More Djurhamn Tree House Ruins

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Back in February I showed you some pix of abandoned tree houses at Djurhamn. One of them had a computer, just like my son once reported visiting a tree house with a typewriter.

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I’ve spent the past three days metal detecting in the same area, falsifying our working hypothesis that there would be easily accessible 16th and 17th century stuff there. But I did find more tree house ruins. And one had an interesting piece of furniture: a gynaecologist’s examination chair!? Turned out that the tree house was built on the margin of a dump area where all kinds of strange stuff was sitting, and someone had apparently selected the chair for inclusion in the tree house site.

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Another ruin site was actually a bit of a problem: two tree houses quite near each other, with loads and loads of debris on the ground between them. And right on the edge of this scatter of late-20th century junk was a three centuries old copper coin. I have no idea how many coins like that might remain in the vicinity, because there was so much recent crap that I gave up detecting that site.

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In other news, Katharina Schoerner has had awesome Djurhamn Sword teeshirts made. She’s such a metal chick.

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Continued Surveying at Djurhamn

With my buddies Kjell Andersson and Lasse Winroth, and supported by the amazing Ehrsson brothers Rune & Tore, I’ve been back metal detecting around the Harbour of the Sheaf Kings for two days. Last summer I did some work along the current shores of the harbour site, covering available flat ground and finding nothing I could definitely date before the year 1800. Then I moved inland to the landlocked part of the one-time harbour basin, and immediately found a sword from the early 1500s.

We’re currently concentrating on bits of flat ground around the landlocked basin, hoping to find traces of a seasonal military camp where, according to archival sources, thousands of people would live for weeks during the 17th century. A likely piece of land is a long-fallow field which is being reclaimed by hardwood forest, and so I’ve been sawing and axing a lot of branches and small trees, while Tore has been cutting tall grass with his ancient little Belos tractor. It was so loud that I could hardly hear my detector when he trundled past.

Yesterday we found a coin of a type struck 1715-1718 for Carolus XII and other certain 18th century stuff, which was a great improvement over last summer when I got no farther back than Oscar I in the 1850s. Still, the finds didn’t fit well with the land installations of a 16th/17th century naval harbour, more likely representing the original breaking of the land for agriculture.

Today we did some more work in the old field and then moved on to another likely surface that is currently wooded, some ways around the harbour basin. We found loads and loads of 20th century rifle cartridges and little else. One entirely illegible copper coin is likely to date from about 1700, judging from its dimensions and the amount of verdigis on it.

Working in the woods felt pretty weird because of the outlandish sounds produced by a large colony of grey herons. Their young clamour for food, and the adults call to each other, producing a cacophony reminiscent of a rain forest. Under the trees they nest in, the ground is spattered with their pale droppings and their sky-blue eggshells, and the place reeks of fish. Big birds!

A few weeks from now, I’m going to have volunteers digging and sieving test pits all over the area, and the pits’ distribution will partly be determined by the results of our metal detecting. So far I don’t have any great leads. I wish I had a more detailed contour map, one metre equidistance instead of five, better to track the shrinking of the harbour basin through shore displacement.

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Culture Does Not Optimise

i-87683de5d535c033beeb51f430b96ff2-arrowhead.jpgTwo entries of Afarensis’s have inspired me to set something down that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Afarensis mentions a forthcoming paper by Lyman, VanPool & O’Brien that will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. They’re looking at change in arrowhead types over time from an evolutionary perspective.

“…there is evidence of an initial burst of variation in projectile points at the time bow-and-arrow technology was introduced and that prehistoric artisans experimentally sought arrow points that worked effectively. Following that initial burst, less-effective projectile models were discarded, causing archaeologists to see a reduction in variation.”

This sounds like complete bollocks to me. If pre-scientific humans had been technological optimisers, then all arrowheads globally would fall into a small number of standardised task-specific types. Culture does not change through time in a manner like that of biology, because cultural selection is largely irrational. Most of what people do is white noise from an evolutionary perspective. Null mutations.

