The Journal of the North Atlantic

i-e07ab466df7aa5c3d261bee1a0205b35-JONA-2008-Vol-1-Cover.jpgThe Journal of the North Atlantic is a new on-line archaeology and environmental-history journal published in Maine. You can apply for a login and read it for free until the end of the year. So far, they have three papers up, and they offer some really cool stuff. One is an apparently nature-deterministic GIS study of Medieval property demarcation in the Reykholt area of Iceland where Snorri Sturluson lived. Another one explores the ethno-political situation in Medieval Greenland, where two different eskimo cultures coexisted with Norse settlers.

My favourite is an unbelievably exotic paper by Viola Giulia Miglio. It’s a study of Basque glossaries written in Iceland in the 17th and 18th centuries. I kid you not — the Icelanders had a long literary tradition, and they came to interact with Basque whalers and deep-sea fishermen, preserving information otherwise lost about the coastal Basque dialects of the time. The paper’s title is good too: “Go shag a horse!”: The 17th-18th Century Basque-Icelandic Glossaries Revisited.

My only complaint about The Journal of the North Atlantic is that they don’t seem to devote much effort to copy-editing the English their non-native-speaker contributors perpetrate produce.


Anthro Blog Carnival

The forty-ninth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at A Hot Cup of Joe. Archaeology and anthropology, and all intended to recreate the lost 1921 short drama film The Great Day!


  • Arthur Bourchier – Sir John Borstwick
  • Mary Palfrey – Lady Borstwick
  • Marjorie Hume – Clara Borstwick
  • Bertram Burleigh – Frank Beresford
  • Adeline Hayden Coffin – Mrs. Beresford (as Mrs. Hayden Coffin)
  • Percy Standing – Paul Nikola
  • Meggie Albanesi – Lillian Leeson
  • Geoffrey Kerr – Dave Leeson
  • Lewis Dayton – Lord Medway
  • Mrs. L. Thomas – Lord Medway’s Mother
  • L.C. Carelli – Semki

Submissions for the next carnival will be sent to Yann Klimentidis, not to the old submissions address. The next open hosting slot is on 19 November. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me for hosting. No need to be an anthro pro. But you must have a part in the re-creation of The Great Day. Like me: I play Lord Medway’s mother.

And dontcha miss out on the latest Skeptics’ Circle!

Following the Letter of the Law

I recently read this year’s Hugo-winning novel, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. (Getting it sent to my local branch library from Malmö cost me one euro!) It’s a hard-boiled detective story set in an alternative present where Israel was squashed by irate Arab neighbours in 1948 and much of the world’s surviving Jewry ended up in a small reservation in south-west Alaska. An exciting read, and very lyrically written. Full of badass Hasidic gangstas.

One detail in the story was so silly that I had to look it up. And whaddya know — eruvin are real.

There are a lot of things orthodox Jews are not allowed to do outside their homes on the Sabbath. This is inconvenient, and so they have come up with a way of temporarily re-defining “home”. Explains Wikipedia:

A community eruv (Hebrew: ערוב‎, “mixture”, also transliterated as eiruv or erub, plural: eruvin) refers to the legal aggregation or “mixture” under Jewish religious property law of separate parcels of property meeting certain requirements into a single parcel held in common by all the holders of the original parcels, which enables Jews who observe the traditional rules concerning sabbath to carry children and belongings anywhere within the jointly held property without transgressing the prohibition against carrying a burden across a property line on the Jewish sabbath. The legal aggregation is set up to have effect on the sabbath day only; on other days of the week ordinary property ownership applies. A valid aggregation has a number of requirements including an agreement among the property-holders and an aggregation ritual.

One of the requirements of a valid aggregation is that all the parcels must lie within a chatzer, or walled courtyard. For this reason, this type of aggregation is more properly known as an eruv chatzerot (Hebrew: ערוב חצרות‎), an “aggregation of courtyards,” to distinguish it from other types of rabbinically-ordained mixture procedures which also have the name eruv.

