14th Century Shipwreck Off Swedish West Coast Possibly From England

Bohuslän province on the west coast of Sweden is known internationally for its many and varied Bronze Age rock art sites. But its archaeology is rich regardless of what period you look at. My maternal great-granddad’s people came from Tanum and Kville parishes, so I’m sort of a Bohuslän aborigine.

The discovery of a Medieval shipwreck off the Bohuslän coast was recently announced. Or rather, the wreck has been known for centuries, and local tradition held it to date from the grim early-18th century reign of warrior king Carolus XII. Now maritime archaeologist Staffan von Arbin from the County Museum has secured samples dating the vessel’s construction to between 1310 and 1350. The samples also indicate England as the timber’s most probable country of origin.

This may be a historically documented shipwreck: on 20 February 1361, King Edward III of England wrote to King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden and Norway with a complaint regarding the latter’s seizure of goods from an English ship that had foundered right about the place where the newly dated wreck is.

Thanks to Niklas Ytterberg for the tip-off.

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Making the Archaeological Record

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A central theme in post-modernist archaeology of the more science-friendly, not radically relativist kind for the past 20 years has been the study of the after-life of monuments, or “the past in the past”. Archaeologists are of course keenly interested in the archaeological record, and I think there’s a reasonable argument for studies of how the people we study engaged with the remains around them in their era. Mind you, I think this should be treated as a side issue and a bit of a novelty. I’ve heard Mesolithic scholars proclaim that a lithics scatter in a river bank was as significant to later generations of hunters as Stonehenge is to us. No — people in the past must be assumed to not have given a damn about ancient remains unless it can be clearly proven that they treated them in some distinctive way.

I saw a fine example of not giving a damn in Chester last week. Considerable stretches of the town’s Roman wall survive as part of the Medieval town wall, which is in turn largely preserved because it was turned into a fashionable walkway in the Early Modern Period. Every now and then work needs to be done on the wall, and almost every time a piece of fine Roman mortuary sculpture is found. This is because the cemeteries of Roman towns were “extramural”, located outside the walls, and at a stressful moment some time in the 4th century the burghers of Chester felt the need to reinforce their wall real fast with whatever materials were at hand. So they stripped the town’s conveniently located cemeteries of old stonework. Thanks to construction work on the wall in the 1890s, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester has one of the finest collections of Roman mortuary sculpture in all of Britain.

Serendipitously, today’s issue of the subway newspaper Metro has a story about the outrage such a callous treatment of grave stones can cause. Generally, in the modern West, we take very good care of old things and new things. But all semi-old, fiftyish things are in a dangerous state. If they can just reach a slightly more venerable age, then chances are that they’ll be preserved. But most buildings, most institutions, most monuments, never achieve a status as Old and Venerable.

Christian cemeteries are very unsafe places to be buried in. Hallowed ground is finite, and the moment your great-grandkids stop caring about your grave, chances are it will be replaced by a new one. At a cemetery in Gothenburg, the headstones thus displaced have been dumped in the woods along with old wilted wreaths and hedge clippings. Outrage! But get this: people are upset that the stones haven’t been given the usual treatment in modern Sweden, which is to be taken away and crushed into gravel!

As an archaeologist, I must of course applaud the person who has been dumping these abandoned monuments intact instead of allowing them to be destroyed. He or she has performed a service to future colleagues of mine on a par with what those Roman fortification engineers did at Chester 1700 years ago. Well done!

Early Archaeological Darwinism

To celebrate Charles Darwin’s bicentennial, Dear Reader, let me tell you about a less well-known way in which his great idea was misunderstood or misappropriated. You may have heard of social Darwinism and eugenics. The former took Darwin’s description of long-term biological change and applied it as a prescriptive excuse for not showing compassion to the poor and weak. The latter held that a species that was protected from selection pressure by such compassion would degenerate and all its members become weak. Both are thoroughly discredited.

The Origin of Species appeared 150 years ago in 1859. In 1900, Oscar Montelius published a richly illustrated 31-page paper in Svenska Fornminnesföreningens Tidskrift 10 (fasc. 30) titled Typologien eller utvecklingsläran tillämpad pÃ¥ det menskliga arbetet — “Typology, or the theory of evolution applied to the work of humans”. Montelius is known as the “Linnaeus of archaeology” and was one of the second-generation founding fathers of my discipline. Hugely prolific, much of his work is still read and cited, always being clearly argued. But in the case of his 1900 paper, Montelius made an uncharacteristic and unsuccessful attempt to latch onto one of his day’s most-discussed scientific theories. (August Strindberg’s famous 1888 play Miss Julie makes similar use of social Darwinism.)

“Typology” has two distinct meanings. In theology, it refers to the idea that certain motifs in the Old Testament prefigure motifs in the New Testament, thus revealing God’s great plan. (Most such parallels are of course extremely strained.) But in archaeology it refers to the classification and seriation of artefacts and structures. People are not boundlessly creative. Almost everything we make is very similar to something made before. These similarities allow us to date and interpret classes of finds instead of discussing every individual object on its own. Montelius’s paper forms an introduction to the basic theory of archaeological typology as it was understood at the time. But where does Darwin come into it all?