Today I paint my face red for the ritual dance. Twenty years from now my daughter will paint hers blue. It is deeply significant from a cultural point of view, but completely irrelevant from an evolutionary one. Today I will make arrowheads 15% longer than those I made last year. I have no idea what the practical consequences of this decision, if any, will be.

What those ancient archers are likely to have done is make good-enough arrowheads. Every generation produced variations on this good-enough template, and those variations are likely to have been determined by sheer cultural capriciousness. Ancient hunters did not have their act together. (Nor do modern hunters, farmers, traders, hair dressers.) They did not have a good large-scale pragmatic overview of what they were doing, and indeed they would not have acted completely rationally even if they did have access to such an overview.

Looking at arrowhead diversity and concluding that decreasing variability is the result of technological optimisation, you’re just telling a just-so-story. In order to say that, you need to demonstrate that the later types are in fact better tech than the earlier ones. In all likelihood, they’re neither significantly better nor worse. They’re just different.

People bungle forward in a good-enough way, guided by superstitions and half-formed ideas of what the world is like. Some bungle in a non-good-enough way, and starve, or have their culture obliterated by nuclear war or global warming. Archaeology and anthropology is the study of the cultural specifics of this bungling.

Update 19 June: The many passionate and well-phrased responses to this entry make me I wonder if the idea of the Noble Savage is still kicking around here. Do people want our forebears to have been smart and rational, in tune with their environment? I think culture is generally a disaster for the environment. The only reason that our forebears’ societies survived long-term was their high infant mortality. They wanted to do things that would have wrecked their habitat, but their low population densities prevented them.

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The Secrets Behind Names

i-5b4e1cf1da77c52bd92b354040ea4304-svenskt ortnamnslexikon.jpgI have become increasingly fascinated with place names. The other day I bought my second copy of Svenskt ortnamnslexikon, “Swedish place-name encyclopedia” (ed. Mats Wahlberg 2003). One often-consulted copy is in my office, and I’ve missed it many times — at home while reading or conversing, and particularly in the car when passing intriguing signposts.

Names are hardly ever nonsensical collections of sounds. We may not know what they mean any more, or if we know we don’t give it much thought. (In my family, we’re named He of the War God, Senior Imperial Concubine from Space, Name of God and New Victory. Our surname means Round Twig.) But all those myriad names that dot the landscape once meant something about those places. And few are unique: they’re part of an onomasticon, a special vocabulary of place names. Most Scandy place names are old, some dating to the Roman era or even farther back.

A good thing about Svenskt ortnamnslexikon is that not only does it cover innumerable individual names: it also has longer articles about their most common building blocks, allowing you to interpret a name at least in part even if it hasn’t got an entry of its own. This is an essential book for anyone trying to make sense of the Swedish landscape.

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Raison de Bloguer

i-2a90988be4e0a6ab5e8c214522e2dd81-questiondice.jpgAsked a reader,

“There are many, many academic bloggers out there feverishly blogging about their areas of interest. Still, there are many, many more academics who don’t. So, why do you blog …”

As I’ve noted before, I blog because it makes me feel like a ten-foot diamond on a Christmas tree. To me, blogging doesn’t really follow from being an academic. Both my academic work and the blogging I do in my spare time follow from a common cause: I just wanna have fun. I make no effort to cover global archaeology news in my blog, and I’m far from comprehensive even on Scandy archaeology news: I write about whatever catches my interest. People kindly send me links to pertinent news items, and I pick some of them up, but I’m pretty sure this blog would be a lot more boring if I started writing out of a sense of duty.

So though a ScienceBlogger, I’m not really a a science blogger. Rather, I’m a blogger who is fortunate enough to be a scientist, which has made it possible for him to sneak onto ScienceBlogs.com.

“… and how does blogging help with your research?”

Mainly as a source of motivation, by giving me a sense that someone more than myself cares about the somewhat abstruse questions and themes I address in my work. Also, there may be a beneficial minor-celebrity effect, in that a lot of Scandy archaeologists know who I am through the blog, and that this possibly makes it easier in many small ways for me to get my work done.

