Beowulf Saves the Royal Pub

i-4a92a677ec618f8d0f3cbb4c850f77af-180px-Beowulf.firstpage.jpegI’m finishing writing a book and you guys will have the opportunity to review the manuscript some time towards late summer. The working title is Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats. Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375-1000 in Östergötland, Sweden.

The title alludes to the Old English epic poem about Beowulf. Set mainly in 6th century Denmark, it is all about the petty kings of the time whose political life was centred upon the feasting hall. That’s where raids were planned, guests entertained, loot from raids shared out, religious rituals performed, epic poetry about raids listened to. Without a mead-hall, an armed retinue, a high-born wife, a court poet and a big chest of gold, nobody could be a king. The conflict that drives the first two thirds of the long poem is centred upon certain problems King Hrothgar of the Danes has with his mead-hall “The Hart”. It is being haunted by a bloodthirsty marsh ghoul named Grendel, and while this goes on Hrothgar is unable to function as a king. Who ya gonna call? Hrothgar calls the ghostbusting superhero Beowulf from Götaland (land of the Geatas, in Old English) to take care of the situation.

Now, the other day I was sitting on the gold chest in my hall talking to my high-born wife while the retinue was drinking mead and listening to this long poem about me. My wife is a journalist, and I received her along with a serious haul of gold back when I swore fealty to the Chairman-Emperor of China. She is my main contact with the real world where people have 9-5 jobs, watch TV and follow the news. And when I mentioned the title of the manuscript to her, it turned out that the beowulfian references an Early Medieval scholar takes for granted are completely lost on people from the modern world. “Eastern Geats” she could guess meant something about Östergötland. That’s after all where I’ve done most of my fieldwork in recent years. But “mead-hall” she interpreted, in analogy with Sw. ölhall and Ge. Bierhalle, to mean “pub”. So, outside the book’s main audience of people who take an interest in 1st Millennium Scandinavia, I’m apparently completing a work named “Guide to the Pubs of the Linköping Area”.


Open Source Dendrochronology


Dendrochronology is the study of tree-rings to determine when and where a tree has grown. Everybody knows that trees produce one ring every year. But the rings also vary in width according to each year’s local weather conditions. If you’ve got enough rings in a wood sample, then their widths form a unique “bar code”. Collect enough samples of various ages from buildings and bog wood, and you can join the bar codes up to a reference curve covering thousands of years.

Dendrochronology has a serious organisational problem that impedes its development as a scientific discipline and tends to compromise its results. This is the problem of proprietary data. When a person or organisation has made a reference curve, then in many cases they will not publish it. They will keep it as an in-house trade secret and offer their paid services as dendrochronologists. This means that dendrochronology becomes a black box into which customers stick samples, and out of which dates come, but only the owner of the black box can evaluate the process going on inside. This is of course a deeply unscientific state of things. And regardless of the scientific issue, I am one of those who feel that if dendro reference curves are produced with public funding, then they should be published on-line as a public resource.

But there is a resistance movement: amateur dendrochronologists such as my buddies Torbjörn Axelson and Åke Larsson. They practice open source data transparency on the net, which means that arguably amateur dendrochronology is at this time more scientific than the professional variety. Torbjörn recently published a fascinating study of a wooden building in Dalecarlia, showing that it was originally built in ~1240 and then refurbished in the 1490s, the 1570s and the 1830s. If you doubt his results, then just re-run the analyses. His data are all there in the report. I came into contact with Torbjörn through Aard and then had the pleasure of seeing his 2007 debate piece into print in Fornvännen, introducing many other professionals to the issue. (English translation here.)

Now the guys have started a wiki and dug into Alf BrÃ¥then’s work. Alf (born in 1924) is an old-school non-computerised dendrochronologist who hasn’t generally published his reference data. He once famously dropped nine years from his pine curve for Gotland, causing Johan Rönnby to unwittingly publish an erroneous date for the Bulverket lake settlement in his 1995 PhD thesis. Torbjörn and Lars have re-analysed some data from Västergötland that Alf has released, and whaddaya know: there are errors there too.

The point here isn’t to say that Alf BrÃ¥then is an unusually clumsy dendrochronologist. He probably isn’t. The point is that all scientists are fallible, and that science moves forward through discussion. We help spot each other’s mistakes, and once an issue has been wrangled over and everybody’s had a chance to check the details, we have more secure knowledge than can ever be attained by a few people tending their black box. But as long as data and methods stay in that box, the process is impeded.

