Kirkwall, Orkney

I’m in Kirkwall on the Orkney islands for a conference on maritime societies in the Viking and Medieval periods. It’s a lovely sunny evening, which is apparently a rare and precious occurrence around these parts. The dialect is also something to experience: the waitress at the fish & chips shop I’m in took my order and then asked “Ta se’ en?”. On the third try I managed to understand that she wondered if I wanted to sit in, that is, to eat my fresh skate on the premises. I do.

And now I’m outside on the dock, smelling the sea, hearing a blackbird and the occasional seagull. Hardly any cars here of a weekend evening, blissfully quiet. When no storm is howling, I suppose.

Kirkwall. That’s pure Norse, like most place names here. Means Greensward of the Church, Kyrkvallen in Swedish. (Though originally it was Kirkjuvagr, Church Bay.) It refers to St. Magnus Cathedral, a Romanesque sandstone edifice that I visited briefly upon arrival. A security guy from the airport gave me a ride into town and dropped me off outside.

Getting colder as the sun sinks. I should get moving!

Update 7 June: Whoops. Eating skate was a bad move. Says Wikipedia, “Common skate and white skate are assessed as Critically Endangered by IUCN (World Conservation Union) and the fish is listed by the Marine Conservation Society as a ‘fish to avoid’.”


Skamby Gaming Pieces on Display


In 2005, a team led by myself and Howard Williams excavated a 9th century boat inhumation burial at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, Sweden. The finest finds we made in the grave were a collection of 23 amber gaming pieces. These are extremely rare, the previous Swedish set having surfaced in the 1870s when Hjalmar Stolpe dug at Birka.

Now the County Museum in Linköping has incorporated the Skamby gaming set into its new permanent exhibition! The official opening takes place on Tuesday evening 3 June, at 6 pm.

I am very proud that our finds will be seen by so many museum visitors. Perhaps the annual LinCon gaming convention might schedule a visit? Says Lotta Feldt who curated the exhibit: “Your amber glows! They form a natural magnet in the exhibition.”

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Junior Meets the Astronaut

Me and Junior just got home from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. First we were shown the portrait collection and the main meeting room where a lot of Nobel prizes have been decided. Then, under the joint auspices of the Academy and the Swedish Skeptics Society, we heard an hour’s lecture by one of the Society’s long-time members: astronaut Christer Fuglesang.

It was a good talk in plain Swedish, ranging from abstruse physics to everyday practicalities of life in space. (If you lose something small inside a space station, just wait a day or two and then look for it near the intake of the air circulation system.) Fuglesang argued that we shouldn’t choose between manned and unmanned spaceflight: we should use each where most appropriate. He did concede without prompting that many of the situations where you need an astronaut arise because of this very astronaut’s needs. But he feels, in a touchingly non-cynical and enthusiastic way, that human space travel is a valid goal in itself. Junior liked the talk a lot, and was proud that he understood almost all of it. He does feel now that he probably needs some training in physics.

Afterwards, we went up to Fuglesang and said hi to him, and he signed Junior’s book. “Hey, I’ve got this book too”, he said. It’s a used 80s paperback that I ordered recently for my kid. He’s read a few chapters and he loves it. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein.

Sacred Imagery on Dish Rags

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Some time ago I received a gift from my aunt, bought at the County Museum of Gotland, a limestone island in the Baltic with an extremely rich archaeological record. The gift was a sponge-fabric dish rag, and I found its decoration slightly astonishing.

In the 5th through the 12th centuries, Gotland was home to a unique tradition of commemorative picture stones, comparable only to those of Pictland, with which they do not appear to have had any actual connection. The early stones are dominated by abstract imagery that has been compared to Visigothic Christian art in Spain, and may hint at an early influence of Arianic Christianity on the island. It is highly likely that the symbolism of these stones was strongly religious. And there, on my dish rag, was one of these sacred designs! Now, I’m a materialistic atheist, but I’d still find it in pretty poor taste if someone started to make dish rags with a picture of the Crucifixion or calligraphy of the Islamic creed. And the picture-stone dish rag is pretty much comparable to that.

Today I received a letter from my friend Howard Williams, who had visited the same museum shop and found another version of the dish rag.
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Irrefutable Evidence: Cell Phone Alarmism Does Cause Harm

Many people are afraid of cell phones and base stations because they emit radiation. These people tend to know very little about physics, and are generally unaware that daylight through a window on an overcast day is also radiation. Much careful research has turned up no significant health risks with cell phone use or proximity to base stations.

So your mobile handset is unlikely to cause you any harm. But a recent case in the district court of Falun, Sweden, demonstrates that cell phone alarmism is in fact dangerous.

An elderly gentleman who feared cell phone radiation greatly saw his grand-daughter answer her phone while holding her newborn baby. This made him so angry that he called the young mother a number of ugly names and hit her repeatedly across the back of her neck — while she was still holding the baby, and with his own daughter as distraught witness. He was recently sentenced to 50 hours’ community service, payment of a $1300 reparation and two years’ probation. This soft sentence was given in consideration of the man’s “settled lifestyle”, which makes repeat offences unlikely.