Game Review: Discipline the Simian

i-d484758b74411f8706a1ff95fe182a72-pic144671_md.jpgPlayed a fun card game with a somewhat off-colour name today: Spank the Monkey from 2003. The object of the game is literally to catch a monkey and whack its little hairy behind. Why? Because all the players are employees at a junk yard, and the monkey’s being a nuisance. It’s built itself a tower of junk and sits atop it, making ugly gestures, screeching and probably flinging poo at the customers. To catch it, you need to build a junk tower of your own while keeping the other players from building faster than you and catching the monkey.

Much of the fun stems from the absurd combinations of objects you end up with. One of the towers built today incorporated an automatic rodeo bull and a dinosaur skeleton reinforced with chicken wire. At one point a player lobbed an anvil at another’s tower, but he deflected it with an old trampoline, and instead I ended up getting whacked with the anvil. Good fun, each session lasting a few tens of minutes once everybody knows the rules. Though developed by Swedes, the game’s entirely in English. It’s not a “collectible” card game: you buy one box of cards and that’s it.

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Four Stone Hearth Call for Submissions

The 43rd instalment of the Four Stone Hearth anthro & archaeo blogging carnival will come on-line at Paddy K’s Swedish Extravaganza on Wednesday 18 June. Send links to good recent anthroblogging to him! It needn’t be your own stuff: submit all the goodies you’ve read lately.

The next open hosting slot is on 16 July. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me. No need to be an anthro pro.

Early Neolithic Golf Course

I’ve made two archaeological field interventions today. First I seeded a site with finds, then I got some finds out of another site.

Fieldwalking back in March, I found a grindstone and some knapped quartz at a Bronze Age site in Botkyrka parish. Taking their positions with GPS, I’ve filed a brief archive report on the finds to make sure that the data get into the sites-and-monuments register. But it turned out that the museum doesn’t want to actually own that kind of low-end finds unless they’re from a stratigraphic context. And I don’t want to keep the stuff around either. So this morning I went back to the site and put the finds in the field on their original coordinates.

Then I went to a golf course in Grödinge, the neighbouring parish, where my grandparents had a summer house when I was a kid. There’s a ploughed-over Early Neolithic site on a hillside above hole #10, discovered by super-heavy amateur archaeologists Sven-Gunnar Broström and Kenneth Ihrestam who field-walked it systematically from 1969 to 1990. (Then the golf course was completed nearby and tilling ceased.) Their meticulously positioned finds include TRB pottery and burnt flint axes, which hints both at far-reaching contacts with flint-rich areas and at weird ritual behaviour. This has caught the interest of Professor Lars Larsson of the University of Lund, and he’s set out on a two-week expedition.

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Lars is my buddy and recently became my boss. Last New Year, he took over from Gustaf Trotzig as Editor-in-Chief of Fornvännen, an academic journal whose daily running is my part-time job. Now, Lars likes to travel, and he likes to dig. So what he did was he borrowed a horse trailer from a relative, crammed the entire Skateholm fieldwork equipment into it and drove up to Stockholm from Scania: a trip of 475 km as the crow flies.

Skateholm is a famous Late Mesolithic settlement and inhumation burial site in Scania, excavated in the early 80s. And the gear is a sight to see: it includes an orange and very grimy inflatable rubber tent, originally intended as a mobile military hospital, and a number of unusually sturdy sieve holders of the chain-pendant type. Each sieve has two separate mesh boxes in it, allowing two people to work on separate buckets of soil at the same time — until one of them decides she wants to shake hers when the other guy does not, and a brawl breaks out. This unique design was conceived by the local blacksmith at Skateholm, who equally uniquely made huge collapsible set-squares (SW. vinkelhakar), a metre at a side, very good for test pits.

Lars’s second-in-command at the golf course is stable-isotope PhD student Elin Fornander, who got lucky and found some really neat TRB pottery today. Sven-Gunnar and Kenneth are also there when their day jobs permit. Other members of the crew come from the Stockholm County union of local historical societies’ excavation section. One lady found a piece of a finely polished hollow-edged basalt adze this morning before I arrived. I also had the pleasure of meeting my Mesolithic mountaintop friends Mattias & Roger, and TV journalist Christoffer Barnekow.

