Finnestorp War Booty Sacrifice

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A miniature face on a gilded cast copper-alloy display buckle, 5th century AD

One of the many things us Swedish archaeologists envy our Danish colleagues is their numerous large and well-preserved finds of Iron Age war booty. Clearly people in modern-day Denmark had the custom of sacrificing war booty in holy lakes, and when they silted up and became bogs the anaerobic environment preserved many objects perfectly. Generally, the finds seem to be the campaign gear of invading armies, dominated by weaponry but also including tools, personal items and even a number of boats.

Sweden does have a few of these sites, but for long the only one that had been excavated to any useful extent was Skedemosse on Öland where preservation was rather poor. In recent years, however, my Gothenburg colleage Bengt Nordqvist and the Historical Society of that city have done fieldwork at Finnestorp in Västergötland, uncovering rich and unusually late sacrificial deposits from the Migration Period. The metal detectorists involved also work with me in Östergötland where they have made a great many important discoveries.

The Finnestorp project‘s web site went live today, and so far it offers a 76-page illustrated overview of fieldwork and finds from 2000 to 2004, written in Swedish. I’m sure it will be worth taking a look at the site every few months for new developments.

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ICQ Gender Wars

A pretty Chinese maths teacher said hello to me on ICQ the other day, hoping to marry a Westerner. This inspired me to dig out and re-post the following entry from November 2006.


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For many years I have spent most of my working days alone at a computer. Alone, but thanks to the internet and messaging software, not lonely. As mentioned before in connection with the story of Lennart, International Casanova, it’s good to have a chat now and then with other solitary souls over ICQ. They become your workmates even though they may be located on the other side of the planet in meatspace terms, to use a quaint 80s cyberpunk expression.

The spidery network of ICQ contacts can also teach you a lot about gender politics. In recent years, I have increasingly been contacted over ICQ by nubile females in Eastern Europe and Asia. These chats are usually very short and follow a simple pattern. The lady in question asks me in shaky English whether I am married, if I have children and what sort of job I have. And when I reply “yes”, “yes” and “not a well-paid one”, the conversation ceases. With all due respect to these enterprising and fearless ladies, this did get boring really quickly. But the problem mostly disappeared when I entered into my ICQ profile that I am in fact married and have kids.

For the past week I’ve been alone at home a lot and so have had reason to say “Hey there, how ya doing?” to a lot of random strangers on ICQ. Most people don’t reply at all to that sort of message. But among those who did, I quickly noticed another interesting pattern.

Far more males than females replied, and a lot of these males apparently hoped that I might want to have sex with them. This did not seem to be contingent on my income or family configuration, which I find kind of heartwarming in comparison to those grimly goal-orientated Eastern would-be brides. But as soon as it became apparent that I wasn’t interested in penis-themed conversation, these chats also ceased.

As for the ladies, the problem was really the opposite. Those few who responded were willing to have a chat, but at the same time they were clearly very guarded. Some started out by telling me, out of the blue, that they were not interested in sex talk or sex pics. This is not how live face-to-face chats with strangers usually begin. “Errrr”, responded I, “do you think we might perhaps simply have a civilised conversation?”.

Cyber sex is the text-messaging equivalent of phone sex. It’s a lot like having to read a very bad pornographic story line by line as it is improvised by someone who’s had sex but has never written a story before. It’s time-consuming, boring and in my opinion absolutely pointless. The internet is full of porn, a lot of it written and a lot of it written really well. But still, it seems that women on ICQ are absolutely besieged by men who want to have cyber sex and preferably also web cam pics of their anatomy. For women, ICQ seems to be a bit like going to a cocktail party where half of the male guests are insane sex offenders.

So I’ve made another addition to my ICQ profile. It now reads:

Archaeologist & all-round friendly guy.

Married, two kids. I don’t do cyber sex and I don’t want to see pics of your boobs or private parts, OK?

Let’s see if it works.

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The Amazing Meeting 5.5, Plantation, FL

I wrote this last night in Florida, but the hotel wifi was on the blink, so I couldn’t get it on-line. I am now at Newark airport in New Jersey, having just eaten my first bowl of matzoh soup. Oy vey, good stuff!

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Audience frowning in concentration

I’ve been to gaming conventions and academic conferences and recently my first blogging convention, and now I’ve experienced my first skeptics’ convention: The Amazing Meeting 5.5, a 1.5-day mini-con hosted by the Amazing Randi himself.

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James Randi demonstrating Geller-like powers

Friday offered a solid four-hour round-robin lecture on podcasting and blogging by Bart Farkas, Rebecca Watson and Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast. I’ve listened to podcasts regularly since 2005, and now I learned a lot about how they are made. For instance, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is made as a Skype teleconference, with everyone recording themselves locally and then sending their sound files to Stephen Novella for editing after the session’s end. Rebecca Watson recorded about 20 episodes sitting in her closet because of acoustics!

