Weekend Fun at the Manor

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I was headed for a lonely November weekend with wife & daughter abroad and son with his mom. So I rounded up three friends (though Paddy K was kept from coming along at the last minute by a big meltdown at work), loaded my best board games and a couple of grocery bags into the family car, and drove to Stjernsund manor in Närke.

Our way there was kind of interesting. I plotted a course that would be as close to a straight line as possible yet largely follow major highways. This meant that we spent two hours at about 110 km/h from Stockholm to Norrk̦ping and thence to Finsp̴ng and onward a bit to the northwest Рand then we spent an hour at about 70 km/h crossing the wooded and thinly populated highlands of Tiveden in complete darkness on small roads that are for some part not even asphalt. But Swedepat drove that bit without a hitch.

Our stay at Stjernsund was just as good as I had hoped. We took walks, we played board games, we read, we went geocaching, we cooked fine meals and me & Tor sung harmony to celebrate Swedepat’s birthday. I also had the good fortune to catch an incredible sunrise yesterday with camera in hand.

The fish sculpture below consists of auto parts, has the witty name Soppatorsk and was created by comic artist Joakim Lindengren!

And you Dear Reader? What did you do for fun this past weekend?
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Current Archaeology 237

i-e0af2590c530b6d9d49018ecfd6eb74b-001_coverca238.jpgCurrent Archaeology’s December issue offers one of the mag’s signature feature write-ups of new books, this time The Complete Ice Age: how climate change shaped the world by Brian Fagan et al. Interesting stuff, where the following passage on the coming of our own species into Ice Age Europe struck me as particularly illuminating:

“In the past, climate change had either forced movement or engendered physical evolution [in the area’s hominid population]. Homo sapiens, supremely intelligent, responded to new challenges through cultural evolution. The interaction between nature and humanity now produced social progress: a gradual accumulation of knowledge and technique, of understanding and skill, that enabled human groups to solve problems by inventing new tools and methods.”

Then there’s a piece on a razed henge monument found at the river end of the ritual avenue that leads to Stonehenge. It may well be that the Stonehenge bluestone orthostats originally formed this riverside henge and were then hauled up to their current site. They were famously quarried in the Preseli hills of Wales, and I just had to check: regrettably, “Presley” and “Preseli” are not cognates. “Presley” is an English word meaning “priest’s meadow”, and “Preseli” is a Welsh word whose etymology I haven’t been able to trace.

A scary story is told about Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria where a senior British archaeologist conducted extensive fieldwork in the 50s, 60s and 70s. This man behaved with such criminal negligence that when he died, some of the documentation and finds were found in his home, a lot was found in hastily abandoned and decades-locked site offices in the castle, and much is simply missing. An unfortunate fieldwork team is now trying to make sense of what he did on site by means of meta-archaeology, digging to document what the earlier excavator did. Needless to say, archaeology would have been much better off if the first campaign at Bamburgh Castle had never taken place at all. Myself, I get really antsy if it takes more than a few months for me to submit my final archive report of a dig.

In a column about “independent archaeology”, which seems to be the British term for well-organised amateur archaeology, CA’s publisher Andrew Selkirk (who comments here at times) tells interesting news from a conference he’s been to. He thinks community archaeology funding is too restricted in the UK. And he lets slip a few asides that show that he doesn’t like the EU, political correctness, bureaucracy, the left wing or overly professional museums. I am unfamiliar with CA’s past, but statements like these make me wonder if the magazine has some kind of anti-government well-to-do hobbyist background? What is Current Archaeology’s official position on fox hunting?

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Ancient Remains Outlined in Street Pavement

Today’s schedule was 5 hours on trains to Lund, 6 hours in Lund giving a talk, and 5 hours on trains home. In Lund I saw the outline of a very early church foundation picked out in the overlying street pavement near the Cathedral. And I was reminded of other archaeology I’ve seen thus outlined: the chancel apse of Stockholm Cathedral and the great stone ship at StÃ¥ngebro near Linköping. It’s a pretty cool way to show the many-layeredness of a spot that would otherwise just be asphalt.

Dear Reader, have you seen any interesting archaeology outlined in an overlying street pavement?

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Early Medieval Magnates Talk in Lund

A few months ago I finished a book manuscript on elite settlement and political geography in Östergötland, one of Sweden’s core provinces, in the period AD 375-1000. In countries that have experienced an infestation of Romans, this era is known as the Early Middle Ages. In Scandyland we call it the Late Iron Age. Researching and writing the book has been my main project for over four years, as reflected in many blog entries here about sites such as Skamby in Kuddby and Sättuna in Kaga.

On Thursday 26 November at 15:00 I will give a talk about these matters at the Dept of Archaeology at the University of Lund, Sandgatan 1. I’m sure there will be room for some interested members of the public. Do show up if you’re into things like this — I promise it won’t be dry and academic. And if you’re an Aard reader, please come over and say hi!

Wesa Perttola Makes Great Maps

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In Helsinki a few weeks back I made the acquaintance of my charming colleague Wesa Perttola. Now he has made excellent distribution maps for my forthcoming Östergötland book. Above is the scatter of 9th and 10th century elite indicators (big black dots) against a background of 6th-8th century indicators (smaller grey dots) and farms named Tegneby (“thane’s farm”, stars). Wesa tells me that he is currently available for more GIS and CAD work.

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Why Malt the Barley for Beer?