Montelius wrote the paper as a presentation to the 15th Conference of Scandinavian Naturalists in Stockholm in 1898. A professor and celebrated public figure of 55 at the time, he most likely received an invitation to the conference and reached for the best way available to make his work relevant and comprehensible to the assembled naturalists. Montelius begins by stating that just as one species evolves from another, every archaeological object type is born of an earlier type. This, he knew, is not strictly true as a new archaeological type often shows similarities to several earlier types. But he was after all standing in front of a crowd of biologists and needed to connect with them. He then demonstrates two typological series where Bronze Age axe and sword types evolve through time to reach a greater level of practical perfection. The take-home message: object types change due to selection pressure from their modes of practical use and become optimised over time. My axe is a better axe than my granddad’s.

But this is not quite true either, as Montelius knew. His series of sword grips does show one practical improvement in that the wielder’s thumb receives better protection from the late types than from the early ones. But Montelius doesn’t make this argument. He just takes the reader through a series of visual design changes without any apparent practical implications. My sword is not in fact much better than granddad’s: it’s mainly just different because of fashion. And this is driven home even more forcefully by Montelius’s next examples, where he presents two series of brooch types, all technically equivalent but aesthetically extremely varied. The last brooch in each series does not work any better than the first. Montelius also quotes Bernhard Salin at great length on the development of 1st Millennium animal art, where no practical selection pressure would be possible even in principle. Finally, he shows the retention in railway carriages of his day of non-practical design traits that only made sense as reminiscences of what horse-drawn stagecoaches had looked like almost a century before.

So archaeological typology is not quite analogous to biological evolution. People will of course only make objects that work for their intended purposes (sometimes practical, sometimes not). But they will also design and decorate these objects according to whims of fashion and ideology that are best compared to genetic drift or null mutations in the context of biology. I don’t want to sound like a panadaptationist, but most visible variation between biological species is at least adaptively relevant. Between object types, not so.

The paper contains only a few general appeals to biological theory and no references to the biological literature. Montelius mentions Darwin only once, on the last page (and I translate):

“My having wished to speak at a meeting of naturalists about the typological method is not however mainly because of the importance of this method to the archaeologist, but rather, that it might be of some interest to the naturalist to see that we generally use the same method as he, — in that we collect the largest possible body of evidence and order it in such a manner that the results immediately appear to the eye, — and with reference to the theory of evolution, we are at a purely darwinian standpoint.”

In fact, all that Montelius had shown was that archaeological typology has descent with modification. But he failed quite ostentatiously to establish anything like adaptation through natural selection. That is not in fact the motor that drives change in material culture with all its kaleidoscopic complexity. The motor is immaterial culture, the culture of the mind.

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

The University of Helsinki has something called a Collegium for Advanced Studies, whose aims are:

  • to enhance scholarly excellence within humanities and social sciences;
  • to endorse dialogue between different academic orientations;
  • to provide an innovative environment for concentrated study;
  • to encourage theoretical and methodological reflection in research;
  • to promote international visibility of Finnish research and interaction between scholars from all over the world.

Every year the Collegium offers a number of researcher positions concentrated on interdisciplinary work. Helsinki is the fifth closest university to where I live, and so I have applied a few times. I just received their reply to my most recent application. No luck so far.

To people who plan to apply for a job at the Collegium for Advanced Studies, some stats may be of interest. This year, 375 people applied for the 15 jobs. This means that, everything else being equal, your chance of getting a job is 4%, or less than half of the chance of getting funding for research in the humanities from the Swedish Research Council. My project proposal got a decent grade from the reviewers, but in order to reach the top 4% you must of course score extremely high.

I note with some sadness that neither of my two reviewers appears to have been an archaeologist. One opines that a project of interest only to scholars in Finland and the Nordic countries would have an “uncertain wider significance”. This, of course, pretty much kills all archaeology practiced in the countries in question, since archaeology is at heart strongly regional. The other reviewer asks, with a real sense of curiosity, “Is metal detector survey a good method in archaeology?”. Ouch.

To my current knowledge no scholar in Scandinavian archaeology has ever got a job with the Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Ola Wikander and Fictional Beings

i-f1aac554ca5cc93e309ff78d053f9f82-ola_wikander.jpgOn Saturday night I attended a talk by bright young philology and religion studies comet Ola Wikander. In 2003, at age 22, he published a Swedish translation of the Baal cycle and other Canaanite mythological matter for the lay reader. In the five years since then, he’s done the Enuma Elish, the Chaldaean oracles, an essay collection on ancient languages, a popular introduction to Indo-europan studies and a historical mystery novel co-written with his dad. His PhD thesis on the relationship between certain themes in Ugaritic and Old Testament mythology is due in 2011. In his spare time he blogs in Swedish and English (Ola, I can’t find a blog in Ugaritic!) and translates manga for his girlfriend. We’re dealing with a hugely talented young scholar with a keen interest in popularisation.

