Responses to My Chocolate Archaeology Piece

My debate piece in Antiquity has proved popular (many people have asked me to send it over, and now I’ve received the journal’s permission to place the paper on-line for free in PDF format) and controversial (several have offered criticism in comments here). Mainly replies seem inspired by the two paragraphs I quoted from the article in my blog entry. Both deal with my opinion that archaeology needs to be fun and popular, because boring archaeology that interests few people is effectively worthless. In the following I will reply to the most interesting comments. To see if I’ve sneakily ignored any good counterarguments, just read through the comments to the original entry.

To begin with, several commenters seem to believe that I recommend that we only dig monuments and richly furnished graves. What I actually said was “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 layperson, could see any fun in whatsoever. Particularly so with poorly-preserved non-monumental sites.” So by all means do dig the abode of the poor man. Just make sure it’s a really well-preserved and informative example. And when we’ve dug two dozens of them from the same period and they start to repeat themselves, let’s do something else. (For an example of a scholar who went into a site, was horrified by the mundane boredom of the thing and pulled out ASAP, see my dispatch from Sättuna in Kaga two years ago.)

Another criticism has been that archaeology is neither about fun nor usefulness but about universal intellectual curiosity. This distinction is moot to me: stuff that satisfies my intellectual curiosity without being practically useful is one kind of fun.

Johan: I am curious how to define which archaeological sites are fun [… ] ? Who will decide?

That’s a good, practical question. I think the public has too little say in where we dig and what projects get funding. One way might be to try handing over a considerable part of such decisions to the local history movement. Specialists writing about abstruse subjects for other specialists is fine in disciplines where something useful comes out at the other end. But archaeology is not such a discipline.

Johan: Maybe what is “boring” at one point will turn out to open up new interesting and “fun” pathways in the future.

I’m not suggesting that we should decide today, once and for all, what’s fun. That’s continually renegotiated. But I am certain that the public will never decide that poorly-preserved non-monumental sites are more fun than well-preserved monumental ones. We’re talking diffuse prehistoric cultivation layers with occasional pieces of burnt clay, OK?

Johan: So is archaeology primarily science or entertainment?

It’s one of many sciences whose value lies mainly in their entertainment potential. Nobody needs interstellar astronomy or archaeology. Lots of folks really enjoy both. (They were actually my two main choices when I selected a career track after high school. Many years later I realised that they are just about the two least useful subjects pursued by academics.)

Johan: What I would like to know is if your own research is fun? It is fun for you for sure but would the public think it is fun if they could compare all Scandinavian projects currently in progress?

Well, they often tell me that they do think it’s fun when they hear me speak about it. That’s probably due to a combination of qualities in myself and in my work. But I could not entertain a crowd for long with talk of diffuse prehistoric cultivation layers with occasional pieces of burnt clay.

Johan: In order to be fun research must align with the norms and values of society. It will become a boring archaeology.

That’s a non sequitur. In my opinion, research that aligns itself with society’s norms and values of fun becomes fun.

Richard: researching near centres of population … introduce[s] artefacts of research bias, which will skew our interpretation of past activities and their distribution.

I mean on the supraregional level. Within the US, for instance, archaeological knowledge of New Jersey is more valuable than that of Wyoming, because hardly anybody’s around to enjoy such knowledge in Wyoming. I’m not suggesting that you should dig in the suburbs of two neighbouring cities and ignore the countryside between them.

Aurnab: We have to do and obviously do Archaeology for finding out our own identity .

I disagree. The people of the past are not us. Knowledge of their identities says nothing about ours. As Richard pointed out, we must resist all attempts to build current sociopolitical units and ethnic identities on archaeology and history. It can never be anything but propaganda. This applies regardless of whether you are a white Westerner or a member of an indigenous people.

Kai: figuring out new ways of finding out things about antiquity requires going through a lot of “uninteresting” places in order to validate methods and also to come up with new ideas: maybe a “boring” site turns out to be quite exciting once you figure out a new method of extracting information from it

I can’t imagine a situation where such methodological innovation might preferably be carried out at a poorly-preserved non-monumental site. At a stretch I can envision a type of non-monumental site that is fun to study given a certain new methodology – and where there is not a single well-preserved example available. But that seems unlikely to me.