None of this would have happened if the guy had just called his grand-daughter instead.

Via Dalarnas Tidningar. Thanks to Anders B.

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In other news, check out two voices for the future: Erik and Dabe, kidbloggers!

Mesolithic Seal Hunters On a Hilltop Near You


Today I joined my friends Mattias Pettersson and Roger Wikell for a day of digging on an Early Mesolithic seal hunting station in the landlocked former archipelago of Tyresta. The Urskogsstigen 4 site is currently on a wooded hilltop at about 77 meters above sea level, and thus likely to date from about 8000 cal BC, shortly after deglaciation. It’s not in the area denuded by the 1999 forest fore. What’s really striking about this particular site (Mattias & Roger have found hundreds) is that it’s very early, it has enormous amounts of quartz débitage and it has a tent-sized cleared area surrounded by large boulders (similar to the one that blew Mattias’s mind last summer).


I found a lot of unusually finely knapped quartz — bipolar cores and blade-like things, thin, semi-translucent — and Roger picked up a really nice little hammer stone with unmistakable use wear. It’s probably the oldest one collected in the entire county. The guys already have a piece of hazelnut shell for dating. Pretty amazing to find all this insanely old material in a tract of completely nondescript woodland just like I’ve been hiking in since I was a kid.


We heard cuckoos and ravens calling as we worked, and toward the end of the day, the jingle of a distant ice-cream truck. All the while, a few hundred meters downhill a small television crew was shooting a kiddie TV program about a cartoonish Stone Age where people were grimy and wore chicken bones in their hair.

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Finnestorp War Booty Find in Offa


Bengt Nordqvist has published a preliminary account in Offa of his amazing finds from the Finnestorp war booty site. Check it out (in German)! I hope to contribute to the Finnestorp project in some way or another in the future. For more about war booty finds, se an earlier post of mine.

Indirectly, Finnestorp has had a decisive influence on my own work for the past five years. Bengt has long been working at the site with the Gothenburg metal detectorists. One day in the early 00s when I was a grad student with an office at the Museum of National Antiquities, Tim Olsson came along to check out some earlier Finnestorp finds. We became friends, he opened my eyes to the possibilities of doing Danish-style detector archaeology in Sweden, and now we’ve just done our fifth campaign together in Östergötland.

Meeting new people can have huge effects on your life, though you rarely realise it at first. Like the time when I was 21 and called the editor of Fornvännen to offer him a manuscript. (He became my PhD thesis supervisor and I’m now managing editor of that journal.) Or the time when I was 27 and met a hot Chinese girl at a party. (Nine years together and counting, one kid.) Or the time when Tim told me about this amazing place called Finnestorp.

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Birka Graves On-Line


Ulf Bodin and his team at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm have built a really, really sweet database and search interface for Hjalmar Stolpe’s Birka graves. Between 1871 and 1895, Stolpe dug about 1100 graves in the cemeteries surrounding the Viking Period town of Birka on an island in Lake Mälaren near Stockholm. His painstaking fieldwork and documentation ensured that the Birka record will always be one of the standard databases for Viking studies. And now it’s all on-line and searchable! A massively useful research tool.

This morning I attended Anna Linderholm’s viva/disputation, where she defended her thesis on lab-based approaches to the study of prehistoric migration. Groundbreaking work, said her opponent enthusiastically, and his job was to try make the thesis look bad. Anna defended herself most successfully. I hardly understood a word when they went into technicalities. (Åsa Larsson’s thoughtful opinions are here and here and here.)

At one point during post-viva mingling, I was talking to friends, a Birka scholar and a senior numismatist. Birka Scholar was carrying her new baby boy. I was wearing my Hello Cthulhu teeshirt. Senior Numismatist, who is not a science fiction nerd and had no idea what the tee was about, pointed at my chest and suggested that Birka Scholar’s next baby might be named Cthulhu. Yes! The stars are right!

Apart from Anna Linderholm’s thesis, I have recently received fresh dissertations from my colleagues and buddies Nanouschka Myrberg and Fredrik Hallgren. All three books look like they’re gonna be classics. Real science, taking things forward, the way archaeology should be. Congratulations, Dr. Linderholm, Dr. Myrberg and Dr. Hallgren! You strengthen my faith in our discipline!

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Sing Gibberish to the Lord

I’ve posted a fine example of Ansiktsburk song lyrics before: listen to a song in a language you don’t understand, and try to imagine that it is actually sung in your own language though with a funny accent. Then write down whatever words you can half make out. Thus the Swedish drinking song “Helan gÃ¥r” becomes “Hell and gore, shun hope Father Alan, lay!”.

Now Paddy K directs my attention to a new permutation of this idea. Here’s a piece of choral music sung in English in such a way that the real lyrics are difficult to make out — and the ansiktsburk poet has set new English words to it. Look at the ladies toward the end — their lips are actually synching with the nonsense!

Recently deceased Swedish entertainer Povel Ramel called this method fÃ¥netisk skrift, for instance in his memorable version of a classic high-school graduation song. “Sjung om Fru Svenssons lyckliga karl…”