Recent Archaeomags

I spent Wednesday evening wrapping presents and reading the latest popular archaeomags that have reached my mailbox. Pleasurable pursuits!

Current World Archaeology’s Dec/Jan issue (#38) has a story on new interpretations of the inter-war excavation results at Dura-Europos in Syria. This is an important Roman fortress town that was laid waste after a protracted siege by Sasanid Persians in the AD 250s. Thus it preserves the state of the place just as the siege ended, which is highly unusual, with loads of well-preserved military gear and temporary siege-related structures that would have been removed if habitation had continued. In a siege tunnel the excavators even found a 20-man squad of Roman legionaries that appeared to have perished there, gear in hand, and immediately been buried by the collapse of the tunnel. New work with the documentation suggests that they actually died of noxious fumes sent into the tunnel by the attacking Persians, and then the bodies were stacked in a pile to keep more legionaries from coming out while the siege engineers prepared to collapse the tunnel. (They didn’t dig it to get into the town through it, but to undermine the town walls.)

Sweden’s only pop-arch mag, Populär Arkeologi, offers a wide range of topics in issue 2009:4. In fact, as I have complained before about Current World Archaeology, they move way beyond my geographical attention span when it comes to archaeology. On a Swedish topic though, they make the same mistake as a lot of other media in reporting extremely overstated interpretations of the genetics of a small number of Neolithic individuals that were published in Current Biology 19 in November. Åsa at Ting & Tankar killed it at length. Basically, if you have two archaeological cultures, and you only check out 20 individuals from two or three sites, then your results can’t be generalised for the entire range of those cultures. We still do not to know to what extent the modern Swedish population descends from the Pitted Ware seal hunters and/or the Funnel Beaker agriculturalists. And anybody with a bit of political correctness in them will wince at the headline “We Descend From Immigrant Farmers”. Who’s “we”? I’m the only member of my family with exclusively Swedish ancestors back to AD 1900. The other three all have recent Oriental ancestors who descended from people who helped fucking invent agriculture.

Current Archaeology 238 (January ’10) has a big story on a magical place: Alderley Edge in Cheshire, that figures so prominently in Alan Garner’s lovely 1960 young-adult fantasy novel the Weirdstone of Brisingamen! I read everything I could find by Garner when I was a kid, and I need to get his essay collection The Voice that Thunders one of these days. The magazine story mainly concerns studies of Bronze Age mining at Alderley Edge.

Then there’s a tiresome piece about inter-war UK archaeology by a hyper-relativist historian of the discipline who thinks that we can never know anything about the past because we’re always stuck in our present mind-set that determines our interpretations. “Nothing about the past stays still for long, from the tiniest detail to the grandest narratives. It is constantly rewritten and reinterpreted.” To this I have two replies.

  1. The guy obviously doesn’t know how the scientific process works. Scientists don’t change their interpretations wildly to and fro. Changes become smaller and smaller through time, collective re-testing and fine-tuning until everybody’s satisfied that we’ve reached a good approximation of the truth.
  2. If he believes in his argument, then it must apply to his own historical studies as well, and then I can’t see how he can ask us to take them seriously and pay him to do them. It’s just historically contingent commentary on the source material, right bro?

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Gazprom Easily Brushes Off Heritage Protection Considerations

A correspondent of mine who requests anonymity tells a sad tale of what Oligarch Russia does to its cultural heritage these days. Money talks!

… the scandalous case with the monuments of ancient St. Petersburg on the place of which the Government plans to build a big (400 m high) skyscraper of Gazprom. This is in the very centre of the city, some 600 m from Smolny, and from the beautiful Smolny cathedral, the baroque creation of Rastrelli. The cathedral will be reduced to nil [I take it the cathedral will be physically dwarfed by the Gazprom skyscraper, not torn down]. UNESCO has warned that if the tower will be beginning to be built, Petersburg will be officially excluded from the World Heritage list. Nevertheless the building has begun: the chiefs of the city want to have the capital of Gazprom here because then the big money streams will be flow through Petersburg and through their hands.