Dear Reader, usually the deal here on Aard is that I tell you what to think and you reply, zombielike, “Yes… Master… Kill… Kill…”. But today, let’s turn the tables. I’m going to ask a question about a simple scientific-culinary matter that has baffled me for decades. And I hope someone out there knows enough about yeast to enlighten me.

  1. When starved of oxygen, yeast turns sugar into alcohol.
  2. When germinated, barley grains, by means of the enzyme amylase, turn some of their constituent starch into sugar. This process is called malting.
  3. In order to make beer, you must malt the barley. This suggests that yeast cannot make alcohol out of starch.
  4. But Swedish vodka is made from potatoes, which are very high in starch but cannot be malted. This suggests that yeast can make alcohol out of starch.

So here’s my question: if yeast can make alcohol directly out of starch, why bother malting the barley before making beer? Couldn’t you just mix barley flour with water and yeast and put a lid on the slop?

Update same evening: Dale P and other Dear Readers solved the conundrum för me. Yeast cannot in fact ferment starch. To ferment potato mash, you add enzyme-containing barley malt to it!

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Like an Elephant

My 6-y-o daughter usually sleeps really solidly over in her room and is not easily woken by sounds she’s accustomed to. But this morning she told me over breakfast, “Dad, you and Mom made the weirdest noises last night and woke me. First Mom kind of whined and sounded as if she was gonna sneeze. Then nothing for a while. And then you started sounding like an elephant! You made one heck of a racket — Det var ett jäkla liv.”

Laptop Day


I’m enjoying one of my infrequent laptop days, that is, days during which it actually makes sense for me to tote such a device around. I type these words from the Konradsberg campus of the University of Stockholm. Konradsberg is a name that resonates in my city’s history, because it used to be one of the main mental hospitals, known colloquially as the “Castle of Madmen”. I haven’t been committed (yet). I’m here for the second day of the Wikipedia Academy 2009 conference, representing my employer, the Royal Academy of Letters.

In order to get on-line I had to solve a decidedly analog problem. The scrape cards the organisers hand out with login info for the wifi here are poorly made: the stuff you need to scrape off is tougher than the underlying plastic film on which the information is printed. So my first attempt ended with me scraping the print off. This reminds me of the techno-optimism of the 60s where archaeologists on Gotland produced extremely detailed photographic excavation reports but forgot to check if the glue they used was archive-safe. In the 90s those reports were all falling apart.

After lunch I’m taking a wifi-enabled fast train to Gothenburg to give an information security talk at the IT University there. Then back home to Stockholm. All with a lovely dinky netbook in my backpack, one whose Ubuntu installation is sadly dead but whose Windows installation still works. Better than nothing.

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Dan Simmons’s Scientific Let-Down

Dan Simmons published a wonderful, galaxy-spanning, mind-blowing sf novel in 1989: Hyperion. Then he followed it up with three more novels of which I have read two. They’re OK, but not as good as the first book.

Science fiction is of course stories where fabulous things happen and are explained by science and technology rather than magic. There are two ways to do this: either you offer an explanation that is actually in line with what we know now and sort of makes sense, or you use technobabble to cover the fact that you, the writer, do not actually have any idea of how for instance space ships move instantaneously from one star to another. Both ways are in my opinion fine. And Simmons uses the technobabble technique with poetic flair: “torch ship”, “lance the ground troops from orbit”, “spin down into the system”, “hyper-entropic field”.

But in the third of the Hyperion novels, Endymion (1996), he does something that jarred me awake to the fact that Simmons apparently does not know basic science at all. He tells us that a couple of fabulous things happen and offers neither technobabble nor believable scientific explanations.

We’re on the planet Sol Draconi Septem. Having once been terraformed, thus receiving a breathable atmosphere, it has now relapsed (over a few centuries) into a chilly state where its atmosphere has frozen solid, collapsed onto the surface and formed glaciers. There is hardly any gaseous matter there any more. Those glaciers seem to consist largely of solid nitrogen. Yet Simmons tells us that there is breathable air and liquid salty water in tunnels dug through the ice by a species of large animal, the ice wraiths. And on top of the glaciers, where it is impossible to breathe, intense blizzards blow. So there is wind in a vacuum, and there is precipitation without an atmosphere. Ouch.

The ecology of Sol Draconi Septem is also magical. It consists only of two species of carnivore that hunt each other: ice wraiths and humans. No plants and no herbivores. Simmons does mention that the human population is shrinking, which suggests that he understands that a system without energy input will dwindle and eventually stop running. But as far as I can see he’s vastly overestimated the longevity of such a system. It is after all the equivalent of fencing a desert in, removing all animals and filling it with lions and tigers. And it’s not just a matter of energy efficiency, but also one of materials: if a tiger eats a lion, far from all of the lion’s building blocks become incorporated into the tiger.

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Information Longevity Talk in Gothenburg

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On Tuesday 17 November 17:30 I’m giving a talk as part of Mathias Klang’s information security course at the University of Gothenburg. The theme is “Årtusendenas glömska: arkivsäkring i det riktigt lÃ¥nga perspektivet”, which may hint to the intelligent reader that I’ll be speaking in Swedish. I’ll cover ways that information has survived from the distant past, and aspects of how data from archaeological sites and museum collections can be safeguarded for a long future.

The lecture is free and open to the public. The venue is at Forskningsgången 6, square 2, floor 2, on the premises of IT-Universitetet on Lindholmen. Hope to see blog readers there!

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