New Archaeological Exhibit Offers Questions, No Answers

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The Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm has recently completed a new permanent exhibition about Swedish prehistory. It was planned under the stewardship of the controversial Kristian Berg, a non-archaeologist whose attitude to the museum placed in his care may be summarised as politically expedient, instrumental and post-modernist.

I haven’t seen the new exhibition, and so can’t have any opinion of my own about it. But I am not surprised to find that it is getting some very bad press, and with a recurring theme. This exhibition is asking questions and not providing any answers.

“… wherever you turn you are sent, by means of guiding questions and officious proclamations, back to yourself and your own era. It feels just as boring and disappointing every time, like walking up to a window to look outside only to find that the window is a mirror.

I wish the Museum of National Antiquities had skipped all this pretentious rhetoric. It makes it harder for the visitors to think for themselves, and it hopelessly obscures the exhibition itself, which does contain a few oddities — a bunch of modern dish brushes, for instance — but also many beautiful and interesting pieces. There are more than 3,000 objects in the exhibition, everything from trepanned Neolithic skulls to mystical Bronze Age cult objects and Roman glass vessels.”

Eva Bäckstedt, Svenska Dagbladet 15 November 2007

and

“The questions are many, or should I say, innumerable. It feels a little like taking a quiz walk among the many objects, bones, weapons, ornaments. But there is no key to this quiz, you have to make up your own answers.

[…]

It is as if the museums have lost the ability, or the ambition, to tell us anything at all. There must be huge amounts of solid knowledge and exciting interpretations in there somewhere, but nobody seems to be willing to take any responsibility for them, or relay them to an audience.

[…]

Running the risk of sounding like a Liberal Party Minister of Education: When, and why, did the museums stop believing in knowledge as the foundation of their activities, instead investing everything they have into experiences, cosmetics and unfettered guesswork?

Was it when the unifying nationalism eroded away as the main goal for large museums? Was it when post-modernism started to attack belief in the canon of the humanities and the Great Narratives? Was it when old-time authority went out of vogue in the 60s, or when money became scarce in the 90s? Or perhaps when everything that looked like boring text and demanding explanations could be shunted off to the web?

I don’t know, but one thing is for sure: many of this autumn’s exhibitions in Stockholm form a cohesive picture of an identity crisis that may in time become extremely dangerous for museums. Because if they no longer believe that they have anything important to tell us — then what good are they to us?”

Lars Linder, Dagens Nyheter 4 December 2007

Museum pieces and questions are not enough to make popular science. That is the starting point of the scientific research process. Archaeology has been amassing scientific knowledge about Scandinavian prehistory for a century and a half by now. Because of pomo relativism, the Museum of National Antiquities appears to have missed an important opportunity to relay some of this knowledge to the public in an entertaining way in decades to come. And in my opinion, that is one of the museum’s most important duties.

Update 17 January: Lars Linder comments further on the issue.

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ScienceBlogs Infiltrates Germany

i-16e51cb31852f63e75739ccf3fad11cf-logo_science-blogs.gifThe German language now has its own ScienceBlogs. Thirteen new SciBlings! I can read them but I can’t write German well enough to take part much. So far they don’t have any archaeologists, but I’ve found a few entries of interest to people with such predilections.

  • Volker at Darwins Erbe (“D’s legacy”) writes about Neanderthals and space aliens.
  • Jürgen at GeoGraffitico tells us about America’s christening certificate: a 1507 map with the first printed mention of the continent’s modern name. You do know, Dear Reader, about Amerigo Vespucci?
  • Christoph at Wissen schafft Kommunikation (it’s a pun, meaning roughly “Science communication” and “Knowledge creates communication”) reports about a new code-like interpretation of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

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Hillforts of Kings and Peasants

Here’s another snippet from my on-going book project. Context: I’ve surveyed the central-place indicators of the Late Roman Period (AD 150-400) in Östergötland, and now I’m moving into the book’s main period of study from AD 400 onward, starting with an evaluation of the Migration Period hillforts. Are they useful for my present king-chasing purposes?

A somewhat relevant site type in the search for Migration Period elite settlements is the hillfort, of which Östergötland has many. They appear to have about the same date distribution as the field walls (Late Roman and Migration Periods), but their interpretation is less clear-cut: they cannot be seen as a single class of commensurable sites.

Most hillforts show no sign of habitation, are located away from the best farmland and were probably built as refuges in anticipation of war. Clearly, building one took a respectable amount of labour, but most are simple structures: Nordén (1938:280, and I translate) mentions “… many of Östergötland’s hillforts, whose low, irregularly undulating ramparts often may seem to the casual observer as rather haphazardly created natural formations …”. Nothing suggests that that such a project would have demanded top-down coercive leadership rather than the voluntary collaboration of a number of households.

