Dark Vengeance of Cryptic Slaughter

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Discreetly hidden under the northern side of the eastern bridgehead of rural Täckhammar bridge is a spray-painted mural. I found it while checking for geocaches. It depicts an evil-looking male face accompanied by a really funny piece of Satanist prose poetry.

“Dark vengeance of cryptic slaughter and Satanic suffering. The boundaries of Hell will brake [!] and humanity fall into frantic oblivion. Hatred and pain will forever rule the realm of Man.”

Dark Vengeance is a 1998 computer game. Cryptic Slaughter was an 80s thrash metal band. “Frantic oblivion”, though an oxymoron, is actually a common expression with many google hits. The mural is protected from the elements down there, and my guess is that it was sprayed a decade ago (note the algae covering the left-hand margin) by some metal-head teen. I wonder if he still foresees the braking of the boundaries of Hell.

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Anthro Blog Carnival

The ninety-first Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Sexy Archaeology. Catch the best recent blogging on archaeology and anthropology! And keep those hands where I can see them, OK?

Submissions for the next carnival will be sent to Sam at Sorting Out Science. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me for hosting. The next vacant hosting slot is on 9 June. It’s a good way to gain readers. No need to be an anthro pro.

Landscape Archaeology, Muddy Boots

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In front, a boulder upon which I found cupmarks. Behind, a Bronze Age burnt mound consisting of fire-cracked stones.

In order to study the landscape situation of something you need to know precisely where it is. This poses a problem when it comes to Bronze Age sacrificial finds, because they are almost never made by someone who can document the find spot. They used to be found by farmers and workers before anybody owned a map and before there was a national grid, and they are no longer found much at all.

Sacrificial finds, or “deposits”, are defined by two negatives: they are not in graves and not at settlements. Typically they are in a bog or river, or rarely by the side of a large boulder, or even more rarely just sitting on a dry ridge somewhere. In order to find them you need to dredge, ditch, reclaim, plough and dig enormous amounts of random earth and sediment. Do that in temperate Europe, and sooner or later you will find a Bronze Age deposit – provided you’re using a spade, not a mechanical excavator, or walking behind a horse-drawn plough, not riding a tractor in front. And archaeologists have never had the inclination or resources to dig randomly.

Nobody reclaims land in Sweden any more, no rivers are dredged for transportation purposes, nobody digs with a spade (unless they’re archaeologists) and nobody walks behind the plough. And so we don’t find these deposits any more. For most of the ones in the museum collections, we know only which hamlet in which parish produced each of them, but not which part of the hamlet’s land. And that sort of information is difficult to use on a landscape scale.

I had a great time today checking up on five finds in Södermanland where we’re lucky enough to know pretty well where they came from. Three are in the upper reaches of River NyköpingsÃ¥n between Lake LÃ¥nghalsen and Christineholm manor. Two are on ridge tops east of Lake Sillen in VÃ¥rdinge parish. I’ve walked around, looked at sites, gotten to know the lay of the land, searched in the plough soil (“fieldwalking”) and taken a lot of photographs. I found some knapped quartz, a grindstone and a piece of slate whetstone (as usual). But I left them where they were since they didn’t really tell me anything useful and I didn’t feel like contributing to the collective amassing of humdrum data today. I did make one really nice find though: checking a boulder on a known Bronze Age settlement site with burnt mounds I discovered eight cupmarks, and that was without removing any moss. Strange that the surveyor didn’t find them back in the day. Judging from the dearth of known cupmarks in VÃ¥rdinge, I guess s/he was probably not very aware of them.

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I encountered an elk, a lizard or slow worm, a flock of deer, sundry birds and a disgruntled gentleman farmer who didn’t like my walking on his sprouting wheat. I found a tree-house ruin, a satanic graffiti mural, many beaver-gnawed trees and a morel. It was a good day!

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Towards an Archaeology of Picnics (Unwillingly)

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Spent the day metal-detecting a lovely high-profile site in Uppland for a colleague. It’s turf-covered and a popular haunt of campers and picnic parties. My next detector is definitely going to be one that can differentiate between aluminium and precious metals. I hate aluminium. I took up 111 objects and almost all of them were made of that accursed metal: mainly pull tabs, bottle tops and crumbly nasty wads of foil, but also a tent peg and sundry other things. The oldest find was a 1934 coin. I was a little touched to find a 1980s scout badge, just like the ones I used to wear. And even though I found nothing of archaeological interest, I enjoyed seeing the site and doing the work.

A funny detail: Gustavus VI Adolphus was an archaeologist and took part in a trial dig at this site in his youth. Then he was king of Sweden from 1950 to 1973. And I found a coin struck with his image in his old age on site…

Also check out my wife’s new magazine feature on Chinese people in Sweden!

Weekend Fun

This past weekend was full of fun duties. The only thing I did exclusively for fun was read a pretty depressing novel about slavery, U.K. LeGuin’s Powers (2007).