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My own test pit wasn’t very fertile, though I did bag some quartz and basalt débitage. Still, I enjoyed my first few hours of digging the Early Neolithic, using venerable gear. I did bring a trowel of my own though, given to me by Howard Williams when we dug the Skamby boat grave.

It’s a bit like in 1994 when the surviving Beatles made overdubs on some late 70s Lennon demo tapes, using vintage instruments including a double bass from old Elvis sessions. Only I’m not Paul McCartney. The Neolithic people who used the site are as dead as Elvis and Lennon, though.

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Buying a New Board Game

i-f10d95e8e6f67ec21a59a4e315ac20e7-monopoly.jpgLately I’ve been playing more board games, thanks to gaming friends moving to my area, and also to my son and his buddies reaching an age where they can understand and enjoy games. I have a number of good board games from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and the newest one in the house is Blokus from 2000. Now I’m thinking of buying something new, and I’d appreciate some suggestions.

Here’s what I have in mind.

  • A new game, 2006 or later.
  • Suitable for age 12 upward.
  • Typical session length less than 4 hours.
  • English, German or Scandy.
  • Not a spin-off on an earlier game such as Settlers or Carcassonne.

So, Dear Reader, any ideas? Is Thief of Baghdad any good, for instance?

Update 15 June: Thanks everybody for your suggestions! After some serious study on-line, I’ve ordered Race for the Galaxy, and I’m looking for a reasonable deal on Pandemic in the EU. The only place I’ve found it actually available is Amazon in the US, which would force me to pay a lot of postage and customs.

Anybody registered on Board Game Geek? I’m “mrund” there, feel free to befriend me.

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Dog Detectorists

i-7b128852736d83dbe8f4c804dd5a6691-dognose2.jpgAt the request of Aard regular and archaeologist Mathias Blobel in Freiburg, Germany, here’s a summary of a recent paper in Swedish.

In Fornvännen 2007:3, husband & wife historians of archaeology Drs Åsa Gillberg and Ola W. Jensen note that there are currently ongoing attempts to train dogs to sniff out archaeology, much like they have proved capable of finding illegal drugs, recently buried murder victims, even cancerous tumours. Results so far are inconclusive. The point of Gillberg & Jensen’s note is instead to draw attention to an obscure Swedish antiquarian, Johan Lindman, who made the same suggestion already in 1761 in a Gothenburg newspaper.

“…might not the sense of smell guide people or animals in the search for [buried] money?” Everyone knows that copper coins and other metal objects smell, and so no man should

“… doubt that they could smell coins and metals, and that the vapours touch their noses when they run across buried money. It would be pedantry to want to prove such an evident truth. All I want to add pertains to the vapours of the metals, and the way to train the dogs. The vapours will be strongest when the metals become softened, as it were, by heat or moisture. This will be the time for treasure hunting. Surfaces give off vapours, but a hoard of buried coins has many surfaces, and so a softened lump of buried coin will smell stronger than the same mass of uncoined metal. Likewise, the smell of softened metal that has been buried at the same spot for a long time will be much stronger than that of natural pieces of metal that have never been touched. Thus will hidden treasure doubtlessly impregnate the upper layers of earth with rising particles, damaging to human health, and piercing to the nose of a dog.”

Lindman had recently heard of a Gothenburg dog that had found a brass ring for his owner, but he had not performed any experiments of his own. Nevertheless, he made several suggestions on how to train treasure-hunting dogs.

He suggests an early start. The puppy’s owner should let it play only with money, placing coins around the house and letting the dog search for them. The dog should be trained to mark finds by barking, but to keep to precious metals and ignore rock, wood and fabric. Lindman feels that the dog would need to concentrate on sniffing, and so should be made to wear a blindfold or a cap to avoid distractions.

Whether anyone ever took up Johan Lindman’s suggestions and trained themselves a dog detector is not known.


Gillberg, Å. & Jensen, O.W. 2007. Arkeohunden förr och nu. Fornvännen 2007:3. KVHAA. Stockholm.


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