Other forts in densely settled areas such as Boberget in Konungssund and Odensfors in Vreta kloster have thick culture layers, usually with evidence for textile working and other crafts, and should probably be seen as fortified farmsteads with varying social pretensions (Olsén 1965:145; Olausson 1987). Yet most of Östergötland’s hillforts have seen no excavations, and determining the type of an individual fort can be difficult.

The hillforts’ overall distribution across the province (Olsén 1965:143; Hyenstrand 1984:88; Kaliff 1987a; Selinge REF) reflects their multifaceted character. Almost all of them are in semi-marginal locations in the eastern half of the plains belt, probably because a) the coast’s proximity allowed seaborne attackers to pose a greater threat here, b) the eastern half of the plains belt has far more hills. The few hillforts in western Östergötland occupy strongly marginal locations along waterways leading south from the central plains or have been placed offensively to guard Motala ström and Lake Boren. This means that as indicators of an elite presence, the hillforts have severe weaknesses. We have noted previously that the Gullborg fort in Tingstad parish has finds of Late Roman Period gold and glass and a metal-casting crucible. But this observation cannot be generalised to tell us anything about other hillforts in Östergötland. All we really have is gold and glass and metal-casting at that individual site.

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Science Debate 2008

Dear Reader, according to my server logs, you are likely to live either in the US or in Sweden. Considering the blog neighbourhood I’m in, and the contents of Aard, I believe you care about science. Regardless of party politics, and wherever we all are in the world, I think we can agree that we urgently need the next US president to be science-friendly, science-savvy and reality-based.

i-32523212dc3d7827c72894c8b5059a25-sciencedebate2008.jpgThe Science Debate 2008 initiative has been launched to push science policy as a central issue in the US presidential campaign. Specifically, and using their not inconsiderable media clout, the original signatories are urging the various candidates to stage a public debate on science issues.

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

Check it out, and please consider endorsing the initiative by signing onto the roll and perhaps linking from your blog!

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Whose House Are You Haunting Tonight?

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An album I can really recommend is LA quartet OK Go‘s 2005 disc Oh No. It’s catchy, glammy rock with swagger and brains and decadence, recorded in Sweden and beautifully produced by Tore Johansson and the mighty Lindgård/Mopeds brothers. In addition to them kicking ass musically, the band’s lyrics (by Damian Kulash) are unusually poetic and literate. Dear Reader, I bring you the lyrics to the delicious “Oh Lately It’s So Quiet”, which are sung in a bedroom falsetto by the hugely talented Mr Kulash.

Oh Lately It’s So Quiet
By Damian Kulash of OK Go

Oh, lately it’s so quiet in this place
You’re not ’round every corner
Oh, lately it’s so quiet in this place
So darling if you’re not here haunting me
I’m wondering

Whose house are you haunting tonight?
Whose sheets you twist,
Whose face you kiss?
Whose house are you haunting tonight?

I don’t think much about you anymore
You’re not on every whisper
I don’t think much about you
But if you’re not lurking behind every curtain
I’m wondering

Whose house are you haunting tonight?
Whose name you hiss,
Who’s clenching fists?
Whose house are you haunting tonight?

Now whose house are you haunting tonight?
Who can’t resist,
Who’s crying,
“Whose house are you haunting tonight?”
Whose name you hiss,
Whose sheets you twist?
Whose house are you haunting tonight?

Update 12 December: I suddenly realised that this OK Go song is an obvious response, musically and lyrically, to the Cars’ 1984 hit “Drive”. “Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” OK Go cite the Cars as a major influence alongside the Pixies.

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Bob Lind Finds Magnificent Phallus

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Bob Lind chalking some apparently quite genuine cupmarks, a ubiquitous type of Bronze Age rock art.

Alternative archaeoastronomer Bob Lind (note that I do not call him an unhinged man with crackpot theories) felt himself vindicated this past summer by the Swedish Heritage Board. On a set of new visitors’ signs, the Board didn’t actually endorse Lind’s alternative interpretation of the stone ship of Ales stenar, but the signs recounted his ideas alongside the scholarly consensus interpretation without taking a stand on the issue. This was enough to make Lind a very happy man.

Now, local Scanian media report (here, here and here) that Lind has moved on to a new project of grandiose scope. No longer is Lind reinterpreting a famous, scenic and well-preserved ancient monument. He has found a previously unknown “monument” of his own — and it’s 180 meters long!

