Ancient Beetles Will Date Mesolithic Shorelines

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I got a great letter from Reggae Roger Wikell, which I publish in translation with the permission of Roger and Mattias Pettersson with the awesome metal hair. For context, note that these two scholar friends of mine are the area’s foremost authorities on Mesolithic sites that have ended up on mountaintops due to post-glacial shoreline displacement. The lithics there are mainly quartz.

Not all that glitters is quartz.

Yesterday we had a planning meeting with Dr. Risberg [quaternary geologist and the Stockholm area’s main shoreline displacement guy]. We’re going to core bogs at high elevations and target some critical bits of stratigraphy. Our goal will be to catch datable material (thank you, the Berit Wallenberg foundation, for generous funding). Thanks to Accelerator Mass Spectrometry [a radiocarbon method] we can now date birch pollen and the pretty little forewings of beetles. We know they’re there. I saw them myself in the 90s when we got our first cores from the bogs.

Isn’t it just too awesome to catch a glimpse of an Early Mesolithic summer — the glinting of the blue-green forewing that’s been resting in the sediment for 10 000 years. Those bugs buzzed for a summer and the sun glinted then too in their chitinous armour. A clear blue Ancylus summer whose sea-breeze soughed in the birches, the golden seeds of which are also common in the deepest sections of the sediment core…

Not all that glitters is quartz.

Let’s roll / Roger

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Recent Archaeomags

i-0430eaa400ffe85b481441fe47405316-asw_23_3-cover.1.jpgThe non-profit Center for Desert Archaeology is located in Tucson, Arizona and publishes a fine magazine, Archaeology Southwest. These generous people contacted me one day out of the blue and offered me a complimentary subscription. On Monday issue 23:3 (summer ’09) reached my mail box on snowy Boat Hill, and I was soon enticed to read it from one end to the other thanks to its fine graphic design, its lovely photographs and its exotic theme. I learned a lot!

Archaeology Southwest 23:3 is dedicated to Paleoindian archaeology in Arizona, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Sonora. The Paleoindian is the first phase of human settlement in the Americas, lasting for a few thousand years up to 8000 cal BC. Most of the articles cover sites of the Clovis and Folsom, the first two uncontested archaeological cultures in the area, both dating to the 11th Millennium cal BC.

This field of research has recently received a huge boost of an unusual kind. Affluent retirees Joe and Ruth Cramer are particularly interested in the peopling of the area, and they felt research wasn’t advancing fast enough. So they decided to do something about it. Starting in the early 90s, they’ve endowed five dedicated Paleoindian research centres at various universities. And of course the field has taken off at unprecedented speed. Funny how the offer of a salary will motivate an archaeologist. And I look forward to the next issue of Archaeology Southwest.

Staying among the US mags, I have also received the Jan/Feb issue of Archaeology magazine. I was particularly interested in feature pieces on the Stone Age of India (how I would love to work there one day!) and on the first Minoan ship wreck found so far, off the coast of Crete (only its cargo of amphorae remained).

The magazine’s copy-editors may want to pay some extra attention to headline grammar though. On p. 17, a full-page ad is proudly headed “King James would loveth this new study Bible!” (italics in the original). Argle. On p. 27 is a quatrain by Omar Khayyam headed “Rubaiyat”, which is actually the plural of ruba’i, “quatrain”. It’s like printing one of Shakespeare’s sonnets under the heading “Sonnets”. It bothered me, and I don’t even know Arabic nor Persian.

Meanwhile, the UK’s best selling archaeology magazine, Current Archaeology, stays true to its fine form with issue #239 for February. I especially liked the long feature piece on Lanton Quarry for its fieldwork-centric, site-centric perspective. It’s a lively presentation of the various activity phases documented during a salvage dig for a quarry, natch.

I was also very intrigued by the story of a large precious-metal hoard salvaged by divers from the bed of the River Wear at Prebends Bridge in Durham. Among other fine things, it includes an inscribed ceremonial silver trowel once used to lay the corner stone of an Indian church. The objects were deposited in the river for reasons unknown by Baron Ramsey, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1970s or 80s. Batty clergyman goes pagan in his dotage!

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Finnish Archaeology Journal Goes On-Line

The respected Finnish archaeology annual Fennoscandia Archaeologica has gone on-line! Every single paper from 1984 to 2007 is now available for free on the web site of the Archaeological Society of Finland. It’s a great resource for scholars. For instance, the volume for 2007 includes seven largely critical debate pieces on the Susiluola cave that has been interpreted as Scandinavia’s first Middle Palaeolithic site. Are there in fact any modified lithics from that cave? Or is it all eoliths and wishful thinking?

Apparently, this does not however mean that Fennoscandia is an Open Access journal (yet). The issues for 2008 and 2009 have appeared in print but are not on the site. Extrapolating from the fact that the 2007 issue went on-line now, it seems the journal is operating with a 2.5-year lag for its on-line archive and that we can look forward to the 2008 issue being posted next winter.

Aard regular David Petts points out that the Estonian Journal of Archaeology is also on-line and publishing as Open Access. Only the back-issue content from 2006 onward is as yet on the site, though.

