Not Resting Place of the First Finns

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I’m posting this from a Helsinki basement café after a day’s excursion by bus and boat in the countryside west of town. We mainly looked at cairns of various form, date and function, including a group of very fine large mountaintop ones of the typical Bronze Age variety.

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Toward the end of the day we saw a preserved little bit of an excavated cemetery to which had been added a memorial stone in the 1930s. On the plaque the site is dated to about AD 100 and proclaimed as burial place of the first Finns! The reasoning went like this.

“We have a gap in the archaeological record during the Last Millennium BC. And the linguists believe that the Finnish language arrived here from Estonia about AD 1. And the grave type here has its closest parallels in Estonia. So this must be the grave of early Finnish-speaking colonists who arrived in the country when it was empty about AD 1!”

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In the decades since, we have learned that there is no gap in the Finnish settlement record in the Last Millennium, and the grave type has been shown to be native to the coasts all around the south-eastern Baltic Sea. And the linguists have changed their mind about the date of the arrival of the Finnish language. So all that remains of the ideas celebrated on that stone is that yes, we still date the grave goods to about AD 100.

But as I told my colleagues, this is not by far the silliest memorial stone erected on an archaeological site. A strong candidate is found at Vendel church in Uppland where rich boat-burials have been excavated. It reads,

VENDEL PERIOD
PERIOD OF STATE-BUILDING
PERIOD OF MEN

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Danes Run Entire Urn Burials Through CT Scanner

The jaw-drop moment of the conference came for me when osteologist Lise Harvig off-handedly showed us pictures of what she is doing. She’s a PhD student with Niels Lynnerup at the Dept of Forensic Medicine at Copenhagen. Remember the crumbling Neolithic amber bead hoard that the Danes ran through a CT scanner instead of excavating and stabilising the thing? Now Lise is putting entire Bronze Age urn burials through that scanner. She knows where every piece of bone and bronze is in those urns before she even cuts open the plaster they’ve been encased in since being lifted out of the ground. She has perfect 3D digital models of urns that fall apart when you remove the plaster. And she has demonstrated that a lot of the bone fragmentation, that has commonly been assumed to be due to dedicated crushing and grinding by the mourners, is actually simply due to the brittleness of burnt bones whose organic component has leached away over the millennia. Big bones are sitting in the urns, each fragment in place, and fall apart when you try to lift them. As Lise put it, “The one who does the ritual crushing is me, when I empty the urns”.

So, how can a PhD student in archaeology afford to use this sort of hi-tech equipment? Turns out, the technology is developing so fast that the hospitals frequently swap their CT scanners for newer models. The used one at the Dept of Forensic Medicine makes one slice every three millimeters. Not good enough anymore for brain surgery. But perfectly useful for archaeology.

Other issues covered in today’s presentations were:

  • Correspondence analysis of Gotland’s stone ships.
  • The landscape situation of sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren area (me).
  • An Early Bronze Age magnate farm excavated recently near Halmstad.
  • Human sacrifice and corpse rituals in Lithuania.
  • The unusually late introduction of animal husbandry in Finland.
  • Bone pins in the Baltic states.
  • Copper in Fennoscandia before the Bronze Age.
  • Bronze ring casting sites on Saaremaa and elsewhere in the Baltic states.

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11th Nordic Bronze Age Symposium, Day 1

Helsinki isn’t far from Stockholm. It took me a bit more than four hours from home to my hotel here, and I could have shaved more than an hour off of that if I had taken the bullet train to the airport and a cab to the hotel instead of going by bus.

I’m at the 11th Nordic Bronze Age symposium, which for the first time includes a bunch of Baltic colleagues as wall. Everybody’s very friendly and the atmosphere is informal. It’s a pretty sizeable conference as these things go in my discipline: about 60 registered participants, of which I have made the acquaintance of at least half by now. For reasons unclear to me, I was made the afternoon’s discussant, which was fun and flattering.

I’m here to learn what Bronze Age scholars in my part of the world are doing right now, because I’m planning to become one of them. So far I’ve been able to understand everything reasonably well, though I lack basic skills of the trade for the period in question. Menace me with a Bronze Age sword, and I will generally not be able to place it in the right Montelian phase to save my life. (Unless you lend me the sword so I can look it up in the literature. It’s safe, I’m a pacifist. Come on now, just hand it over.)

Here are the main themes touched upon in today’s presentations:

  • Building a new model of how Bronze Age society in Southern Scandinavia was organised.
  • Current Bronze Age research in Estonia.
  • Past and present interpretations of the Early Metal Age and Bronze Age in Finland.
  • Why does the Hajdusamson-Apa sword type occur both in Scandinavia and in Carpathia?
  • Is it possible to find a northern border of the Nordic Bronze Age culture along the coast of Norway?
  • The Bronze Age in the Stockholm archipelago (Mattias & Roger reporting on their on-going Ornö dig!).
  • Recent rock art surveys in Södermanland province.
  • Is it possible to radiocarbon date bronze?
  • Bronze socketed axe found with a piece of the shaft inside, this has been dated, sadly the typological date didn’t match the radiocarbon.)
  • The ethnic and social background of various find types in the Finnish Bronze Age.
  • A Late Bronze Age seal-hunting centre in Ostrobotnia.

