Little Interpreters

When a family migrates, the members who pick up the local lingo first and best are generally the children, and they soon become little interpreters. My wife wrote letters to the Swedish authorities for her Chinese dad from the time she was 11. And when time rolled around for the biannual talk with the teachers about each pupil’s scholastic progress, she was accompanied by her sister (1½ years older). I hear that such a setup, with all that it means for power relations in the family, can be a big problem for men from more strongly patriarchal traditions.

We’re planning Juniorette’s seventh birthday party, and we’re a little late. So instead of sending cards I called every family on the guest list. When I called little Juanita’s home, she picked up the phone herself. I identified myself as Juniorette’s dad and asked to talk to mom or dad. Juanita replied in a very civil tone and with perfect pronunciation that Mother doesn’t like to talk to telephone salesmen. After a little extra explanation, comprehension dawned and Juanita seamlessly switched into interpreter mode. I heard the mother in the background speaking Spanish (which I understand reasonably well if spoken slowly but cannot speak myself), and then I got a flawless Swedish interpretation from Juanita. At one point I got to talk a little to the mother myself, but it wasn’t any use.

Anyway, I think I got the message across. But just to make sure, I’ve written an invitation in English, run it through Google Translate to make some kind of Spanish of it, and printed it out. I’m cycling over to put it in their mail box.

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Radioactive Basement

The bedrock under our neighbourhood contains small amounts of uranium. It’s an unstable chemical element that is subject to radioactive decay. The amounts are small and it wouldn’t be a problem but for the fact that one of the decay products is a gas at room temperature – a radioactive gas, radon. It seeps up through cracks in the rock and disperses into the atmosphere, unless it happens upon an enclosed space, such as a building, where it will accumulate. When radon decays it produces solid particles of radioactive polonium, bismuth and lead. These tend to cling to particles of dust and smoke in the air, and when you breathe these in, the heavy metals lodge in your lungs. There they decay, send out alpha radiation, and increase your risk of lung cancer. (The more smoke you breathe, the higher the radiation dose.)

The Swedish authorities recommend a highest level of radioactivity in indoors air of 200 Becquerels per cubic metre. My wife saw to it that during the winter we had two little particle collectors hanging from the ceiling for four months, with bits of sticky tape inside grabbing a sample of the ambient dust. When they were analysed, it turned out that the radioactivity in our winter air was 270 Bq/m3. This needs to be fixed.

The first thing to rule out was an unfortunate building material, blÃ¥betong, “blue concrete”, which is a type of aerated autoclaved concrete. It was made from limestone and a carbon-rich slate and used up until about 1980, when it was realised that the slate contained enough uranium that the concrete blocks exude considerable amounts of radon. There’s no blue concrete in our house.

Then we called in a radon consultant. He came over with a fast measuring instrument that can give you a radon reading in ten minutes and proceeded to take four measurements.

Outdoors: 20 Bq/m3
Bedroom: 140 Bq/m3
Living room: 210 Bq/m3
Crawl space: 1570 Bq/m3

In the summers we open doors and windows a lot more, which explains why much of our house is currently below the recommended max radioactivity level. But our crawl space is not a healthy place to be, at eight times the max value. The radon collects down there and seeps up into the house. Luckily the problem is easily fixed: we just need to put a small fan in one of the crawl space’s air vents to suck the radon out of the enclosed space and into the atmosphere, and fresh air in. The municipality pays.

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Major Museum Struts My Stuff

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In an an artist’s CV, you’ll read what museums own pieces of their work and what galleries have shown their exhibitions. A field archaeologist keeps no such list, but we sure keep track in our heads of when our finds get exhibited. Because to any scholar who wants to communicate with the public, it is a source of pride to have uncovered something that people are actually interested in. Most archaeological finds are of course unexhibitable drab fragments, but we love them anyway for their scientific potential. Still, every now and then something pops up that you know is going to be able to speak directly to the public.

The Skamby gaming pieces are shown in the County Museum in Linköping, placed on a reconstructed gaming board. Under the pieces are little holes that allows fibre-optic wires to light each chunk of amber from below. They glowed like embers when I was there a few weeks ago, and I was very proud.

Earlier tonight I had the pleasure of taking part in opening night for the new exhibition on Swedish history in the Museum of National Antiquities. Meeting colleagues, making new acquaintances and mingling with celebs was very nice. And so was being guided through the exhibition by my friend Linda WÃ¥hlander (though she had to lead us through all ten rooms in only 20 minutes.) But best of all was seeing the Djurhamn sword exhibited in the 16th century room alongside a full-figure portrait of Mad King Eric XIV.

For at least the next five years I’ve got a find in a major exhibition in the country’s main archaeological museum, an institution that I consider to be my alma mater. Happy digger! All Aard readers are encouraged to check out the exhibition if you find yourselves in Stockholm.

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Swedish Heritage in Your Smartphone

i-db6d5a66de18b4eb2f012b33e27cad8b-kringlamobil.jpgThe National Heritage Board of Sweden has released a beta version of a location-aware heritage-data browser for Android. The name is Kringla Mobil, and it talks to the central mash-up database that collates information from museums and organisations all over the country. My Visby buddies Lars and Johan are driving forces in the project.

I just stepped out into my yard, pressed Kringla Mobil’s map button and searched for gravfält, “prehistoric cemetery”. Immediately I got a number of markers on the map: not all the cemeteries in the vicinity, but the ones for which the database contains some kind of media. Pressing the marker nearest my home, a cemetery belonging to the deserted hamlet of Kaknäs near Stockholm, I got a detailed map of the cemetery, the original of which is in the ATA archives in town, and a descriptive text derived from the sites & monuments register. Cool!

