Mad as a Potter from Lead Stalactites

Early experiments with tinned food led to a number of lead-poisoning cases, particularly among people who had nothing but tins to eat. Recent work by Norwegian researchers Ulf Aasebø and Kjell Kjær has documented yet another case, the hitherto mysterious deaths of seventeen seal hunters on Svalbard in 1872. Says Kjær, “Inside the tinned food we found so much lead, that it hung like icicles inside the cans”. This prompts me to re-run a blog entry from March 2006.


The hatter in Alice in Wonderland was mad as a March hare. Hares go nuts in the spring simply out of randiness. But hatters went mad for a less uplifting reason: mercury poisoning. Mercury nitrate was used to cure felt for hats.

Abraham Lincoln would also go nuts with some regularity because of the blue pills he took against depression. Elemental mercury was the secret ingredient.

Ancient metalworkers appear also to have suffered from heavy metal poisoning because of breathing the fumes from molten copper alloys. This is most likely the reason that Vulcanus, god of smiths, was pictured as physically handicapped.

i-70c30cce393b0c85200471b5736f8a38-jonkoping-keramik.jpgThese poor people were adults. But Swedish potter families used to suffer from wholesale lead poisoning, man, woman and child. My Jönköping colleague Claes Pettersson tells me that 18th century potters were infamous for their hot tempers, constantly getting into fights and doing jail time. Potters’ children were known to be sickly and prone to simplemindedness. This all had to do with lead-based pigments in the glaze on the pottery of the time. Firing a few months’ worth of pottery was a momentuous and festive occasion, perfect for a family gathering. But when fired, the glaze gave off toxic lead fumes. Poor kids.

One last tale of lead poisoning. In 1848, Greenland Inuit witnessed the zonked-out trek of a group of clearly cognitively challenged Europeans across the snow fields. They were the last survivors of John Franklin‘s ill-fated Arctic expedition: their ship had been frozen into pack-ice and most of them had gone barking mad. This was because of the hi-tech provisions they’d taken aboard: tinned food. Actually, the food was more leaded than tinned, the cans having been soldered shut with liberal amounts of lead.

These days, we know better. No lead in Tupperware. But still, Tupperware happens to have killed its share of northwest Inuit — through botulin poisoning. Northwest Inuit traditionally make and eat fermented whale blubber, a real treat, I’m told. But if you stick the blubber in a plastic box in the fridge, you create an anaerobic environment where few microbes will survive. Among those that thrive, though, are botulin bacteria. Don’t try this at home, kids.

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Finntroll Bonus Track Lyrics

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Sättuna excavation team member Peter Forrester is a big fan of Finnish folk metallers Finntroll. The other day he played me a funny untitled bonus track from the group’s 2007 album Ur jordens djup (“Out of the depths of the Earth”). The song sits at the end of the album’s closing track “Kvällning” after a quarter of an hour of silence. Here’s a translation of the Swedish lyrics.

The troll was sitting on a rock and called out, “Hey!
Who has spilled my mead?”
But none of the animals in the woods or […]
knew who had spilled the troll’s drink.

The troll was sitting on a rock and called out, “Hey!
Who’s trampled my toadstools?”
But none of the animals in the woods or bogs or under the vault of the sky
knew who had trampled the entire field.

The troll was sitting on a rock and called out, “Hey!
Bread and bacon for the wise ones!”
Rats […]
who knew that was all the troll had left.

And the rats were gibbering at the troll, “Hey!
The Christians have spilled your mead
The Christians have trampled your toadstools
The Christians have beaten your brothers!”

Then the troll became angry and got up from his stone.
He went to the land of the Christians and burned down their ugly church.

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Dong, Bong & Gong

I take a childish pleasure from the fact that Shanghai International Airport is named Poo Dong — snigger, snigger. Now, reading about tea, I find my scatological spot tickled further by the Poobong Tea Company in Calcutta. Poo bong. Stick that in yer pipe and smoke it! Makes me want to strike the gong in Pugong Monastery, Tibet.

Jonathan Coulton – “Still Alive”

My son just played me a song he can’t get out of his head, “Still Alive”. It’s the closing-credits music of the 2007 computer game Portal, sung by a heavily vocoded Ellen McLain. As it turns out, the song was written by science fiction pop songster Jonathan Coulton, whose excellent love songs about robots and zombies I have heard on the Escape Pod podcast. And here’s Coulton himself performing “Still Alive”.