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  • Represented the Swedish Skeptics off-stage at the Nordic Conjuring Championship in Uppsala, as our organisation sponsored the event. I was surprised to see different competing magicians do the same tricks, and then realised that of course there are fashions in that too. The winner was Reggie Simon, an excellent performer originally from the US, whose act contained wry references to that country’s racism and gun-nuttery.
  • Directed the annual spring cleaning of walkways, greenery and parking lot in my area, then served participating neighbours spicy lentil soup, which was well received.
  • Sat through nearly two hours of little girls prancing about in order to get to my own kid’s performance, which was of course stellar. Ballet really is an oasis of girl culture. Dancing, fancy outfits, make-up, and everybody enjoying themselves. Sometimes even more than the audience does.

And you, Dear Reader? Did you have any fun?

Climate Crank Inadvertently Does Archaeology a Favour

As mentioned here before, dendrochronology has a problem with confidential data. European dendro labs tend to keep their data as in-house trade secrets in order to be able to charge for their services. This means that the labs function as black boxes: you pay a fee, stick a piece of wood into the box, a date comes out the other end, and you have no way to evaluate the process taking place inside. This is poor science.

For reasons of climate skepticism, a London banker named Douglas Keenan has now probably managed to liberate a 7000 year base curve for Irish oak from Queen’s University Belfast by legal means. Keenan is a notorious crank. But the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled that the university must hand over the data to him, effectively placing them in the public domain.

The whole thing is pretty pointless from a climate-historical perspective as the trees are known to record summer rainfall well, but not temperature. To archaeology and dendrochronology, however, it is in my opinion excellent news. Academic dendrochronology needs a new open-source business model if it is to act as a fully scientific discipline. The Belfast ruling is a step in the right direction, even though it has been forced for the wrong reasons.

Thanks to Dendro-Åke for the tip-off.

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Lukewarm Normative Scandy Atheism

i-d06cda766f646baae81ee7eab7b18794-society_without_god.pngBecause of blogging and my involvement in the skeptical pro-science movement, in recent years I have come into close contact with Americans as never before in my adult life. More than half of Aard’s readers are in the US. It’s almost like when I met my wife and suddenly learned lots about China.

A couple of things recur in people’s commentary here, largely on religious and political issues. My outlook is clearly quite exotic to many Americans. I view mainstream US politics as half of a full political spectrum, where voters really only get to choose between two different brands of conservative. And I can’t quite understand the passionate relationship Americans have to religion, regardless of their individual beliefs. Because most Scandinavians don’t care about religion.

Some may think that Scandinavians are hostile to religion. That’s actually not true: we’re indifferent to it. What my countrymen tend to be hostile against is passionate views on religious issues. A Swede will typically react with great discomfort if you tell him you really believe in Jesus – and equally so if you tell him you really disbelieve in Jesus. It is considered bad manners and/or a little crazy to even bring the subject up.

This disorientating meeting between religiously charged US culture and quietly secular Scandinavian culture is beautifully captured in Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He spent 14 months in Scandinavia, mainly in Aarhus, Denmark, interviewing people about their religious attitudes and family history. And although Zuckerman is a secular Jew with no supernatural beliefs of his own, he was clearly blown away by the complete indifference to religion that he encountered. The typical attitudes he met with were, according to his own descriptions,

  • Reluctance or reticence to talk about religion
  • Benign indifference
  • Utter obliviousness

One story told to Zuckerman is particularly illuminating. Upon being asked if any of his friends were “real Christians”, a man who works as a prosecutor in the city court of Aarhus first said no, but then added:

“…actually one of our friends up there, and that surprised me a lot, we’ve known them for some years and suddenly one night we had a few drinks and then he said to me, ‘I have a confession to make.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, and then he told me that he believed in God. And I was quite surprised. I never thought in my whole life that … well, he was getting pretty loaded, you know, and then he had this urge to tell me. … I never expected anybody to tell me something like that. That was – I almost fell down off the chair. I said – [pantomimes an expression of shock] – and I didn’t know how to react, and then he said to me, ‘I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person.’ So he said that to me and I said, ‘Oh, of course, you can believe whatever you want as long as you respect me,’ I said to him. But it was something he had kept for a long time, and finally he got the mood, you know, and it was after a few bottles of red wine, you know. It was a confession … ‘Now we are so good friends, I can tell you this because this is my inner secret’, you know.” (pp. 53-54)

This cultural context explains why I’m not very interested in the fire-and-brimstone atheist writings of e.g. Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I agree with them about almost everything. I would never grant religious truth-claims any special status above and apart from issues like whether there’s milk in the fridge. It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here. I have many US contacts on Facebook that have added me to their rosters because of the blog and my modest visibility in skeptical media, and I’m just amazed at how focused their attention is on atheism. Some of them post several public items a day on the subject. And of course, if I was feeling daily pressure from society to believe in the invisible pink unicorn or be damned and shunned, then it would be a much bigger deal to me that I don’t believe that such a beast exists. But really, a denial of the divinity of Jesus is about as novel and interesting to me as pointing out that the Pope has a funny hat.

Zuckerman’s book held few surprises to me as a Scandy native. I’m not really part of the target audience. But to any American with an interest in secularism, I highly recommend it. It’s short, solidly researched and referenced, well-written and engaging. People without my professional bias are unlikely to be bothered by the somewhat weak historical section. Regardless of your personal religious or irreligious orientation, as an American you’re likely to find the picture Zuckerman paints quite fascinating: an image of the world’s safest, most affluent and most democratic societies where freedom from religion is the norm.

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