Independent archaeoastronomical researcher Bob G. Lind’s theories about Ales stenar put the entire academic elite firmly in their place. His new discovery makes Ales stenar pale in comparison.

“Without any doubt the largest one ever in Northern Europe!”

[…]

A 180 meters long stone setting, shaped in an extremely intricate way according to the various equinoxes [!] of the year.

“I was walking in this great big meadow with friends and instinctively felt a tension. [And with the aid of aerial photography:] Suddenly I saw the entire big picture. My measurements confirmed all theories. It was a highly exact solar clock and also a sacrificial site.”

To top it all in this giant structure, there is a magnificent phallus.

[…]

Most of the many stones that form the cult site reach c. 60-80 centimeters into the ground, while many only protrude a few decimeters above the surface of the modern soil.

This is good news. When Bob Lind unveils an interpretation that is so plainly nuts and doesn’t even touch upon a real ancient monument, it will be easier to repair the damage done to the public’s perception of the area’s archaeology by the Heritage Board’s new signs at Ales stenar. There’s even an endorsement by dowsing-rod enthusiast and former geology professor Nils-Axel Mörner, whose very name is a solid guarantee for high-grade woo.

Those journalists really don’t know jack shit about archaeology.

Thanks to Hexmaster for the links.


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Göteborgsposten and Svenska Dagbladet are both running a news agency story about the thing uncritically. Mörner gets called an archaeologist. This is a fricking disgrace.

Sveriges Radio P4 Malmö too.

But thankfully, Clas Svahn at Dagens Nyheter offers a far more skeptical perspective.

Update 10 December: Oh great. Turns out that Lind hasn’t actually found a new site after all. He’s just stumbled upon a small and rather mundane Early Iron Age cemetery that’s been known to scholarship at least since the 1930s. David at Arkeologiforum identifies it as registered site Ravlunda 169:1. The site is known to local tradition as Höga stenar, “the tall stones” or “the mound stones”. Lind, however, calls the place “the stones of Heimdallr”. How cosmic.

Update 12 December: Clas Svahn at Dagens Nyheter gleefully reports that Lind hasn’t in fact discovered anything new.

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Book Review: Kroik, Hellre Mista sitt Huvud

This 88-page booklet by Åsa Virdi Kroik is named “You’d rather lose your head than turn in your drum”. The title refers to shamanic drums among the Saami. The book is based on an MA thesis in the history of religion defended at the University of Stockholm in 2006. Reading it, I soon realised that it can’t simply be evaluated from a scholarly point of view: this is at heart also an ethno-political tract. I’ll comment on the political aspects first and then on the scholarly ones.

For the non-Scandy reader, I should explain that the Saami are a sub-Arctic indigenous minority in Norway, Sweden, Finland and NW Russia. They speak a number of Fenno-Ugric dialects that are incomprehensible to the majority populations of the area. Historically, their presence has been documented about as far back as that of the area’s Indo-European speaking groups, to the early 1st Millennium AD. At that time the Saami were hunter-gatherer-fishers, and for the past millennium they have also been reindeer pastoralists. Since appearing on the historical radar, the Saami have steadily been driven into increasingly marginal areas by the agricultural majority populations. They were forcefully Christianised in the 18th century and their languages were suppressed into the 20th century. Today they are thoroughly modern people with a high general level of education. US readers will recognise the situation: the Saami are northern Fenno-Scandia’s First People, and they currently cultivate a nationalistic movement.

Kroik has been funded by the Swedish Saami Parliament, both while writing her thesis and in producing the book. Her publisher is Boska, “The Society for the Preservation of Saami Culture and Folk Medicine”. She grew up in a reindeer pastoralist family, she believes that reindeer pastoralism has gone on “since time immemorial” or “for ever”, she feels that three mountains visible from her childhood homes are “holy mountains with a special importance for the Saami people”, and she speaks nostalgically about “the old Saami gods”. All this is imparted in the book’s first few pages. Further into the book she keeps making statements about how Saami people are today, how important the landscape is to them all, what their goals and feelings are like. This is called ethnic essentialism, and it’s not a respectable position in modern academe, to say the least.

Now, I’m an anti-nationalist. I reject all claims to deep ancestral heritage, be it by Swedes, Saami, Finns, Germans or Native Americans. My Swedishness is not the Swedishness of my Medieval ancestors. Kroik’s Saaminess is not the Saaminess of her Medieval ancestors. And I’m quite sure she isn’t actually equipped to speak for all Saami of today.