Thanks to FA co-editor Janne Ikäheimo for the tip-off.

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Mistitled Book on Graveyard Folklore

The somewhat elusive central thesis of M.C. Jenkins’s new book Vampire Forensics is that original European vampire folklore was based upon misinterpretation of the slow decay that occurs when you bury a body deep. Particularly so during epidemics, when upon discovery an unusually well-preserved corpse might be made into a scapegoat to explain why people were dying. Disregarding the whole Bela Lugosi cape-and-accent thing, a vampire was originally a restless corpse that drained the health of the living — not necessarily by actually sucking their blood.

The book is mistitled: its long opening catalogue of grue relates many items with little relevance to vampires, and forensics or field archaeology do not really appear until page 122. “A history of vampire, cemetery and epidemics folklore” would have fit the contents better, but I guess that wouldn’t have sold very well. In fact, the whole book describes only two cases were archaeologists have documented burials that have been interfered with in ways that fit vampire-slayer folklore.

The book was written as a companion to a National Geographic Channel TV show of the same name. The afterword mentions challenging writing circumstances and missed deadlines. Copy editing has been hasty: we find “night worlds residing … on incunabula” on p. 35, parchment and vellum are treated as different materials on the same page, and the name of the Greek city where Byron died is mangled on p. 73. One end of a sentence is sometimes not congruent with the other.

To the author’s credit, there are painstaking references and a meaty bibliography. And so he makes it no secret that his main source on serial murderers has been TruTV’s web site! In this connection (p. 28) he attributes one teenage killer’s completely non-vampirical crimes to involvement with the Vampire: the Masquerade role-playing game. TruTV’s writer Katherine Ramsland, however, does not make such a causal connection: she says that the killer turned to weird rituals and crime because the game wasn’t edgy enough for him. She also refers to two books about that particular case that are not in Jenkins’s bibliography.

All in all the book is not a bad read: certainly not boring, full of interesting nuggets. Jenkins has compiled a lot of good material, and he deals with it enthusiastically, if somewhat clumsily in places. But the book is meandering and unfocused. Mainly it’s a collection of weakly interconnected but titillating tales of death and burial. Under this rubric Jenkins zig-zags all over the place, and in the last third he treats us mainly to outdated comparative mythology and folklore, complete with etymological speculation.

Vampire Forensics forms a decent entrypoint into the literature on graveyard folklore and vampires. But it is unlikely to become a long-lived part of that literature in its own right.

For another review of the book, see Neurotopia.

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Weekend Fun

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  • Had friends over to play some Abalone, Hell Rail and Balderdash. 11-y-o Junior often joins our board-game sessions these days.
  • Bought ski boots for Junior and went skiing with him and the Rundkvist ladies.
  • Watched Where the Wild Things Are. Nice visuals, but the movie unexpectedly turned out mainly to explore the complicated personal relationships between a group of monsters. They all behave like a cross between small children and old junkies and are pretty annoying.
  • Celebrated Chinese New Year’s Eve at an unassuming suburban restaurant that made my wife nostalgic through its genuine tacky first-wave Chinese restaurant in Sweden décor. Happy new Year of the Wooden Tiger!
  • Went skating with Juniorette & her tiny buddy who takes hockey classes and skates like a demon. I type this upon returning from the ice rink.
  • For Sunday night, I was invited to a friend’s place to try my hand at Dominion for the first time.

And you, Dear Reader? What did you do for fun this past weekend?

Maori Wetland Deposits

ResearchBlogging.orgI’m studying sacrificial deposits made by people of a lo-tech culture in Sweden 3000 years ago, largely in wetlands. This was long before any word relevant to the area was written. The objects were mainly recovered during the decades to either side of 1900. Yesterday while trawling through back issues of the Journal of Wetland Archaeology I came across a really cool paper on a similar theme. It’s about wetland deposits made by lo-tech people and excavated during the 20th century. But in this case the stuff was still being deposited in the 19th century AD, the objects are perfectly preserved, and the ethnic group in question is still around with an unbroken oral tradition.

People came to New Zealand only in about 1280 from Polynesia. On the islands they eventually developed Maori culture. It was one of the last areas of the planet’s land mass to be colonised by people, and also one of the last to be invaded by Europeans in turn. This happened at a time when colonial genocide was no longer comme il faut, and so the Maori are in unusually good shape today for an indigenous minority.

Caroline Phillips et al.’s 2002 paper treats Maori wooden objects found in wetlands. They range from combs and small tools over pieces of canoes to ornately carved lintels for ceremonial buildings. As so often with wetland small finds, the contexts are generally very poorly documented, but there’s enough archaeological, historical and ethnohistorical information to state that the deposits were made for several distinct reasons. Many finds can probably be explained by a wood-carving technique where pieces were stored in a bog behind the workshop between carving sessions in order to keep the wood soft and free from cracks. Others look more like votive deposits. And then there’s a fascinating episode from the 19th century that is alluded to only very briefly in the paper.

