A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

When I was in school I read a great story about a man who took opium, felt that he had a great philosophical insight, wrote it down, and then found, after sobering up, that what he had written was “I perceive a distinct smell of kerosene”, Jag känner en distinkt doft av fotogen.

Mucking around on the blessed web, I now find that the man was Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American 19th century physician and author. But it was ether, not opium, and turpentine, not kerosene. Here’s what OWH writes in his essay “Mechanism in thought and morals : an address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870”.

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped straggling letters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

This reminds me of a time at a party when one of my buddies was drunkenly talking about how great other drugs than the beer bottle in his hand are, and described some deeply meaningful and intense insights he had attained while tripping on acid. Sadly, as I was sober as always, I failed to see their import. Like my friend the philosopher once said, “When you have that eureka feeling of really having made an intellectual breakthough, you’re generally wrong”.

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The Art of Deflowering a Book

Here’s a paraphrase from memory of an instruction sheet that came with the main Swedish encyclopaedia back in the 90s. I treat all new books this way to keep their spines from cracking. And they just can’t have enough of me.

1. Put book on table, spine down. Fold down left cover, smoothen inner edge, fold down right cover, smoothen inner edge.

2. Fold down 15-20 pages to the left, flatten firmly with finger along inner edge.

3. Fold down 15-20 pages to the right, flatten firmly with finger along inner edge.

4. Repeat steps 2-3 until the book is spread out flat in front of you and open at the middle.

5. If it’s a hardback: close the book and knock the front edge, opposite from the spine, firmly against the table a few times.

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Weekend Fun

  • Joined Jrette on her first bike ride for the season. Had to raise the saddle 5 cm.
  • Emceed at the Swedish Skeptics’ first full-day conference. We felt that it was time to have a bigger event to make it worthwhile for members to travel to Stockholm for it. Four talks, a mentalist, the annual business meeting plus lunch and coffee breaks. And a good time was had.
  • Played Agricola with friends. Had a pretty good combo of a pottery business and a clay delivery job, but what really saved my game was that I managed to become yeoman farmer. Still Swedepat won, that evil son of a Värmland.

And you, Dear Reader?

Ancient Kings On the Edge of Historicity

Asked Felicia:

“… those Viking saga kings, Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn Järnsida. I’d like to know if there exists any evidence at all that these persons ever existed?”

In the present, the categories “real person” and “fictional character” are pretty distinct. But when we look retrospectively at the first historically documented centuries in any given area, things get fuzzy. And it’s even worse if we look at people who are supposed to have lived before the introduction of writing to an area, and who are mentioned in early or foreign texts. These centuries to either side of the introduction of writing is known as protohistory, and protohistorical information is strictly speaking not factual knowledge. Not because we know that it’s wrong, but because it is impossible to corroborate. Protohistory is information of indeterminate value, which is extremely frustrating to many amateur historians who Want To Believe.

Beowulf and Arthur are protohistorical figures. And Arthur illustrates another tendency: even if there’s is reason to believe that he existed, almost none of his most famous characteristics are likely to be historical truth. He probably wasn’t named Arthur, he had no round table, his queen wasn’t named Guinevere, his stronghold wasn’t named Camelot, none of his “knights” wore plate armour, and so on.

Then on the other hand there are all the countless real, living individuals of the past of whom we know the name, the approximate date and the region they lived in – and nothing more. Because when people start writing, they usually start small, and one of the first things they write is names. We’ve seen it recently on the Hogganvik rune stone. Skelbathewar and Naudigastir were in all likelihood as real as anybody who reads this, but we hardly know anything about them. They are not protohistorical, just extremely poorly documented.

But perhaps Felicia’s question was specifically about Ragnar Lodbrok and Björn Järnsida, not so much about generalities. Both are protohistorical figures: Ragnar Shaggy-breeches and Björn Ironside.

In Ragnar’s case, we’re dealing with a documented 9th century Viking leader of that given name onto whom later story-tellers painted thick layers of fiction, including his second name. Or perhaps it is meaningless to make that identification since the historical guy and the Ragnar of later legend have so little in common.