In modern times, when housing is not typically organized into walled courtyards, rabbinic interpretation has permitted this requirement to be met by creating a continuous wall or fence, real or symbolic, surrounding the area to be aggregated. The fence is required to have certain properties and consist of structural elements such as walls or doorframes. When the fence is symbolic, the structural elements are often symbolic “doorframes” made of wire, with two vertical wires (often connected to utility poles) and one horizontal wire on top connecting them (often using utility wires). The use of symbolic elements permits an eruv to make use of utility poles and the like to enclose an entire neighborhood of a modern city within the legal aggregation.

Radiocarbon Dating Ancient Grease

20 years ago, radiocarbon dating was transformed by the widespread adoption of AMS analysis, accelerator mass spectroscopy. Willard Libby’s original scintillation-counting method demanded large sample sizes and a lot of time per sample. The sample size meant that many interesting things couldn’t be dated at all, and that once you had gotten a large enough chunk of organic material together, chances were that it would be heavily contaminated with later stuff. The time demands meant that prices were high.

Radiocarbon technology continues to advance. A few years back, I learned that a method had been perfected whereby cremated bone could be dated accurately. Hugely useful in Scandinavia where cremation was the rule for 2000 years until the introduction of Christianity. And now a paper (behind a pay wall) by R. Berstan et al. in the forthcoming issue of Antiquity describes a method to date lipids extracted from pottery! Ancient grease!

Neolithic scholars have been dating burnt food crusts from the surface of potsherds for years. Ideally, you find a characteristically decorated sherd with a lot of gunk on it, and then radiocarbon nails down a part of your pottery style chronology in calendar years. The problem is that most sherds with characteristic decoration have no food crust. But they do retain grease within their ceramic matrix. I expect this technique to become a big hit.

Update 11 September: Explains my buddy Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay,

“Cool stuff indeed. I haven’t read the paper, but I don’t think it’s such a big breakthrough: the same team (largely) published a similar study five years ago.

Stott, A. W., Berstan, R., Evershed, R. P., Bronk-Ramsay, C., Hedges, R. E. M. & Humm, M. J. 2003. Direct dating of archaeological pottery by compound-specific 14C analysis of preserved lipids. Analytical chemistry 2003:75, pp. 5037-5045.

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“Sapiens” Is Not A Plural

We interrupt this broadcast to explain something to everybody who has ever used the expression “a homo sapien”. Sapiens is not a plural. It is an adjective ending in an S, just like erectus, afarensis and neanderthalensis. (It means “wise”.) You would never say “a homo erectu”, right? Don’t try to learn Latin from Del tha Funkee Homosapien.

The Copper Mine of Falun


The 1640 coin I found the other day came to light at an opportune moment. For some time, my wife and I had planned a trip to Falun for the weekend just passed, and that’s where the coin is from.

The great copper mine of Falun was an important part of Sweden’s economic backbone during the country’s century as a major player on the European scene 1611-1718. The mine’s origins are lost in prehistory, but paleobotany suggests that some small-scale ore extraction took place already in the 8th century, and the written record starts in the 13th century. Falun boomed in the 16th and 17th century, with the landscape being denuded for miles around by sulphur pollution and the demand for wood used in fire-setting.

The quarter öre I picked up in Boo was struck in Avesta the year before Falun received its town charter in 1641. We passed Avesta on the train to Falun and back, and when we got to Falun we went straight to the mine where the coin’s metal was mined.


The mine is a huge crater in the hillside, surrounded by the top structures of a number of mine shafts from the 17th century onward that post-date the open-pit mining. It’s incredibly dramatic. And I really wonder where all the mass they’ve taken out of that pit is now! Have they carted it off for roadworks!?

The mine was closed down in 1992 and is now a World Heritage Site, well worth a visit. Visitors can descend into one of the shafts if they wish, which we did not. Also recommended is the Dalarna County Museum not far away in Falun town, which has very fine exhibitions on regional history, art and craftwork, as well as a good restaurant & cafeteria. It is a charming characteristic of Swedish county museums that they tend to combine archaeology, history, folkways and art. Some have natural history as well.

