Ursula LeGuin and the Post-Modernist Warp Drive

As often mentioned here, I am no fan of post-modernist hyper-relativism. This is the idea that scientific truth is impossible and that all our ideas about the world are “socially constructed”, that is, that people negotiate agreements about what the world is like and thus determine what is real. Being a realist, I am convinced that there is a single real world out there, and that though not infallible, science is finding out a lot of true information about it. (Just as I am able to find out in a non-socially-constructed way whether there is any milk in the fridge.)

On the other hand, I am a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. So I was irked when I read the last few stories in her otherwise fine 1994 short story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. Here she introduces (and, luckily, promptly drops) a post-modernist warp drive for space ships, the “churten drive”.

In “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganaan”, we learn that the churten drive will take your space ship instantaneously to another place regardless of distance. Trouble is, you won’t arrive until everybody aboard the ship has negotiated an agreement about what the destination is like. In fact, the destination apparently doesn’t exist until such an agreement has been reached. Gah.

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Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

i-41f28e3c4d5969a5865b16e71f0b057c-Anathem.pngNeal Stephenson’s 90s science fiction novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are unforgettable, but his 2003-2004 suite of historical novels failed to pull me in. So when I learned that his 2008 effort Anathem is a science fiction story, I was very happy.

This is a 900-page brick of a book, told in the first person by a young man wise beyond his years. The first third of the book is Harry Potter meets Hesse’s Glass Bead Game: we are in a co-ed convent where science monks do science-monkish things inside high walls that cut them off from the general public. Then we leave the convent and have 300 pages of adventures that drag a little. Finally we get 300 pages of adventures interspersed with long philosophical discussions. I read it all quite avidly.

One thing about the story that I have a big problem with is that Stephenson, assuming that the Multiple Worlds interpretation of quantum dynamics is correct, apparently allows for travel between parallel universes. This happens mainly in the form of somebody becoming unconscious and waking up in a parallel reality. Or is the guy who wakes up in fact just a parallel version of the first one? Has Stephenson abandoned the original guy? From a literary point of view, this is identical to some post-modernist or surrealist techniques where the narrative is allowed to break down into several versions of what might happen. This, in my opinion, acts as a Verfremdungseffekt: very bad if you want your readers to keep caring about what happens in your fictional world.

If an important character dies or fails his quest in the universe where most of your novel takes place, then it is no consolation to the reader if you then show them being alive or succeeding in some alternate reality. Because of course the reader knows that you can make up a story with a happy ending, quantum physics or no quantum physics. It just leads to a commodification of the characters they have cared about for hundreds of pages. Why would anyone take the time to follow Frodo all the way to Mount Doom if they felt that the universe he started his quest in had no priority over twenty alternative ones where he variously died halfway, succeeded in destroying the One Ring or wandered off instead to become a pipe-weed farmer in Far Harad? I, for one, like fiction that makes sure that I care a great deal about what happens. That’s after all what “page-turner” means.

Now, to anyone who knows Stephenson’s previous work, the big question is “Has he given us a satisfying ending this time?”. (This is an notorious flaw in much of his best work.) To my mind, Anathem’s ending is OK, pretty traditional, even to the extent that Stephenson has some of his characters commenting on it. And though the book is as usual full of really, really neat ideas and humorous one-liners, it is IMHO marred by its length and the apparent abandonment of original versions of characters. So I place the book along with Cryptonomicon among Stephenson’s mid-quality work. Now, Cryptonomicon was a best-seller, so I guess most readers will find that to be a great recommendation.

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Alvastra in the 1st Millennium

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I really enjoyed my work yesterday. The forenoon saw me in the stores of the Museum of National Antiquities looking through Otto Frödin’s uncatalogued finds from the “SverkersgÃ¥rden” site near Alvastra monastery. Not only did I find all the elusive 1st Millennium stuff that’s mentioned in the literature but never illustrated, but I was also able to identify for the first time two small pieces of iron military equipment of the same date. These strengthen the case for counting SverkersgÃ¥rden among the province’s rare Vendel Period elite settlements. After lunch at the Chinese place where I once learned my first word of Mandarin, zhacai, I spent the afternoon in the library, writing up SverkersgÃ¥rden for the gazetteer part of my book manuscript.


Västra Tollstad Parish: Sverkersgården at Alvastra

The Alvastra area around the southern end of Mount Omberg at the shore of Lake Vättern is exceptionally rich in unusual archaeological sites (Browall 2003). Among the most well known are Östergötland’s only megalithic tomb, a unique and well-preserved Middle Neolithic pile dwelling, a fine Bronze Age rock art site, the province’s largest and richest inhumation cemetery of the Roman Period (briefly mentioned in chapter 3), an extremely large 11th century Christian cemetery with a very early little crypt church, and finally Alvastra monastery with surrounding installations.

