure. This means that they evolve and produce a fossil record of discontinued methods and therapies.

Any method or therapy introduced into alternative medicine will face selection pressure from two directions. If a method hurts patients to a visible extent, it will be recognised as weaponry and thrown out of altie medicine. Government regulations will forbid it and the more savvy altie practicioners will soon learn that it leads to nasty law suits.

If on the other hand a method introduced into alternative medicine turns out to be significantly beneficial to patients, it will soon be co-opted by evidence-based medicine and thus leave the altie realm.

So, there is evolutionary pressure on alternative therapies to achieve near-zero effect. This is why homeopathy is still around: its main method being the administration to patients of small amounts of clean water, it’s uniquely suited to surviving indefinitely in the alternative-therapy biotope. Homeopathic remedies can neither harm nor benefit patients.

Update 13 November: There’s a third kind of pressure on altie medicine to do nothing. Many evidence-based functional therapies incorporate drugs and procedures that can be dangerous if used in the wrong way. In order to be effective, a method must be pretty potent, and all power can be misused. Thus, an altie practitioner can never recommend a potent beneficial method due to the risk of patients ODing and dying.

Respectful Insolence and Neurologica liked the idea, picked it up and ran with it.

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DNA Identifies Ancient Foodstuffs

i-7ae26f7d4565063509130e4773973a1a-olivolja.gifHere’s a novel way of identifying the erstwhile contents of an ancient pottery vessel: never mind the chemical composition of the residue, the lipids, the proteins, the isotope ratios, the pollen, the phytholiths, the seeds or the leaf fragments. Just scrape some gunk off the inside of the sherds and check it for DNA snippets to identify the organisms that produced it!

The beauty of this approach is that you will easily see if the DNA you’ve grabbed is likely to belong to the substance originally kept in the vessel. If you come up with your own DNA or that of a soil microbe or earthworm, then you know you’ve got it wrong. There’s a book-length 1994 study by Biers et al. of perfume vials from classical antiquity where gas chromatography was used to identify the chemical composition of residues in the hope of matching perfume recipes preserved in written sources. This study was plagued by sample contamination: among the identified compounds, caffeine and nicotine made it clear that certain post-Columbian museum curators had been sloppy around their collections.

Anybody wanna buy a few amphorae of oregano-seasoned olive oil? It’s just in from Crete. For you, my friend, special price.

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History Carnival 58

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History is the study of past societies through surviving text and images. I just got back home to Sweden, whose narrative history starts in the 9nd century AD and is even then really patchy for centuries. I have spent the past two weeks in China, where recorded history starts some time in the mid-2nd millennium BC. And what did I find in my long-neglected in-box when I got home? The makings of the 58th History Carnival!

A blog carnival, for those of you who don’t already know, is an ambulatory and periodical collection of good blog writing relevant to a certain theme. Here today, somewhere else in a month. I got loads and loads of submissions for this edition, and so I have been selective: submissions that I found non-good and/or non-relevant were dropped as a service to the reader.

To the carnival! Before we dive into the past, just let me plug Cliopatria’s History Blogging awards. Mustn’t forget them, my preciousss.
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Towards a Social Theory of Sites We Haven’t Found

Jean François Revel once wrote, “Let there be no discussion about methods except by those who make discoveries”.

As may have become apparent at one time or another on this blog, I don’t share a number of the ideals prevalent in current academic archaeology in Sweden. Post-modernism has become unfashionable, so my resistance to that movement is no longer very controversial. But my disdain for “theoretical archaeology” is still something that sets me apart from many university-based colleagues. Now, most archaeologists are not university-based, so my opinions are in fact in tune with the majority view in my profession. Indeed, I’m not university-based myself, being instead a kind of threadbare gentleman scholar working outside the system on grants from private foundations.

My opposition to theoretical archaeology is most likely a contributing reason for why I have not been able to secure a university position since completing my PhD four years ago. (The main reason is probably my tender age: I’m 35, and the average age of archaeologists who get university jobs in Scandinavia is 41, with very little spread to either side of that value.) This is illustrated by a letter from the Swedish Research Council that was waiting for me when I returned from China. The message fills me with a mixture of disappointment and defiance.

I had applied for Research Council funding to finish my on-going project on late 1st millennium central places in the Swedish bread-box province of Östergötland. I started work on it in 2003 and have made it the main focus of my studies since 2005. In the course of the project, and in collaboration with Drs Williams, Olsson, Trinks and many other good people, I have excavated a Viking Period boat grave, dated a great barrow, metal-detected thirteen sites and located a 6th century aristocratic farmstead with extremely unusual finds. This site is the first known aristocratic settlement of the period in the entire province, and I have recently had it mapped by magnetometry. I have read through the relevant literature and collected a large database of relevant finds and sites from libraries, archives and museum collections. In outward communication, I have published a number of journal papers, on-line articles and blog entries, and given numerous talks about my work.

I think it’s fair to say that the project, though only half-completed, has already added substantially to our knowledge of Östergötland’s ancient political geography. However, it was rated rather low by the Research Council’s anonymous referee: it scored 2 out of 5, meaning “good research worth funding if there is any money left”, and there wasn’t any. Here’s why:

“The project description lacks social-theory anchorage that illuminates the period’s social organisation, structure and political situation, which makes it reasonable to start from the hypothesis about aristocratic sites in Östergötland. […] The project should develop a social-theory perspective, where Östergötland’s central places are related to other similar ones in South Scandinavia, to become more worthwhile and interesting for Scandinavian Iron Age research.”

To my mind this is just a case of diverging tastes. The senior colleague who refereed my application feels that there should be more social theory in archaeology. I believe that there is too much, that most of it is just cosmetics, and that it’s neither worthwhile nor interesting. Dear anonymous colleague: you may not think much of my work, but you see, this sentiment is most likely mutual. The important difference between us is just that you’re the one sitting on a bag of money.

As for the suggestion that the very existence of aristocratic sites of the later 1st millennium would be a hypothesis in need of verbose theoretical support, it makes me wonder whether my colleague has read any research into the period published since the discovery of the Helgö sites half a century ago. The sites are there: metal detect a dozen likely candidates and you’ll find one, as I have shown. A province in southern Scandinavia without any known Helgö sites is an anomaly these days. And before you’ve found and dug them, you can’t relate them to similar sites elsewhere — only in theory.

So, no Research Council money for me this time. I guess I could fake some theoretical blithering in my next application, but the thought fills me with disgust. I’m doing well and I’m staying my course.

Oh, right, who did get money this time? Out of 1300 applicants in the humanities and social sciences, 131 got something. Only two of them are archaeologists: both productive scholars with an interest in social theory who have worked at universities for years. One is 41, the other 47. Go figure.

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