A group of Maori built a “house of parliament”on the North Island, in the traditional style with fine carvings. A brief period of use was cut short by an influenza epidemic, which I assume would have been highly lethal to the long-isolated Maori. The survivors tore the building down, deposited the carvings and structural timbers in a bog, and declared it taboo! This suggests to me that many pieces of fine wood carving found in New Zealand bogs were not placed there to keep the wood soft and did not remain there because a wood carver happened to get killed in one of the perennial raids.

Bronze Age deposits in the Lake Mälaren area, at least the subset of objects that farmers and ditch diggers have selected for submission to museums, consist almost exclusively of bronzes. There is no known practical reason to dunk them in a fen. But still, it’s fascinating to think that Maori archaeologists are in a situation relative to the prehistoric period they study that is comparable to if I had begun my research into the Bronze Age some time in the 5th century BC. I wonder if there are stone axes in those New Zealand bogs as well.


Caroline Phillips, Dilys Johns, & Harry Allen (2002). Why did Maori bury artefacts in the wetlands of pre-contact Aotearoa / New Zealand? Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 2, 39-60 Oxford.

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The Future of Archaeology

I’ve been asked to write an opinion piece about the future of Swedish archaeology for a high-visibility venue. This, as you can imagine, I enjoy doing a lot. Here’s an excerpt from the piece as it’s looking at the moment.


Swedish academic archaeology should continue its on-going voyage back towards health and sanity, away from the pretentious introverted nadir of a decade ago, and be a robustly empirical science. We should return to a stricter definition of what archaeology is and what we will allow archaeological research funding to be used for. I submit, without any pretence to originality, that only such research is archaeology that aims to find out about how people lived in the past through study of material remains. If that is not what you want to do, then there are plenty of other university disciplines with skilled practitioners who will welcome you and judge your work in a competent manner. Yet we should collaborate even more than we do with specialists in other relevant empirical and historical disciplines. Not just buy data from them, but collaborate and co-author.

Archaeology should have a popular/populist slant designed to please tax payers. We should aim to be Time Team without the three-day fieldwork limit. We should study site types that are comprehensible to the layman and preferably do our fieldwork in or near densely populated areas. All other things being equal, a site that many tax payers can visit and have a personal relationship to is more valuable than one in a far-off desolate spot.

We should as far as possible avoid studying anything that is boring. Archaeology is after all not useful to anyone in the sense that food and housing and healthcare is useful. The hallmark of good archaeology, instead, is that it is fun. It is chocolate, not potatoes. And if it is not fun, then it is bad archaeology. Of course there is no accounting for taste, but I believe that there are many arch­aeo­logical sites that nobody, scholar or layman, can see any fun in whatsoever. Particularly near the bottom ends of the monumentality and preservation-quality scales.

Academic archaeologists should collaborate much closer with contract archaeologists. Academics might for instance use their research funding to excavate well-preserved sites that a highway project is avoiding, or bits of an interesting site that extend outside the highway corridor. Then the research excavations and the rescue excavations in the area will provide context for each other, each producing richer results. In my opinion, Swedish academic archaeology needs contract archaeology far more than the latter needs the former.

We should collaborate more with amateur archaeologists. Their tax money funds public construction works and contract archaeology, which means that arguably they have a right to enjoy the process of archaeology, not just its products. And seen strictly from a selfish perspective, by stimulating popular engagement with archaeology we stand to gain better funding in the long run. Amateurs also offer valuable labour and local knowledge for under-funded research projects.

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Anthro Blog Carnival

The eighty-sixth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Testimony of the Spade. Catch the best recent blogging on archaeology and anthropology!

Submissions for the next carnival will be sent to Krys at Anthropology in Practice. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me for hosting. The next vacant hosting slot is on 10 March. It’s a good way to gain readers. No need to be an anthro pro.

And don’t miss Ed Yong’s piece on the first genome for a prehistoric human, a Bronze Age Greenlander who’s spent 4000 years in permafrost!

De-Lurk

It’s de-lurking time again! If you’re a regular Aard reader who never comments, or if you do comment but have an inkling that I may not know who you are, then please comment on this entry and tell us a few words about yourself. Also, questions and suggestions for blog entries are much appreciated.

Ice Buildup Under Heat Pump

This morning when I got my bike out of the yard to take Juniorette to school, I heard a loud clattering noise from the box-like outdoor part of our air source heat pump. At first I thought the ball bearing on the rotor had crapped out. But the guy who installed it explained over the phone that the problem was most likely not as severe as that.

A heat pump like ours dribbles condensation water through a spigot on the under side. It’s been an unusually cold winter, and so the water has collected as ice on the ground beneath the box, building up layer by layer until it made contact with the casing and blocked the spigot. Then the water started to collect and freeze inside the machine. The clattering noise is caused by the rotor blades hitting an ice ridge, which is plainly visible if you shine a light into the thing.

Coming home today, I shoveled away the snow around the heat pump box and poured three buckets of hot water onto the ice floe under it. Then I used a spade, an electric drill and a small axe to remove the ice. Dunno how to get the ice out of the box before the temperature rises above freezing.

Live & learn. Next year I won’t let this happen.

Update 22 Fabruary: Turned out all I needed to get the ice out of the box was a screwdriver and an axe.

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