I believe that all citizens of a secular democracy should enjoy equal rights and shoulder equal responsibilities. And I believe that ethnic guilt is not heritable: if my great-great-grandfather committed atrocities toward Kroik’s great-great-grandfather, then this is not my responsibility. What is important is that Kroik and I treat each other fairly now. Finally, I believe that the cultural heritage in all its diversity is aesthetically valuable regardless of ethnic labels.

Enough of politics. On to scholarship, to the fascinating study of the twilight of Saami ethnic religion! Kroik follows the lead of professor Håkan Rydving in studying micro-variation in Saami culture. Her area of study is Frostviken (where she grew up) and Namdalen, straddling the border between Norway and Sweden. Sadly, as I moved through the book’s drawn-out preliminaries, waiting for the actual study to begin, I finally realised that it contains no original research into Saami religion. It’s just a compilation of other scholars’ results, selected and held together by the geographical study area.

Many MA theses are of course not independent research projects, and the general level of independence varies from discipline to discipline. But this text would never have received a cum laude (“VG”) grade in my discipline for its contents, and formally speaking it’s an amateurish piece of work, the tense varying haphazardly etc. So it appears clear that the reason that the Saami Parliament funded the project can’t have been its academic or literary qualities. They liked it because of its politics.

Of course, when an ethnic Swede like myself criticises Saami nationalism, he invites angry comments about colonialism, fascism, even genocide. To try to avoid this knee-jerk response, just let me explain that I’m from Stockholm, far from the Saami area, and I have no stake in the land disputes over Saami reindeer herding. I have nothing against Saami people or Saami culture, just against nationalism and blood-and-soil politics. I’m not voicing this criticism as a representative of any “Swedish nation”, because I don’t accept that there is any such thing. In my view, myself and Kroik are simply both citizens of the secular democracy of Sweden, and I don’t like her book much.

Update 10 December: A historian of religion I know tells me that professionals in this discipline generally find Kroik’s New Age tendencies odd. Her mindset is not typical for scholars at the Stockholm department or elsewhere.


Kroik, Åsa Virdi. 2007. Hellre mista sitt huvud än lämna sin trumma. Boska. Hönö. 88 pp. ISBN 978-91-633-1020-1.


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Remote Control Metal Detector

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Here’s a funny toy: a remote-controlled car with a built-in metal detector. Drive it over a piece of metal and it’ll go BEEP and light up. It doesn’t have anything like serious ground penetration, but still, a cool toy.

There are several reasons that metal detecting has not been made into a mechanised remote sensing technique. I guess the main one is that only archaeologists would have any use for such a machine, and we don’t have the money to make it worthwhile to develop and market it. Also, while building a mechanised detector and find mapper would be easy, it would be considerably more tricky to equip it with a sensitive digging mechanism that could get finds out of the ground and bag them without damaging them.

Thanks to Hans for the tip.

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11th Century Reliquary Crucifix

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A long-time friend of my parents wrote me a letter recently, telling me that she’d found something unusual in her late mother’s jewellery box. Today I visited her and had a look.

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i-2f33d44b57b7940b73f75812bac37285-DSCN8101-lores.JPGIt’s a small cast copper-alloy crucifix, darkly patinated, with a semi-obliterated image of the crucified Christ incised onto the front surface. The piece is made like a box, hollow on the back side, with loops at the top and bottom as if it had originally been joined to a back piece. Its dimensions are 82 by 45 by 5 mm, length 70 mm if you disregard the loops.

The crucifix has no provenance, and its owner can only guess how it ended up in her mother’s jewellery box. This is a little frustrating, because unless I’m entirely mistaken, we’re looking at an 11th century enkolpion, a reliquary crucifix intended to hold a small relic. They’re not common finds. A more elaborate one was found in the 1990s at Uppåkra near Lund, one of Scandinavia’s richest 1st Millennium settlement sites and beyond doubt a Dark Ages royal seat. So this is breaking news!

(Twoflower’s gonna cry now, because his scale markers were at my office and I couldn’t get them before I left this morning. I apologise!)

Update 5 December: Dear Reader Tobias has found an exact match for the piece on the web site of a Californian antiques dealer. The Californian enkolpion is complete, retaining both its halves, but it is also unprovenanced.

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Update 8 December: Writes Jörn Staecker, Scandinavia’s foremost authority on these things (and I translate):

“The find belongs to my type 3.3.1 (p. 161 ff). Date, 10th century, probably a mass product from Palestine. Most likely, the reliquary cross came to Scandinavia with a traveller in the 19th or 20th century. In the bazaar in Istanbul, there are more Byzantine objects than there are in the museums…”

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