Björn is said to have been Ragnar’s son and is an even worse candidate for factuality than his dad. There is contemporaneous written evidence for a Ragnar at the right time and in the right area. Not so with Björn. And this is why historians have long since scrapped the idea of a “Munsö royal lineage” springing from him.

Source-critical historians try to avoid believing in anything until good-quality sources force them to. Such a historian needn’t spend much time thinking about Ragnar or Björn. Alternatively, you can have the opposite attitude: that you want to avoid disbelieving any statement in early sources unless contradictions force you. Trouble is, it’s possible (and quite easy) to write internally consistent fiction. Thus, in my opinion, only the source-critical attitude deserves the moniker vetenskap or Wissenschaft, that the English language unfortunately lacks.

Dear Reader Peter Olausson points to a piece where historian Dick Harrison says pretty much what I said above.

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Blackbird Evensong

On Friday the blackbirds opened their concert season. Here’s what I wrote about them four years ago.


Oh, still my heart — I just heard the year’s first blackbird serenade! I opened the kitchen window a crack and listened to it while having my evening sandwich and cup of rooibos. I love the blackbird. It sings at the most unsettling time of the year.

These spring and early summer evenings, when the light never really fades and the blackbird sings its heart out… They fill me with a nameless urgency, a desperate itch for something I can’t put words to. Watching myself dispassionately from outside, I can see that it’s just the spring rut. But from the inside of my little mammal brain, oh man, it feels like I’ll have to walk to Kamchatka to ever find peace again.

Turdus merula, “solitary thrush”. In Swedish it’s koltrast, “coal thrush”. I hope to hear it on my deathbed one day.

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Scilla siberica

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Spring is coming slowly, but it’s finally coming. These squills have been awakened by heat radiating from our house, but still they reach for the sun.


In other news, Discover Magazine continues to buy over top Sb bloggers, and I have finally learned the story behind the state of Oklahoma’s weird panhandled outline. Briefly put, it ended up that way because the state of Texas allowed slavery but the Union allowed it only south of a certain line. And so when Texas joined the Union, it ceded a ribbon of land that was north of the slavery line.

Recent Archaeomags

Skalk‘s February issue was not up to the Danish pop-arch journal’s usual excellent standard. I am always keen to read interesting news from Jelling and Lejre, the country’s proto-historic centres. But in this case the editors have devoted 17 of the issue’s 30 pages to articles about Harold Bluetooth’s Jelling despite the fact that nothing of interest has come up there recently. One reports on humdrum trial excavations and the other on the state of erosion on the hamlet’s rune stones. Denmark’s archaeology is extremely rich and there’s no reason to go on and on about early royal sites just because they were once royal. That only makes Danish archaeology look stupidly nationalistic. To me, the highlights of the issue were instead a piece on the drastic fate of 19th century German war memorials on Danish soil, and another one reporting that execution burials at a river crossing near the Vendel/Viking Period magnate farm of Tissø have been re-dated to the 13th century.

Populär Arkeologi’s first issue for 2010 offers thematically mixed fare as usual, much of it about northernmost Sweden. The pieces I like best are a summary of my old grad-school buddy Peter Bratt’s PhD thesis on great barrows and my old thesis supervisor Gustaf Trotzig’s opinion piece against the suggested new history curriculum for children aged 7-16, where everything before AD 800 is disregarded.

The Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology for March/April also ranges widely. My interest was mainly caught by a feature piece on the state of research into the Indus script. Is it a script? Or just a kind of heraldry? The inscriptions are extremely few and short, and since no archives of longer texts have been forthcoming, it looks like we may never know.

Magazines like Populär Arkeologi and Archaeology, not to mention global-scope academic journals like Antiquity and Europan Journal of Archaeology, always remind me of how different my perspective on archaeology is from that of the general reader. My curiosity about ancient cultures worldwide certainly isn’t limitless. While, for instance, the 12th century Salado pottery of southwestern US and northern Mexico is lovely to look at in the pages of Archaeology, I can’t really be bothered to learn much about that far-off world unless somebody pays me. Fishermen don’t go fishing in their spare time.


And don’t miss the latest Skeptics’ Circle!

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