To get Kringla Mobil, just search for it on the Android market on your handset and download it. And to participate in the development of the first full-fledged version, join the Kringla Forum.

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Nine Sacrificial Sites

I’m writing a paper for the conference volume of the Helsinki meeting I attended back in October. Here’s an excerpt from the manuscript.


In April and May of 2010 I visited nine sacrificial sites in Uppland and Södermanland provinces, selecting them by the criteria that I had to be able to ascertain their locations closely, the finds should preferably be rather rich, and I favoured sites located within walking distance of each other. The winter had been long and cold, and so vegetation was still sparse and much plough soil remained open to field walking. This ensured the best possible conditions for observation.

The people under study here primarily sought out wet sites for their sacrifices. The hilltop deposits in VÃ¥rdinge are particularly eloquent: they were put in high places, but in bogs up there. Yet as the title of this paper suggests [Gods of High Places and Deep Romantic Chasms], it also emerges that Bronze Age people had a strong predilection for landscape locations that a modern visitor would find dramatic or even sublime.

In their-pre-regulation states, the river-gorge sites of Hyndevadsfallet and Täckhammarsbro would have called to mind Coleridge’s deep romantic chasm [An excerpt from “Kubla Khan” is the paper’s motto]. Each is at the narrowest point downstream from a major lake system. And they were deep as measured in time as well. Sacrifices had begun there in the Middle or Late Neolithic, and at Hyndevadsfallet they continued up into the 17th century.

The Pukberget cave deposit is to my knowledge unique, being inside a jumble of enormous stone blocks from a collapsed cliff side. A more sublime location is hard to come by: the site’s name means “Devil’s Hill”, and it has probably born it since the Middle Ages. A similar association between spearheads and the innards of mountains can be seen in a find from a crevice on Oxeberget Hill near Frändesta in Helgesta, Södermanland.

Yet there is also a major find from a dry apparently domestic site: Lilla Härnevi. When interpreting the Härnevi deposit’s landscape location, however, we must keep in mind that it is extremely late in the Bronze Age and may even have been buried in the first century of the Iron Age. If the many settlement-indicating burnt mounds of Lilla Härnevi hamlet were heaped while the area was shore-bound, then they are about a thousand years older than the deposit. The burnt mounds are still visually prominent today, the plough soil around the hamlet full of fire-cracked stone and quartz. It looks as if people returned to the ruins of a storied ancient settlement site and buried their last multi-period collection of mixed bronzes there, right about the time when society left the Bronze Age behind and moved on. The Hjortsberga torque deposit, while also quite near burnt mounds, has a different relationship to the settlement site, being above and beyond the shore zone where the burnt mounds and graves are. I discovered a cupmark boulder among them.

The sites discussed above demonstrate the attractiveness of wet, high, topographically dramatic and ancestral locations to Bronze Age sacrifices. Let me finally point out another class of sacrificial site that, like the wet locations, is also well known from other periods than the Bronze Age. To my knowledge, at least five dry deposits from Uppland and Södermanland were found under or in contact with eye-catching boulders. Four of them are multi-object deposits, including the great hoard from near Spelvik church in Södermanland, and these are rare. It has been argued, irrefutably, that such a location with a prominent and durable marker would make it easy to retrieve the objects. Yet the fact remains that these deposits were never retrieved. This leads us to the perennial question of whether we need to distinguish between rationally motivated temporary and cultic permanent metalwork deposition.

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Weekend Fun

  • Chore in order to achieve future fun: my wife called in a stump grinder a few days ago and had the remains of a thuja in one of our planting beds disintegrated. I emptied the crater of wood chips (harrisian single-context fieldwork methodology, you know) and she planted a magnolia on the edge.
  • Outdoors Chinese dinner party with good food and animated incomprehensible conversation. One guest, a retired Peking opera singer, had made excellent wonton soup where the meat stuffing was mixed with a common garden weed, Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris, Sw. lomme). Nice cabbagy taste, and now I find that the plant’s use in wonton is actually attested in Wikipedia!
  • Got ass kicked at Agricola even though one participant had never even seen the game before. But I console myself with the thought that the man knows how to program the flight computers in jet fighters.
  • And you, Dear Reader?
  • Old Masters of Quartz

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    Wednesday was another day guest-digging at one of Mattias Pettersson & Roger Wikell’s sites in the Tyresta woods, this one in the huge denuded area of the great forest fire. Otherworldly scenery! It’s the unusually high site discussed here three years ago by Mattias. And since we’re dealing with seal hunters in an area with swift shoreline displacement, it’s in all likelihood the oldest of the lot: 10 000 years, give or take half a millennium. It’s so old that it’s pre-stone-axe. The characteristic greenstone flakes left over from the making of Mesolithic axes don’t go as high as this.

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    The finds are all quartz (and a single chip of precious imported flint). And I saw quartz objects that I’ve never seen before. Just in my two tiny excavation squares I found the site’s first microblade, a large unusual biface with a notch at the end (top left below) and something that looked a lot like a trapezoid microlith. The guys just smiled wryly and said “There’s no such thing as a quartz microlith, ask anybody.” But what really struck me was the first series of standardised formal quartz tools I’ve ever seen. Size, shape, production method – all the same.

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    The Early Mesolithic type Tyresta semi-discoid quartz blade knife. Despite the fact that quartz fractures in an almost unpredictable manner. These people really knew how to work it, bringing chunks of it on their sealing expeditions to the remote group of tiny islands that is now the heights of Tyresta.

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