Second-Worst Possible Fieldwork Result

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

When you strip a field in Sweden’s southern third, there is an overwhelming chance that you will run into an Early Iron Age settlement from c. 500 BC to AD 400. They are characterised by innumerable small pits filled with dark soil, a little charcoal and nothing else. Among them, you will find a good number of hearths, and if you’re lucky, a few house foundations made up of post holes. None of these features are likely to contain any small finds. The great majority of them can’t be ascribed any functional interpretation at all: they’re just pits. These settlement sites are the main occupation of Swedish contract archaeologists. I had the misfortune of spending the field season of 1992 on one of them, right under the current direct railway to Arlanda airport.

What has happened at Sättuna is apparently that the part of the mid-1st Millennium metalwork scatter that we have stripped is located on top of typical humdrum Early Iron Age settlement remains with a light dusting of lithics from shore-based activities in the Middle Neolithic Late Mesolithic. The 6th century activities I came to study have apparently taken place on that era’s ground surface in this part of the site, not involving the digging of any deep pits, and so that material is now contained entirely in the ploughsoil, where it is for all practical purposes only accessible through metal detecting. The post holes of the 6th century buildings are very likely to be found under the adjoining field, where the metalwork scatter’s centre of gravity is, and where the land owner has just planted a crop of wheat-rye hybrid grain that cannot under any circumstances be disturbed.

But we soldier on bravely, cleaning the surface to find more pits and hearths, sectioning them, sieving the fills and finding almost nothing worth sticking in a zipper bag. We’ve done more than half of the sunken features already, but there is of course always the possibility that the next one you uncork is different from the rest. In the light of previous experience, though, this does not look at all likely.


BTW, today I came up with a pun.

Q: What do you call an archaeologist with nothing to excacavate?

A: Featureless.

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Stripping a Field

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We finished machining away the ploughsoil today, and I reckon we’ve uncovered about 800 square meters. I have a permit for 1200 sqm, but I stopped here. The landowner doesn’t want us to expand in the most interesting direction where we have more cool metal-detector finds. And the directions that remain to us are out of the metal-finds swarm and downhill.

Sunken features everywhere, and the team has been busy cleaning away remnants of the ploughsoil, finding the edges of features, sectioning many. None with any finds worth writing home about though. Pete/Fozz did find a seltzer bottle sherd: faux-Medieval German glazed stoneware used to package and sell mineral water in the 19th century. I only recognised it because me and Per Vikstrand picked up a few sherds of it at Saint Olaf’s field in May and pottery expert Mathias Bäck told me what it was.

The team’s ealdormen Phil & Bill cooked us an amazing dinner with chicken and roast potatoes and cabbage and string beans and carrots. And then we played Roborally and Connor beat us all again. I wish I could pit him against my friend David who always kicks my ass at games, he’d knock some sense into the kid. And annihilate me.

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Sectioning Anonymous Pits Again

Adele and Laura joined us last night, and so we were thirteen people digging at Sättuna today plus Niklas the excavator virtuoso. We continued to strip away ploughsoil, uncovering lots and lots of dark splotches underneath, and the team sectioned and sieved about 25 such sunken features visible in the surface of the natural subsoil. Most are functionally indeterminate, some are hearths, one or two are postholes.

Very few finds in the features, a little bone and fired clay. One did give a fair number of find types including a piece of modern window glass, and as the demarcation between its dark fill and the yellow sandy subsoil in the section was uniquely sharp, it seems safe to say that it’s a late addition to the site. Lars L of Arkland visited us today with a colleague (he’s got pix!). He reckons that we may be dealing with traces of late-pre-Roman activity that the metal detector survey failed to identify. Sites like that hardly contain any metal objects, or even pottery, sigh. I spent the summer of 1992 digging something similar on the Arlanda airport railroad, and although I certainly learned how to section and draw features, it did get kind of boring.

If that’s what we’ve run into, then we’ve added two chronological components to the site in as many days. Though I of course want the foundation postholes of a 6th century mead hall, filled with gold foil figures, smashed glass beakers and garnet jewellery-making residue.

After a communal dinner at Tolefors, I introduced four of the Chester students to Roborally, and Connor beat us all soundly on the first try!