The situation is aggravated due to the fact that under the planned tower extremely important archaeological monuments have been discovered: two Swedish citadels (Nienschantz and Landscrona) with retained on 1 m high bastions, and under them a great Neolithic settlement, the largest in the whole North-European region including Finland, with preserved wooden details allowing dendrochronology for many thousand years. The head of the excavations Peter Sorokin forbade further building activity. He suggested to build a museum instead. Gazprom has pressed the chiefs of the archaeological institutions (depending on Gazprom financially), and the Petersburg Institute for the History of Material Culture (headed by Evgeniy Nosov) these days has replaced Sorokin by another archaeologist (Solovyeva) ready to destroy Landscrona and Nienschantz before April, and the Neolithic settlement has in general dropped out from the agreement. It is non-existent now. And the Moscow Institute of archaeology (headed by Makarov) received from Gazprom money for works in other places and has promised to set up a Commission ready to judge if the museum is necessary. The decision will be without doubts negative and good for Gazprom.
The builders began to hammer big piles into the body of the multi-layer monument, and there are precious few days left before the full annihilation of the important monuments we are all responsible for. The days are numbered.

The minister of culture Avdeev has advanced against the building, but the chiefs of the state are silent. The only hope is on the international community of scholars…

For more on this issue, readers of Russian can refer to the Throitsky Variant newspaper, no. 21 (40) for October 27, 2009, pp. 14-15.

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Last year my wife and I bought a house. Since then we have been tenants of Nacka municipality who owned the land the house sits on. It’s a tiny plot, hardly larger than the house itself, and surrounded by communal land. But the interest on a mortgage loan is quite a bit less than the land rent, and over time the real value of the interest payments shrinks through inflation while the rent is adjusted upwards. So today we bought the land plot as well, which means that I now own a piece of Sweden. Or rather, that the bank owns it and lets it to us as long as we pay the interest. The Swedish word for interest, ränta, is actually a cognate of “rent”.

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Theological Carolling

The autumn-term closing ceremony in Swedish schools is traditionally held in a church. The country was solidly (if lukewarmly) Christian until quite recently, and Christmas is of course nominally a Christian holiday. But Muslim immigrants have become more numerous from the 80s on, the Swedish Church separated from the state in 2000, and so it is no longer uncontroversial to bring entire school classes to church.

My son’s school, when informing us parents about the ceremony planned for last week, emphasised that though the whole thing would take place in a church, no Christian message would be delivered. This was in my opinion pretty wimpy of the vicar, but such unobtrusiveness is typical of the dwindling Swedish Church. Its theology has long been getting increasingly vague and all-encompassing for fear of scaring any potential members off.

I went there to hear my kid sing, and the promise was held. The vicar in her funny ceremonial robes gave a little speech about lighting candles for this and that, but no mention was made of sin or saviour, heaven or sky guy, manger or star. No spoken mention, that is. Because although a few Swedish Christmas carols have lyrics about eating and drinking (“Hey, old gnomes, fill up yer glasses and let’s be merry”), most are loudly Christian. So we weren’t told about Jesus: instead we all sang about him.

“And across city and countryside tonight
Travel the joyful tidings of Christmas
That born is Our Lord Jesus Christ
Our Saviour and God”

“The heavens resound with words of joy:
Christ has come to Earth,
The Saviour is born unto you”

I wasn’t angry or anything, the singing just felt a little incongruous. It’s not such a big deal: I’ve taught my kids that the mythical figures religious people pray to are simply fictional characters like Mickey Mouse. And I guess any kids from my son’s school with orthodox Muslim parents simply wouldn’t be there for the ceremony. But I wonder what the Christmas carols of 50 years hence will be like. Most of the current ones are already 100 years old or more and largely incomprehensible because of their poetic and archaic language.

Svenska Dagbladet has a big feature story about the changing conditions of the Swedish Church.

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The Mines of Gladhammar


The mines of Gladhammar near Västervik in SE Sweden were worked at least from the 16th century to the 19th century, producing iron, copper and cobalt. Now they pose a big environmental problem because of heavy metals leaching out of the spoil heaps into a nearby lake. A project is afoot to do something about the site, removing all the spoil (!) to a safer location, and so my colleagues from the Kalmar County Museum have been called in to do some early industrial archaeology prior to the cleanup. Here’s a fascinating short film they’ve shot from a basket lowered with a crane into one of the mines. And here’s a speleological report (a 7 MB pdf file) on what the mines look like, crammed full of excellent photographs by Sven Gunnvall and Björn Gunnvall.

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Norm Sherman is an Elder God

i-99bb54c6ae91e6f4d7e2b1aa2a7b277f-normsherman.jpgI’ve listened to Escape Pod, the science fiction short-story podcast, for four years now. And lately I have become increasingly awed by one of the newer hosts, Norm Sherman. His writing is acerbic, his delivery is deadpan, the guy is just so cool and funny. On the most recent EP episode he played an absolutely sublime H.P. Lovecraft love ballad that he’s written and recorded, and it turns out the guy is a veritable Jonathan Coulton! Only one who speaks as well.