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Dinosaur Fountain Sculptures

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The centre piece of St. Mary’s square/park in Stockholm is a brass sculpture group in a fountain, sculpted by Anders Wissler and put in place in 1903. It depicts the god Thor at the moment when he’s fished the Midgard serpent up to the ocean surface and prepares to whack it in the head with his hammer. The serpent looks like a standard-issue Medieval dragon. But to either side of it are smaller lizard-like beasts that are clearly modelled after late-19th century palaeontology’s ideas about dinosaurs. One is a plesiosaur. The other one, I don’t know, but it’s got a cylindrical snout, crocodile teeth and snorts water through its nostrils.

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Sex Advice From An Amateur

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One of the perks of keeping a well-visited blog is that you get to spy on people using search engines. Extreme Tracking keeps a list for me of the latest search terms which have led people to Aard. It turns out that they’re always largely porn surfers. My entry about the German locksmith who has four children with his long-lost sister / common-law wife attracts continual interest from people who are probably really disappointed to find nothing prurient there. And there’s always the people who mistype “big booty” and end up at my entry about Iron Age war booty found sacrificed in bogs.

Before we move on to the sex advice, here are a few good search terms I’ve collected lately. Remember, all of these are actual phrases that somebody searched for, and which led them to Aard.

  • “statistically fucked” (What are my chances?)
  • “maximum times woman want be fucked” (The public demands to know!)
  • “rude photos of viking goddess freya”
  • “brother and sister together we’ll make sex”
  • “girl console oneself picture” (Lovely way to express it.)
  • “is sweden nude” (Yes)
  • “free orgies in medicine hat” (Is that a place or a garment?!)
  • “masterbation disembodied entities”
  • “why do humans have sex like animals” (Oh, why!?!)
  • “lego star wars girls having sex”

But the other day I happened upon a sex-related search term that was more about someone with a problem looking for help. And feeling that I should offer what assistance I can, I’ll give some free amateur’s sex advice. I’m placing it below the fold to enable you, Dear Reader, to skip it if you’re not interested in frank discussion of what bits go where.

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Archaeology is Chocolate, not Potatoes

Back in February I posted snippets of an opinion piece I’d been asked to write about the current state and future prospects of Swedish archaeology. Now the thing has appeared on-line in Antiquity (behind a pay wall, but see below), though the journal’s autumn issue has not reached subscribers on paper yet.

For you nat-sci types, I should probably explain that Antiquity is my discipline’s equivalent of Nature. So, getting to inaugurate a new recurring heading there, “Prospects”, is something I’m very proud of.

Archaeology should have a popular/populist slant designed to please tax-payers. We should study site types that are comprehensible to the interested layperson and preferably do our fieldwork in or near densely populated areas. Proximity to population centres should be seen as an important independent quality in a site as it allows members of the public easy access. New archaeological knowledge is much more valuable to a person if it relates to a place they already know.

I advocate archaeological hedonism. While of course upholding our public duties as
custodians of the archaeological record, 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 are 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 layperson, could see any fun in whatsoever. Particularly so with poorly-preserved non-monumental sites.

Update 31 August: I’ve received Antiquity’s permission to place the paper on-line for free in PDF format.

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Sailing Camp

I’ve spent three days with my son’s class at Ängsholmen summer camp where the 12-y-os got a chance to reaquaint themselves after the summer and do some fun stuff together. My job, like that of the other three parents who came along, was basically crowd control and security. The camp is on a small U-shaped island, a former base of the coastal artillery, which once defended the Gällnö port narrows on an important shipping lane. There’s a sizeable decommissioned underground fort at one end, probably dating from the inter-war years. The kids swam, canoed, sailed Monark Avanti skiffs, did cooperation exercises and braved a tree-top climbing trail.

The camp is run by the YMCA and is mainly staffed by people just out of high school. They did a wonderful job of taking care of the kids, they cooked us excellent meals, and one of them was an enthusiastic DJ at last night’s disco.

Staying at camp really brought me back to my own boyhood sailing camps at Lökholmen and Malma. The smell of fresh wood in the paddle shed, the grafittoed bunk beads in the dorms… And best of all, sailing a skiff again! It felt like I’d been doing it only yesterday instead of two decades ago. Remind me in April that I need to buy a used skiff, please.