Update 24 June: Here’s something really scary. Says Torbjörn,

The most problematic issue from an archaeological perspective may be that the Hohenheim data (Germany), which forms a lot of the basis for radiocarbon calibration, is not open to inspection. Nobody outside the “circle of the initiated” has seen the measurement series nor the average chronologies. We know that European dendrochronologists have often used the Gleichlaufigkeit method (GLK), which is not dependable, but which places great demands on the skill of the analyst. If you run GLK “blindly” you can end up anywhere. Anybody who says so in public, though, is likely to make few friends.

Weekend Fun

The Rundkvist family right before we went in and apprehended the extraterrestrial. Photo F. Gilljam.

  • Friday was Mid-summer’s Eve. Cycled with the kids to the local maypole celebration. Back home, I assembled the first barbecue I’ve ever owned and made some really nice souvlaki for our guests.
  • Saturday we visited Felicia‘s charming parents in rural Grödinge, not far from where my grandparents used to have a summer house. Learned a lot about beekeeping the hands-on way, saw interesting plants & poultry.
  • Sunday I took a long bike ride with the kids and logged three geocaches.

And your weekend, Dear Reader?

Dr. Gilljam and his honey extractor.

Swedish Atheist Ad Campaign


The Swedish Humanist Association is currently running our version of the Atheist Bus Campaign in the Stockholm subway. Gud finns nog inte — “God probably doesn’t exist”. It may seem a little gratuitous in a country where few people are religious any more, but the ads make the point that there’s a lot of quiet Christian influence still around in society. For instance, the country’s flag carries a cross. Anyway, the campaign isn’t making much of a splash as far as I’m aware, though Göran Rosenberg (a liberal columnist who contributed to a pro-Anthroposophy anthology five years ago) wrote angrily about it in last Sunday’s newspaper. He’s pushing the “atheism is a religion too!” line. I don’t worry. Sweden’s going to keep moving away from religion, deprogramming pious immigrant groups as they become socially integrated and generations pass. Because in a good society, the people doesn’t need that opiate.

17th Century Coin Forgery

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Here’s a cool thing from my buddy Claes Pettersson at Jönköping County Museum. He’s been directing big excavations of the town’s 17th century industrial precinct, and his team has found something that appears to be a forged gold coin. It consists of a soft grey metal (tin?) with a thin coating of a yellow metal. So far nobody’s been able to tell quite what type of coin it was supposed to look like, only that one side features a crowned head. Any ideas?

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Centenarian Open Access Archaeology Journal

I’m proud to announce that Fornvännen, Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research, is now up to speed on the Open Access side. Our excellent librarian and information jockey Gun Larsson has just put the third and fourth issues for last year on-line. Fornvännen appears on-line for free with a six-month delay (due to concerns that the on-line version might otherwise undermine the print version). In the two most recent issues on-line, you can read new research on:

  • An Early Mesolithic settlement site in wooded Värmland.
  • A carved stone in a Bohuslän crofter’s cellar that may be a Neolithic stele.
  • Long-term traditions in prehistoric Scandinavian ship-building.
  • Stable isotope analyses of skeletons from one of Northern Sweden’s first Christian cemeteries.
  • A previously unknown runic inscription about a Viking Period traveller to Eastern Europe.
  • Excavations at Swedish and English assembly sites.
  • 17th century stone memorials recalling the rune stones of the 11th century.
  • Kuhnian Huns.
  • The baptism of the first King of Sweden.
  • 4th century gold from Östergötland.

Energy is Good, Calories are Bad

Everybody knows that energy is good for you and calories are bad for you. What newagers, health nuts and alties seem to be completely ignorant of is that both words originate in physics and that they refer to the same thing.

Energy “is a scalar physical quantity that describes the amount of work that can be performed by a force”. It can be measured in various units, in the context of food usually kilocalories. A Snickers bar contains about 150 kilocalories, which is equal to the energy content of about 20 ml of gasoline.

Both energy content estimates of course refer to the amount of chemical energy you get out of the stuff when using it to fuel the pertinent piece of machinery, viz a car engine for gasoline and a human body for Snickers bars. The atomic energy content is way, way greater, but we haven’t got the technology to run nuclear power plants on chocolate just yet.

Oh, and you know when newagers speak of “spiritual energy”? It’s a meaningless phrase.

Weekend Fun

  • Attended the Where Is the Action rock festival with my wife, heard a lot of good music, much of it new to me. Details here and here.
  • Shopped for presents and spent an hour having cake and reading, all in the charming company of soon-6-y-o Juniorette. She: Donald Duck; me: SprÃ¥ktidningen.
  • Celebrated the first birthday of another very sweet and promising little Swedish-Chinese girl.
  • Played Agricola and had yummy home-made pizza in good company at the new abode of Paddy K.
  • Mused about the strange fact that soon-11-y-o Junior is at sailing camp. I still feel his baby self in my arms.

And your weekend fun, Dear Reader?