Wikander’s talk at the Classical Society’s annual meeting was lively, interesting and entertaining. He spoke on the subject of his thesis, looking at the fascinating relationship between texts about Jahwe in the Old Testament and others about Baal from several centuries before. Essentially, within the context of mythology they’re the same guy: a storm god called “the Lord” who kicks the Sea Monster’s ass. Yet much of the Old Testament chronicles the struggle between Jahwe’s and Baal’s priesthoods.

This all brought some old thoughts of mine back to the fore. How do we know if two fictional characters are separate or identical? Me and Ola Wikander are not the same person. He’s younger, shorter, has different eye and hair colours, and tens of people saw us talking to each other the other night. But nobody ever sees Jahwe and Baal chatting. In fact, all we have about them is mythological reports on what they are like. And these reports are uncannily similar, as they recycle a lot of generic mythological tropes about storm gods that were knocking about promiscuously in the Near East in the Bronze Age.

In Norse mythology, Odinn shows up under a load of different identities. Snorri lists many names for this character, one of them being “The Masked One”. Scholars of religion will quite happily say about a character in a text that “this is most likely Odinn in disguise”. What do they mean by that? Sometimes they mean that the author of the text intends us to identify the mysterious stranger as Odinn the Masked One. But in other cases, they mean that there was once a group of people who believed that it was Odinn, but that by the time the myth in question was codified, this knowledge had been lost. Likewise with the heroes of the Mabinogion: textual notes inform the reader that “this guy is probably the god Lugh though the writer of the text is not aware of it”. And conversely, famously, with the many avatars of the Hindu gods.

This ambiguity of “ontological status” really bothers me when I read about mythology. I understand that it’s a convenient shorthand to speak of gods being this and doing that just in the same way that Ola Wikander is a talented philologist and does give good lectures. But I’d like the verb “to be” to mean the same thing throughout a text. Saturday, when I suggested that the distinction between Jahwe and Baal is redundant, Wikander replied that “No, they are two gods competing for the same mythological material”. I don’t agree. Jahwe and Baal exist only as mythological material, and if the two sets of writings are closely similar, then the two are indistinguishable, comparable to two entries on Snorri’s list of Odinn’s names.

I am however willing to concede that Jahwe/Baal is not identical to Mickey Mouse, because I met him once at Disney World and he was nothing like the god of the Old Testament.

ESF Drops Controversial Journal Grades

Standing in line to board the jet to Sweden yesterday, I read over a woman’s shoulder in Times Higher Education that ERIH, the European Reference Index for the Humanities, is scrapping its A-B-C-nil grading system (previously discussed here in October). It’s come under heavy fire because of the fundamental differences between the natural sciences and the humanities. There is no such thing as independent Swedish chemistry or medicine, but there’s any number of fields of research in the humanities that are almost entirely confined to single countries. As Horace Engdahl pointed out last year, Sweden has the best Gunnar Ekelöf scholars in the world. Because nobody else cares much about our poets.

Past Crimes

Chester library has two thematic fiction sections that I’ve never seen at Swedish libraries. One offers historical fiction. The other, also quite large, is all mystery novels set in the distant past — labelled “Past Crimes”.

Field Trips in Snowy Wales

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The Pillar of Eliseg, being the remains of an inscribed 9th century cross, sitting on a barrow of probable Early Bronze Age date.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday with Howard and his students on field trips into north-east Wales and back across the border into Cheshire and Shropshire. I got to see the area under highly unusual circumstances: covered in snow and lit by an unclouded sun. Beautiful! We’ve seen the early church site of Shotwick, the Cistercian abbey ruins of Basingwerk and Valle Crucis, the hillfort of Oswestry, the Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke defensive walls and the stone crosses of Maen Achwyfan and Eliseg, the latter sitting on a barrow beneath a forbidding mountainside. Not far from the barrow, Howard and I had a good pub lunch and finished it up with Spotted Dick in a custard lake.

After the Tuesday field trip I walked along the top of Chester’s Medieval walls, saw the police prepare to fish a dead person out of one of the canal locks just outside, and studied the exhibits in the Grosvenor Museum. On Wednesday evening, I gave a talk on my Östergötland project to the department’s faculty and students, and nobody fell asleep!

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The ruins of Basingwerk Cistercian abbey.

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The southern transept of the abbey church at Basingwerk.

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The sculpted ring cross of Maen Achwyfan.

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Wat’s Dyke, a 9th century defensive wall, where it joins the Oswestry Iron Age hillfort from the north.

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Standing in the moat on the Welsh side, Dr. Howard Williams prepares to storm Offa’s Dyke, an 8th century defensive wall, thus finally letting go of any lingering loyalty to his English roots.

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Snowmelt dripping off a sagging wall at the Cistercian abbey ruin of Valle Crucis.

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View from the road to the Horseshoe Pass.