Cuz you’re my quasi-icthyan angel
You’re my half amphibian queen
You’re the Overlord of my Universe
You’re the Tormentor of my Dreams
You’re my starry-eyed web-footed wonderful
You’re The Thing that Can Never Be
You’re my fish-frog demigod and baby girl I’m your
filthy gibbering lunatic priest

There’s nothing for it. I’m going to have to subscribe to Sherman’s podcast, The Drabblecast, and listen through the back episodes. All 141 of them. And if you’re anything like me, you probably should too.

Update 21 December: And on the most recent episode, Sherman’s got a hi-la-ree-ous story about cryptozoology and another love ballad; this one about the elusive Mongolian Death Worm. Is there anything this man can’t do?

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Anthro Blog Carnival

The eighty-second Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Anthropology in Practice. Catch the best recent blogging on archaeology and anthropology!

Submissions for the next carnival will be sent to Eric at the Primate Diaries. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me for hosting. The next vacant hosting slot is in less than a month, on 13 January. It’s a good way to gain readers. No need to be an anthro pro.

Four Years of Blogging

i-3da4681e807251ca9dcccfc70d6a8180-PNCA-4.jpgToday is my fourth birthday as a blogger! (Here‘s my first entry from 2005.) I see myself as the proprietor of and main contributor to a small daily paper on subjects that interest me. And I am enjoying myself! Trafficwise, the mean number of unique readers per day has been as follows.

  • 2006: 157 daily readers
  • 2007: 852 daily readers
  • 2008: 937 daily readers
  • 2009: 714 daily readers (update 3 Jan)

These stats might suggest that the blog is ailing, but actually the mean values for ’07 and ’08 are skewed by huge spikes on a single entry each for those years (here and here). If we looked at the median (which is much more labour-intensive to calculate) instead of the arithmetic mean we’d see continuous slow growth in the readership. Aard is always near the middle of the traffic-ranking list we keep backstage here on Sb.

The blog’s not expanding its steady following much. Two years ago 130 of each day’s readers on average were identifiable returners. Right now 150 of them are. There seems to be considerable turnover among the regulars. Blog readers are fickle creatures.

I plan no changes around here, so unless you guys write me interesting letters whose replies might make good blog entries or give me speaking gigs in funny places, I’m simply going to continue writing about whatever pops into my head at the current rate of six entries a week. Because, as Terry Pratchett once said, writing is the most fun anyone can have by themselves.

Update same evening: Turns out Abel Pharmboy over at the pharma blog with the confusingly archaeological name, Terra Sigillata, celebrated his fourth blogiversary yesterday. He’s a single day ahead of me! And he’s also an extremely nice guy. Congrats, Abel!

New Dendro Dates and Provenances for Norwegian Ship Burials

ResearchBlogging.orgA new paper in the Norwegian journal Viking offers exciting news about two less-well-known ship burials from the Avaldsnes area in Rogaland on the country’s west coast. Being poorly preserved, they have been difficult to date. Bonde & Stylegar now show with dendrochronology that these are the earliest dendro-dated ship burials in Norway!

  • Storhaug. Ship built c. 770. Burial in 779.
  • Grønhaug. Ship built c. 780. Burial in c. 790-795.

Another exciting result is that we now know where the famous Oseberg ship was built. Dendro studies have shown that it was built about AD 820, repaired later with wood from the Oslo area, and buried in late summer 834 with the addition of a burial chamber built of Oslo-area timber. But unlike the other Oslo-area burial ships, the Oseberg ship was built somewhere else. Bonde & Stylegar have found that its timber grew in the Nord-Rogaland/Sunnhordland area on the west coast! They suggest that the Oseberg queen came to the Oslo area through a dynastic marriage after 820.

This is excellent work. I have only one point of criticism. Though the Oseberg ship was built in 820, that doesn’t mean that its owner need have moved to the Oslo area after that date. After all, it certainly wasn’t a one-way trip in that age of far sailing. She may have gotten married and moved south in, say, 800, and then received or gone to fetch herself a ship from her Rogaland folks long after the wedding.

And I hope the new dendro data will be published freely, as they should by all scientific standards.

Niels Bonde & Frans-Arne Stylegar (2009). Fra Avaldsnes til Oseberg. Dendrokronologiske undersøkelser av skipsgravene fra Storhaug og Grønhaug. Viking : tidsskrift for norrøn arkeologi, 149-168

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