The crypt church site is of particular interest within the context of this book. It is located on the higher of two natural terraces on the southern flank of Omberg. The site is known as “SverkersgÃ¥rden”, a name coined by archaeologist Otto Frödin (1918a; 1918b) who believed that this had been the site of the Sverker family’s ancestral manor in the later 1st Millennium. That is in my opinion not unlikely, but certainly not established with the kind of rigour that would make it a good name. Still, there is no other name for the site unless you wish to use its number in the sites and monuments register, Raä 2.

Excavations at Sverkersgården were directed by Otto Frödin in 1917-21 and Lars Ersgård in 1992-1995. I directed 19 person-hours of metal detecting there in 2006. Sverkersgården is a multiperiod site with thick stratigraphy. The earliest known phase is represented by a black settlement layer where six charcoal samples have given radiocarbon dates in the interval 90-640 cal AD (Ersgård 2006c). The intrinsic age of the samples is unknown, but it appears safe to place the start of the activities no earlier than the Late Roman Iron Age. Some perforated sieve ware would date from this period or the Migration Period. The site has also yielded large amounts of undated habitation and craft debris, demonstrating work in antler (Frödin 1918a:119-120; 1918b:46), copper alloy casting (Ersgård 2006c) and the production and/or use of edged steel tools judging from the unusual number of whetstones. There are several Helgö type crucibles (fig. XXX), but no casting moulds representing identifiable object types have been found.

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Newly identified: a loop mount from the scabbard of a single-edged sword and a strap end from a bridle, both c. AD 540-700.

Sverkersgården becomes interesting for our current purposes with the Early Vendel Period. This is the first phase that has yielded datable metalwork: two small equal-armed brooches and a little fish-head sheet-metal pendant of the type endemic to Gotland (fig. XXX). Here or in the Middle Vendel Period we also have two small items of military equipment: an iron suspension mount for the scabbard of a seax sword (fig. XXX) and a profiled iron strap end for a bridle (fig. XXX). A gilded fragment of a finely sculpted copper-alloy object (fig. XXX) probably also belongs in this time frame and may be part of the hilt of a display sword.

ErsgÃ¥rd excavated a clay-lined hearth used for copper-alloy casting. Charcoal from the lining dates from AD 660-820, 840-860 (Lu-3998, 1290+-80 BP, 1 sigma). Charcoal from a layer associated with the hearth dates from AD 690-880 (Lu-4000, 1240+-60 BP, 1 sigma). The samples’ intrinsic ages are unknown. This places the use of that hearth in the Late Vendel or Early Viking Period, though the amount of debris recovered suggests that the metalworking may have gone on for quite some time before that date.

On the terrace below the crypt church is a ploughed-out cemetery identified by Frödin (1919a:2; 1919b:44), who could date it no closer than the Late Iron Age. My metal-detecting team found a key, a disc brooch and a trefoil brooch in this area, all dating from the Middle Viking Period (fig. XXX). Our finds bear no trace of fire damage though the grave Frödin found was a cremation. We thus appear to be dealing with a mixed-rite cemetery.

From about 1040 cal AD a very large Christian inhumation cemetery began to cover the former settlement and craft site (ErsgÃ¥rd REF). It is large enough to have been a regional “minster-like” cemetery and has yielded Eskilstuna-type grave monuments. Clas Tollin (2002:223) suggests that some great landowner or other powerful person may have centralised the burials of his subjects to this site. Some time about AD 1100 the little crypt church was added to the site, incorporating Eskilstuna monuments into its structure. In his 2006 book about Alvastra, “The Saint’s Dwelling”, Lars ErsgÃ¥rd suggests that the church may have been built in an attempt to establish a deceased member of the Sverker family as a dynastic saint along the lines of St. Canute and St. Erik.

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Swedish Archaeology Programs Evaluated

Yesterday the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education released an evaluation of the archaeology programs offered at eight of the country’s universities and colleges.

The most dramatic finding was that three of the eight offer programs of dubious quality that will be subjected to in-depth evaluation:

  • All programs in Visby.
  • All programs in osteology and the PhD program in Mediterranean archaeology in Lund.
  • All programs in osteology and the PhD program in lab-based archaeology in Stockholm.

This means that all Swedish programs in osteology are possibly sub-standard.

More generally, the evaluation concludes that most of the programs offered are good, though they are very different.

“The programs appear to be put together according to whatever specialists each department has on its staff. The future professional needs of the students should be allowed to influence content more. The various programs also embody remarkably different opinions about what an archaeologist needs to know”, says Anders Flodström, head of the agency.

As I’ve said many times, the future professional needs of the students have nothing to do with archaeology as an overwhelming majority of them will never work in that business. And thus it is immaterial if the various programs are similar or not. Indeed, to get asses in seats you need to offer Tut-Ankh-Amen stuff, not the grubby realities of the tiny labour market out on the highway projects.

Thanks to LL for the tip-off.