I don’t plan on going into podcasting myself: in order to reach any respectable number of listeners who share my interests I’d have to do it in English, and Stockholm, Sweden isn’t the best place to find reliably Anglophone people to come on a show. I’m a happy blogger, and what I do here is far more visible to the search engines than what it would be if I read it out loud and put it on-line as a sound file with brief show notes.

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Podcasting panel: Dunning, Stackpole, Watson, Farkas

The main part of the conference was today, with talks by Kelly Jolkowski of Project Jason, Brian Dunning, Mark Roberts on 9/11 conspiracy theories, Rebecca Watson, Michael Stackpole, Bart Farkas, Alison Smith of SAPS, Robert Lancaster of Stop Kaz and Stop Sylvia Browne, Jeff Wagg and James Randi. Our MC was the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait (who told me he just submitted the manuscript for his new book a few days ago!). Finally, there was a Q&A panel onto which I had managed to insinuate myself, so I got my moment in the spotlight too and bragged about the Swedish Skeptics’ accomplishments. After I’d mentioned Zenon Panoussis’s brave work against Scientology, the audience gave him spontaneous applause. The quality of the day’s talks was very high indeed. My favourites were Mark Roberts and Robert Lancaster who had interesting things to say and did so with great rhetorical skill.

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Q&A panel: Jolkowski (obscured), Watson, Roberts, Rundkvist, Stackpole, Lancaster. Pic by Scott Hurst.

Many thanks to all the good people at the JREF who got the whole thing together for us! TAM is characterised by the invisible network of on-line friendships that many participants already have in place at arrival thanks to the JREF’s on-line forum. With all these smart and friendly people apparently on the forum, I’m definitely going to check that out. And who knows, maybe I’ll attend some skeptical con in 2009 too?

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Phil Plait: good man, Bad Astronomer

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Volunteering at the JREF

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Spent yesterday volunteering at the James Randi Educational Foundation, doing manual work and getting to know people. I moved furniture, cleaned up trash, painted a door and pasted errata sheets into books. And everybody was so nice to me! Loads of good conversation and silly jokes. I’m here as a representative of the Swedish Skeptics Society, so I make an effort to overcome my retiring personality and make as many new contacts as I can.

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Jeff Wagg bought me breakfast at Denny’s. Our party was accosted by a Christian lady who overheard us talking about atheism and wanted us to repent! I almost thought I was on Candid Camera there for a sec. The JREF’s founder took me for a drive in his blue sports car, bought me lunch and regaled me for an hour with stories of grave robbing in Peru, among many other topics. Writer of a hundred books Bart Farkas drove me back to the hotel and bought me drinks. Finally, Rebecca the Skepchick entertained me at dinner and tried to bully me (and everybody else within earshot) into taking a nocturnal swim in the hotel pool. Good times!

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Suicide-Inducing Florida Retirement Community

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Took a walk around the local geocaches, ended up trapped for half an hour in a nightmarish retirement community. Endless identical white single-story houses with garages and immaculate lawns, the streets deserted in the baking January afternoon. I was half-expecting octogenarian Stepford wives to come hobbling after me with trays of synthetic cookies. Many of the houses appeared to belong to retired military men, there were a lot of star-spangled banners (not many people know that it actually got its name from a Jimi Hendrix tune!), and a memorial garden at one end of the grizzled ghetto had many plaques speaking of wars fought before my parents were born.

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Two signs of life cheered me. One was surreal: the area was full of Muscovy ducks, big fat motley ones with red knobbly wattle over their beaks. Fearless, they came waddling up to me briskly, expecting to be fed. The other made me sigh with relief: an old black woman was sitting in her garage with the door open, a radio playing jazz, the car-space furnished as if it were the porch of a traditional Southern house. Granny, you made this skinny white boy’s day.

In other news, I have been interviewed by a minion of my overlords and I will spend tomorrow volunteering for conference preparation work at the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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Sim Florida

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Descending toward Ft Lauderdale airport this morning, I was shocked by the expanse of suburban sprawl stretching to the horizon below me. A huge drained swamp, all flat, covered by an intricate pattern of canals and streets and plots with low single buildings, broken only by a few golf courses and one or two cluster of skyscrapers. And nothing in sight older than a few decades. I suddenly realised that the reason the cities in Sim City look so artificial is that they model actual American urban areas. Nothing in this area has arisen organically. Everything has been planned, block by block, and built wholesale in brief flurries of activity. There isn’t even a topography to influence the planning.

I am now in a motel room with a swimming pool and a palm tree outside my window. I have had fajitas for lunch at a Mexican place with a waitress who was achingly beautiful in a robust rice-and-beans MILF kind of way. Her English was almost as bad as my Spanish: I asked her how business was and suggested that summertime might be a good season for Mexican restaurants. She replied that Thursday was the best. Aha.