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Djurhamn Sword Measured


To compensate for our inadequacies, us boy archaeologists like to search for large phallic objects and measure them. The most extreme case I’ve heard of was a couple of colleagues who went looking for the crash site of a mismanoeuvred 14-meter V2 rocket. In my case it’s the 16th-century Djurhamn sword. All 93 centimetres of it.

I checked it out yesterday, taking a lot of measurements (of course including length and diameter), taking pix. My report on this summer’s digging at Djurhamn is nearly finished now, and I plan to write a paper on the past two years’ fieldwork for some annual publication of naval or military history.


Here are the measurements after conservation, for all you blade fanciers out there.

Total length: 926 mm
Max width across parry-guard: 184 mm
Max blade width: 40 mm
Width of non-edged basal part of blade: 30 mm
Max width of tang: 13 mm
Min width of tang: 10 mm
Length of tang: 82 mm
Length of grip: 155 mm
Length of blade: 771 mm
Length of pommel: 63 mm
Max diameter of pommel: 36 mm
Weight: 829 g
Thickness of parry guard at centre: 22 mm
Thickness of parry guard at end: 6 mm
Max thickness of blade near base: 5 mm
Parry nicks, measured from point: 64, 163, 285, 390 mm

By the way, let me tell you guys that your many comments over the past few days really make me feel there’s a point to blogging. Please keep talking!

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Swedish Pitfalls

Swedish has a number of subtleties designed to keep furriners from learning the language of glory and heroes™. A famous one is the genders of our nouns, where almost every one is either of our two neutral genders — apparently haphazardly selected. Another one is certain non-trivial uses of the definite article suffix: you can’t say “I’m looking for that record by Roy Zimmerman, you know”, you have to say “I’m looking for that record-the by Roy Zimmerman, you know”.

A particularly good thing we’ve got going is that we don’t have any verb corresponding to “to put”. Instead, everything you would put in English or mettre in French is laid, stood, poured or stuffed onto or into something. This offers endless opportunity for furriners to get it wrong, even if they have an otherwise perfect command of the language.

Of course you can’t lay beer in a glass or stand peanuts in a bowl. But what about a low plastic box of cookies you place on a counter — is it stand or lay? It’s stand, because the box has a base. To legitimately lay that plastic box somewhere, you would have to find a soft surface, such as a pillow, where it would be impossible to stand it. Suggesting that you might lay a bottle on a shelf is a big no-no. “It would roll off”, explains the exasperated Swede. A bread dough in a bowl must be stood in the fridge, because if you say you want to lay it there, then you are suggesting that you take the dough out of the bowl and slap it nude on the fridge shelf.

Even if you do learn all these details, Dear Anglophone Reader, you’re still never gonna master our weird vowel sounds. Mysig ölmössa, fula du! So you might as well give up already.

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Swedes Produce Hot Water, Dump It Into Sea

For historical reasons having nothing to do with engineering or rationality, Swedish nuclear power plants dump a lot of warm cooling water into the sea. In a revealing blog entry, Paddy K offers an estimate of just how much energy that cooling water contains.

It’s one third of the energy produced in the country.

I suddenly don’t feel very motivated to keep my morning showers brief.

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Queen Christina’s Quarter Coin Again


Yesterday I did two hours of metal-detecting at a manor in Boo parish whose documentary evidence starts in the 13th century. Ancient monuments in the vicinity take it on down at least to the 10th. There are some nice 16th century small finds from the manor grounds, and my visit was intended to follow up on them. Lo & behold: I picked up one of Queen Christina’s quarter öre copper coins from 1640. They are generally the oldest coins you’ll find at any site, as in their day they were the largest issue yet in the history of Sweden: both as to the number of coins struck and as to the diameter of each coin. (Previous mentions here, here and here).


Here are pix of a much better preserved coin of the same type and date.

In other news, I got a good spelling suggestion from MS Word the other day. Confused by the Estonian word sajandil (“century”) in a book title, the spell-checker suggested that I might mean SATANIC SALAMI.

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