Early Mesolithic Blubber Concrete

Dear Reader, do you come across a lot of ancient blubber concrete in the course of a normal day? I got some exciting news from Mattias Pettersson Tuesday morning regarding his and Roger Wikell’s Mesolithic sites in the Tyresta nature reserve. As Aard’s regulars know, Tyresta is a former archipelago that is now wooded highlands due to isostatic land uplift, all full of early post-glacial seal-hunting camps. It’s easy to share Mattias’s enthusiasm (and I translate):

Does anyone remember the burnt bubbly lumps we found under the hut floor at the 85 m a.s.l. site in Tyresta? Now Sven Isaksson of the Archaeological Research Lab has done a chemical analysis, and the results are awesome: there are remains of marine fat in the lumps! It’s di-hydroxi fatty acids and isoprenoid fatty acids among other things. The latter fats are made by plankton and then wander up the food chain. Alkyl-phenyl fatty acids are there as well, and they’re a decompositional product of marine fatty acids. Holy shit! Sven took the largest lump to be on the safe side, and it turned out to consist mainly of organics with only a small mineral-grain component. At first he thought it looked like tar. Sven repeated the test several times with different solvents, and the results are consistent. The material apparently formed through the burning of “tissue, fat and skin of marine origin”, to quote Sven. [Think seal blubber.]

The Tyresta material is chemically different from north-Norwegian finds of spekkebetong, “blubber concrete” (1600-1200 BP), but the differences may be due to the vast difference in age [thousands of years]. Now of course we must carbon date a lump.

You can really see on the lumps that the material has been fluid, bubbling away in the hearth pit. The lumps retain their original surface, their shapes bubbly and rounded. They also seem to carry imprints of stuff that has burned off, twigs or maybe bones. Now we wonder if we happened to hit the spot that is richest in lumps on the hut floor, or if there may be even better squares to dig just nearby? […] One idea is to perform some kind of microscopic analysis to check for tiny seeds, carbonised parts of invertebrates, pollen, spores etc. that may be embedded in the lumps.

Roger Wikell will present the blubber concrete and other findings from the site at the Meso 2010 conference in Spain a few weeks from now. I’ve been blogging enough about the Mesolithic that it deserves its own tag around here.

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School Girls Fined for Placing Teacher Break Room Under Electronic Surveillance

Reports Swedish Broadcasting, Dagens Eko:

When two school girls in the 13-16 years age bracket found a lost key ring for their school’s teacher break room, they had an idea. They bought simple audio surveillance equipment in a tech store, waited until everyone went home, and installed the bugging gear in the break room.

Their idea was to snoop on a grades conference planned for the following day, thereby to glean information that they might use to improve their grades.

The plan failed, as one of the girls happened to reveal it on Facebook.

Instead of secret information and raised grades, the story ended with each girl being fined SEK 2000 by the district court.

Extra points for pluck and daring, though, kids!

Lars Aronsson comments: “Little Sister Is Watching You”.

Weekend Fun

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Sunset seen to the NW from the birthday party

  • Made huntun (wonton) with my wife & kids, “good to eat and fun to make”, as the song about cookies that Junior likes goes.
  • Watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with wife & son. It’s a mid-quality Terry Gilliam film, better than the dreary Brothers Grimm that preceded it but not on a par with excellent films like Brazil or 12 Monkeys. Dr. P is beautiful though, and I’m sorry I didn’t watch it on the big screen.
  • Made a mix CD for a birthday boy.
  • Went to birthday party with the kids, though I had gotten the wrong coordinates and first spent half an hour needlessly driving around a labyrinthine summer-house area in the woods.
  • Cleaned three roofs and their gutters of pine needles, moss, lichen, a bird’s nest and a couple of bones at my mom’s summer house. It was a chore, but the sun was shining and I listened to podcasts, so I didn’t mind.
  • Had the traditional August crayfish dinner.
  • What about you, Dear Reader? What did you do for fun this weekend?

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    Moonrise seen to the SE from the birthday party: same place, same time

Simon’s Mix CD

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I put together a mix CD today for Simon who’s celebrating his 60th birthday. He’s the husband of a colleague of mine, and all I really know about him is that he’s English, he’s a semi-pro musician and he likes Keith Jarrett, Juan Gilberto, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Hermeto Pascoal. So I thought I might share some tunes from the past few years that he may not have heard.

1. Comets on Fire – Hatched Upon the Age
2. Dungen – Mon Amour
3. Fleet Foxes – Your Protector
4. Frank Black – If Your Poison Gets You
5. George Hrab – One Hypnopompic Jerk
6. Maggi, Pierce & E.J. – Snowed In With You
7. Mars Volta – Vermicide
8. MGMT – Flash Delirium
9. Midlake – In The Ground
10. Roy Zimmerman – Socialist!
11. Seasick Steve – Thunderbird
12. Black Angels – Manipulation

Junior’s empty Pop-Tarts box made a good CD cover. It surprises me that they can be sold under that name in the UK.