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Only Certain Humans Ever Have Sex To Reproduce

Ed Yong’s excellent post about fruit-bat fellatio received some even better, eye-opening comments from one Russell and Frog:

Russell: “Tan is falling into the fallacy that animals have sex for the purpose of procreation. Or of writing as if. Those bats are having sex because they’re horny, and the fellatio is somehow making their sex more satisfying. That might or might not enhance reproduction. But that is not on the little bats’ minds when they’re busy getting it on.”

Frog: “The bats aren’t making direct computations of relative reproductive success — they’re ‘feeling good’, and very often ‘feeling good’ is made better by making someone else ‘feel good’ (not assuming that the bats can actually model their partners mind like that).

Humans have sex for reproductive purposes — I would bet we’re the only ones who are that insane. Everyone else just does what they like to do.

This is like saying that animal X eats to keep their metabolism going — only a few crazy people do that. Everyone eats because they like eating.”

And of course. Animals take great pleasure from sex because it is adaptive to feel that pleasure. None of them is smart enough to understand that babies follow. And that obviates the entire discussion of what sexual behaviour counts as “natural” in humans.

The only rule we need to follow is “consenting adults”. (With the addition, of course, that if a person consents to having grievous bodily harm done to them, then this is a symptom of mental illness and places a responsibility of care, not exploitation, upon people around. But then someone who would feel inclined to exploit such a situation sexually is of course also nuts.)

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Fungal Research Tries To Surf MRSA Wave

Here’s a confusing press release from the University of Gothenburg. Researcher Jonas Warringer is trying to find ways to slow the rate of genetic adaptation in certain microbes down to keep them from evolving resistance to antibiotics. But look at this (and I translate):

Slowed-down evolution can counteract antibiotic resistance

The resistance of an infectious agent against antibiotics is particularly serious when it comes to drugs made from fungi, penicillin for instance. Fungal cells are similar to human ones, which makes it hard to develop drugs that hit fungal cells (and are effective) but leave human cells unharmed (thus avoiding side effects).

Evolution creates random variations in the traits of an organism, which shows in infectious agents as an improved resistance against the drugs they encounter. In the end we get completely resistant fungal strains — and the drug becomes ineffective.

What the press release fails to mention is that we usually use antibiotics against bacterial infections, not fungal ones. The research reported on is in fact irrelevant to the much-publicised concerns about MRSA and other bacterial strains that have evolved resistance to antibiotics. Looks like an attempt to ride the publicity wave of a separate issue.

Bruce Chatwin did have fungal trouble, though. Check out my homage.

German Wikipedian Insults Blogging Scientists

A very prominent German Wikipedian, Meisterkoch (“Master Chef”), doesn’t like bloggers much. In a recent opinion piece he manages to insult all the world’s blogging scientists in one fell swoop.

“At best, blogs are run by second-rate scientists; typically, however, just by unemployed people. … In fact, blogs allow the repeated and systematic transfer of half-knowledge and subjectivities which can be ‘consumed’ and amplified even further by other non-scientific media (other blogs, Twitter, etc.). … Bloggers usually react with anger and denial if you point out that their blogs are not as important as the bloggers think. Nevertheless, blogs contribute to increased visibility for scientists who are at best mediocre.”

So, one of the marks of a first-rate scientist is apparently that she does not blog. Luckily, my experience with young German scholars has taught me that this kind of Prussian authoritarianism is going extinct.

Via Mathias Klang.

Goodbye to ICQ

I’ve been on the instant messaging service ICQ daily since 1997. Last week, though, my entry in some database apparently got screwed up, so my password no longer works and I can’t get the retrieval mechanism to send me a new one. Looking through my contact list I then realised that I hardly ever use ICQ anymore, because almost everybody I chat to is on MSN. (I hadn’t noticed since I use client software that handles several different messaging protocols transparently.) So I’ve decided to simply say goodbye to ICQ. Anybody who wants to get in touch should be able to find me anyway, for instance on Google Talk which comes with every gmail adress.

Fornvännen’s Spring Issue On-Line

True to the rules of Open Access publishing, the April issue of Fornvännen has come on-line in all its full-text glory less than six months after paper publication.

  • Katharina Hammarstrand Dehman reports on the kind of hardcore wetland archaeology you can get to do when somebody wants to dig a huge tunnel under a coastal city.
  • Helena Günther launches a merciless attack on the shamanic model of interpretation that has coloured much Scandy rock-art research in recent years.
  • Maria Lingström reports on her fieldwork on a 1361 battlefield. Unusually early battlefield archaeology on a site where hundreds fell casualty to crossbow fire and close combat but few guns were used!
  • Ulf Näsman counters the Kuhnian Huns argument.
  • Göran Werthwein reports about a Medieval smithy at a rural manor where goldsmith work took place.
  • Magnus Green analyses a fragment of Spanish Medieval church art that has recently ended up in a Swedish church.