Yesterday began in cold and solitude as I checked out the NC collections in the Wilson library, had a burrito with horchata (iced liquid tomtegröt) for lunch and took a campus tour with a borrowed tape-recorder. The day ended in hearty company as I imposed myself upon the NC University archaeology labs, headed by fellow son of the Baltic, Vincas (Vin) Steponaitis. He showed me around the premises, I met a lot of people and saw some exceptionally fine pottery and lithics, and then I gave a talk about my Östergötland research to a roomful of friendly and interested listeners. Finally dinner out on the town with fellow Swede Erik Johannesson and others. Thanks for taking such good care of me, guys!

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Wish I Could Do That In Linux

i-a4af6612f71a071eefb29bd2dcab3c53-ubuntux.pngBack in April, I installed Ubuntu Linux on my oldish Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop, bought in early 2005. Ubuntu’s rapid boot process and snappy action has made it my favourite operating system (while I continue to run Win XP and Mac OS on other machines). The sense of non-commercialism is also nice. But of course I have some problems. They may be things that are fully possible to do in Ubuntu, though too complicated for me to accomplish at my current level of ignorance; or semi-possible to do in Ubuntu through an ugly kludge that’s not worth it; or they may simply be impossible to do in Ubuntu. Two major ones are actually glitches that appeared with the latest major update, Gutsy Gibbon.

So I’ll review my old list: things I wish I could do in Linux.

  • NEW. Gutsy killed the sound.
  • NEW. Get Ubuntu to work reliably with the laptop’s power management mode. The Feisty version fixed this. Then Gutsy introduced a new power management glitch: when I power up after suspend, the machine wakes up but then immediately and spontaneously powers down.
  • Communicate with my Pocket PC handheld computer over a USB cable.
  • Communicate with my Garmin GPS navigator over a USB cable.
  • Access and edit a Pocket Query geocaching database file.
  • Use a web page as desktop wallpaper (“Active Desktop” in Windowese)
  • Fixed? Share the laptop’s touch pad between user accounts. Currently it only works for the first person who logs onto the machine! (I think Gutsy fixed this. Not sure.)
  • Fixed? Connect to a protected wireless access point whose password I have. The situation nevers occurs any more since I unprotected my router.
  • Fixed! Access the contents of my hard disk’s NTFS partition (where WinXP resides).

If you happen to know any easy fixes for these problems, don’t be afraid to say so.

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Build Your Life on Eternal Truths

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I just popped out for a burger at Arbee’s, and I chose a seat with a good view of the full moon riding high over a Shell gas station. On the wall of the station was a large luminescent white sign bearing the words “Build Your Life on Eternal Truths”. Chapel Hill has a huge number of churches, most being very small and privately run by their pastors, so I guess what the Shell proprietor really means is “Make sure to follow a culturally sanctioned subset of the many commandments in the Bible”. Or perhaps “Spend a lot of your time participating in church rituals and talking about Christian dogma”. I don’t think so. Anyway, I bought a bottle of chocolate milk and a greasy pastry without being proselytised, and got to hear some serious southern twang, movie hillbilly style.

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The Morehead Planetarium was good, starting with the huge sundial I walked past at about ten. Almost all US astronauts until 1975 received training in naked-eye astronomical navigation at Morehead, sticking their heads in plywood boxes while looking at the planetarium projections to simulate the restricted field of vision from inside their spacecraft. In at least two cases this training proved crucial to mission success when electrical systems failed.

The adjacent university museum has a good little exhibition on Hardaway, a stratified Archaic lithics site going back to 10,000 BC. I enjoyed watching a movie clip about rock knapping, the knapper looking like a wizened old hippie.

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A geocacher had advised me that one’s life could not have any worth until one had eaten at Breadmen’s, so I took lunch there. They have all-day breakfast, and I ordered “biscuits with gravy”: four faintly sweet scone-like cakes doused in a creamy greyish sauce containing sausage meat. With this, I had two fried eggs, a bowl of grits (unseasoned corn-based semolina porridge, much like Chinese rice porridge) and a glass of lemonade. I didn’t quite manage to eat all of it, and it took five hours of almost constant walking before I was hungry again.

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Chapel Hill’s old cemetery is a fascinating place that will make an archaeologist very happy one day. The site was mainly used during the 19th and early 20th century, and it is divided into sections with rich academics to the east and black people to the west, including slaves. In the poorest western section, most graves are marked with headstones in the most literal sense: irregular rows of smallish unmodified natural stones, broken by only a few inscribed slabs! Very prehistoric-looking, I’ve never seen anything like it from so late a period. In the middle of the poor section is an incongruous obelisk monument raised over four men who had performed some important service (in WW1?): it was put up by a year of university students, i.e. affluent white people. Very fitting to visit the site on MLK Day.

A funny thing about English and American cemeteries is the ever-present natural decay. Monuments are left to fall to bits at these places, to become overgrown by trees. In a Swedish cemetery, a grave is either maintained (by the family or the congregation) or the stone is removed and the plot re-used. This means that in Swedish cemeteries, everything is very neat and the older stones are found in ranks leaning against the cemetery wall.

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