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Digging Starts at Sättuna

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I’ve just sat down in a comfy chair on the top floor of our luxurious excavation headquarters at Tolefors. Phew! I am very happy after a first day of excavations at Sättuna where every little bit has fallen into place as planned. (Hope I don’t hit a frickin’ elk when I go to pick up stragglers an hour from now. [I didn’t.])

After an uneventful two-hour drive this morning I came to Linköping and met up with my buddy and co-manager Petter. We loaded the County Museum‘s digging gear into his car, picked up our first British recruit Karen and drove to the site, where landowner Christer greeted us and showed us where to store our stuff. On to the State Board’s excavation unit, where friendly colleagues lent me a few extra bits of gear. Lunch, pick up local recruit Behnaz, go to site, fiddle around with GPS and metal detector, and then excavator driver Niklas found his way to us and the digging could start shortly after one.

We’re dealing with a field where numerous metal detector finds of ours document an aristocratic presence particularly in the 6th century. The site continues on at least into the 10th century. For agricultural reasons, we have access only to part of the finds swarm that happens to be under stubble at present, but that part includes two of the best finds: a rare Style I relief brooch and a semi-finished small-equal-armed brooch that documents copper-alloy casting on site.

Niklas skilfully shaved off the ploughsoil 15 centimeters at a time while we metal-detected the surface of the deepening trench. And just minutes into the stripping of the ploughsoil, we hit our first sunken feature: big, sooty black, full of fire-cracked stone, clearly delineated against the reddish sandy natural. This was exactly what the magnetometry had led me to expect — my geophysics buddy Immo’s map is full of anomalies indicating burnt features — but it was a big relief for me to know that we actually have preserved features (and thus something for my 14-person crew to do for three weeks). As the trench lengthened and widened, big meaty burnt features kept popping up in great numbers. Are we in a metalworking precinct of the site?

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We made no interesting detector finds today, which is hardly surprising as we covered very little ground and could hardly hear our detectors over the growl of the excavator. But lying around on the surface of the field next to my boot was suddenly a Middle Neolithic Late Mesolithic greenstone adze, lovely little beast, adding a previously unknown chronological component to the site. Not having dug much Stone Age, I haven’t found a stone axe since 1993 when I dug up a preform on a Pitted Ware site. Beautiful things, and an auspicious start!

During the afternoon we were joined by my old brother in arms Peter and further British team members Karen, Bill, Phil, Pete and Connor, all students of my friend Howard Williams‘s at Chester. Two more will soon be with us. After work we had burgers at the meat clown’s and went grocery shopping before driving at sundown to our accommodation.

Tolefors is an amazing place. We’ve got one wing of the manor to ourselves, an 18th century structure, recently refurbished into a high-end country hostel. It’s off season now, and I imagine our host family is as happy to let the place for three solid weeks as I am to rent such an unbelievably nice HQ 10 minutes’ drive from site. Highly recommended.

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Two D&D Virgins

With kudos to Mattias who sent me the link, here are Stephen Lynch & Mark Teich performing a fine song about being a 14-y-o D&D-playing young man. To those of our readers who currently fit that description, let me say that just a few years from now you will no longer have the least interest in sneering high-school jock girls. Instead you will attract the intimate affections of bright college freshwomen, some of whom will demand to do some pretty wild things with you, including but not limited to the playing of D&D.

Home Owner

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For the past ten years, I’ve lived with my family in rented apartments in a 1970s housing estate that covers the erstwhile infields of the poor tenant farm of Fisksätra. Yesterday, my wife and I signed a contract to buy a 114 sqm house on one of the surrounding hills, BÃ¥thöjden, “Boat Hill”!

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We need another bedroom for our 10-y-o, and we calculate that it won’t be all that much more expensive to pay a mortgage on the house than it would be to rent a four-roomer instead of our current three-roomer. The main proponents of buying a house have been my dad and my wife. My conditions were that I wouldn’t take on a monthly cost that would force me to abandon research and get a normal job, and I can’t be bothered to do any significant work on the structural upkeep of a house, nor to tend a garden. And our new house fits the bill: all in good condition, only a few small flower beds in its fenced courtyard. The lawns to one side are communal and cared for with money from the collective.

We’ll be moving no later than mid-December. Chances are I’ll return in my blogging to the subject of home-ownership over the following months.


In other news, I am very proud to announce that at least one of Aard’s regulars is a Booker-prize winner. Whuzzup, Keri!