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Medieval Church Demolished, Rune Stones Found

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Högby near Mjölby in Östergötland is a magical place because of a serious lack of historical sensitivity. In 1876 (which is really late as these things go in Sweden) the locals demolished their little 12th century church and built a new bigger one a mile to the south. This meant that the parish centre of a millennium or so became a backwater and has not been built over later. It’s completely rural, abutting a farm’s back yard, very quiet. All that remains of the church is the churchyard wall and one of Östergötland’s finest rune stones that was taken out of the sacristy wall. Some fine portal stonework and a 13th century door is in the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. Two more carved stones were found and re-erected nearby.

i-c785590f83dcb262c25433185bc1d215-Hogbystenen.jpgOn the big rune stone, dating from about AD 1010-1050, Torgärd’s poetic commemoration of her maternal uncles can be read.

Torgärd erected this stone after Assur, her mother’s brother. He met his end in the East in Greece.

The good farmer Gulle
had five sons:
Fell at Föret [Uppsala?]
did the brave fighter Åsmund.
Assur met his end
to the East in Greece.
Halvdan was
on the island killed. [Bornholm?]
KÃ¥re died at the Cape. [Zealand?]
Dead is also Boe.
Torkel carved the runes.

In all likelihood, the inscription is intended to legitimise Torgärd’s claim to Gulle’s inheritance. Since all her maternal uncles are dead, Torgärd argues, their unnamed sister becomes the heir, and Torgärd inherits her mother.

By the time her descendants decided to add a sacristy to the church, Torgärd’s claim was no longer controversial, but she was probably remembered as a matron of the lineage, possibly its first Christian member. And so her rune stone was made part of the structure.

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Ten Years as an Editor

Today is my tenth anniversary as one of the academic archaeology journal Fornvännen‘s editors. While I was an undergrad my teacher Bo Petré encouraged me to subscribe from 1991 on, and I started contributing to the journal in 1994. That first contribution became a life-changer for me. It was my third-term paper, and when I called Fornvännen’s editor to ask if he wanted to look at it, he asked me what I was going to do next. “I’d like to do Early Iron Age small-finds”, I replied. “How convenient”, said Jan Peder Lamm, “I’m working on a paper that’s leading off into this funny artefact category that somebody should survey.” And so I did for my fourth-term paper, with Jan Peder as supervisor. And then he suggested the theme of my PhD thesis and became my first supervisor for that.

I could never really get angry at him for a) giving me a thesis subject that was way too big for a thesis, b) cutting me off further from the university department I was already estranged from because of the science wars. I was a modernistic scholar interested in small finds and the Iron Age before I knew Jan Peder. And he was happy to help me cultivate my interests. He also helped launch me into my life-style of many years, teaching me that it’s possible to survive as an unaffiliated scholar on grants from small private foundations provided you’re reasonably productive and don’t have expensive habits.

While I was writing that PhD thesis, Jan Peder also got me onto the editorial board of Fornvännen in April 1999. So, thanks ultimately to him, I have a really rewarding and well-paid steady part-time job as managing editor today!

You need contacts to get anywhere. But contacts don’t just pop into being, they’re made, unless you’re lucky enough to be in a position to inherit them. My story shows the importance of social skills (and ambition) on the part of the unknown newbie, and of generosity on the part of the old hand you approach. Jan Peder’s generosity is legendary.

(I actually have two reasons to celebrate today. This morning I donated my 35th bag of blood.)

Update 27 April: Two important tasks for me as an editor are to keep the average age of the contributors down and improve the gender ratio. In 1987, median age was 44 and 30% were women. In 1997, median age was 50 and 21% were women. In 2007-2008, median age was 41 and 28% were women.

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Hellish Yoghurt Diversification

i-25c1821dc9872d14f6a7fb0659559093-17440.jpgThere is a genre of complaints that I usually find a little silly: the Starbucks breakdown, which occurs when somebody’s offered too many options. But now I’ve run into the problem myself. Yoghurt diversification.

I buy most of our milk & yoghurt to save my wife some carrying. And the damn yoghurt, that was a single product when I was a kid, now presents me with a four-parameter choice! I need to make sure I get:

  • Non-light
  • Enviro-friendly
  • Mild acidity
  • Unflavoured

Phone Pix October-April

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29 October: Sunny autumn morning among the sailing boats hibernating along Pålnäsvägen.

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21 December: The dark spot marks where our feet and the wheels of our office chair have damaged the flooring over 7½ years at the home desk on Lakegatan.

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9 January: Skating on Lake Lundsjön.

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6 April: Fiddling with my smartphone in my new Academy office.

Phone Pix September-October

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13 September: Samuel and Ludvig play the piano at Ludvig’s aunt’s house in Viggbyholm.

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12 October: Playing Pandemic at a gaming convention in Gröndal.

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21 October: A mechanical excavator is delivered to my dad’s property to start work on the new sauna.

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21 October: Seminar about Open Access at the Research Council.