Anthro Blog Carnival

The ninety-ninth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at A Very Remote Period Indeed. Catch the best recent blogging on archaeology and anthropology!


A Hungry Grave

For everybody who’s in a Lovecraftian mood after that podcast, here’s a ghoulish news item. Reports Emma Persson Hennig in Sydsvenskan, and I translate:

Staffanstorp municipality. A woman placing flowers on a grave at Brågarp churchyard suddenly sunk into it when the earth collapsed. One of her legs sunk into the grave and she could not get it free unaided. The accident happened at 17:30, Wednesday evening. As an evening service was being prepared, there were several witnesses. They called for help and the woman was freed.


The recent heavy raining is believed to be the cause of the accident. The grave is a large family affair and relatively new.

“The ground has been settling, and that is because of the rains. Earth always becomes compacted after an inhumation burial, but as this is an unusually large grave, the settling is more dramatic. It’s become entirely undermined.”, says churchyard manager Jonas Kristiansson to the newspaper.

Now read H.P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story “In the Vault“.

Thanks to Claes Theliander for the tip-off.

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Drabblecast Offers Lovecraft’s “Outsider”

i-299384c4bb1d12e109d79f8b211fa469-Drabblecast 175- The Outsider by HP Lovecraft.jpgWhen was the last time you read H.P. Lovecraft’s 1921 story “The Outsider“? Have you ever? Let me tell you, it’s a rare dark pleasure.

Written when Lovecraft was 31, the story is one of the high points of his early work when the influences of Poe and Dunsany were still strongly in evidence. It is made particularly interesting by the autobiographical sub-text under the overt horrific surface. Lovecraft was a lonely child, brought up by elderly relatives and reading voraciously in his grandfather’s library of 18th and early-19th century books. After years of solitary introspection, he then broke out of his shell and saw moonlight, as it were, when the amateur press (the fanzine or blog culture of the 1910s) put him into contact with like-minded people. Part of the enduring appeal of “The Outsider” is that it is at heart a story about growing up, recognising that you are different, an outsider – and then finding your community of outsiders. “Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.”

Earlier this summer, Norm Sherman of the Drabblecast podcast tweeted an invitation to suggest Lovecraft stories for audio production. I suggested “The Outsider”, and I got my wish! For a beautifully Gothic reading and production of the story by the multi-talented Mr. Sherman, hie thee to the Drabblecast. I for one just set up a monthly donation from the Paypal account where my ScienceBlogs earnings reside.

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Junior Live-Streams His Video Gaming Sessions

I used to play a lot of computer games, and 12-y-o Junior loves them. His gaming experience is of course different from mine back in the day, not only because the games look much better now, but also because of on-line interactivity. There are a couple of developments that surprise me a great deal.

One is the Let’s Play film clip. These are clips on video sharing sites where someone plays a computer game while commenting on it, and they’re really popular with kids. You don’t have to be extremely good at the game or record clips of hidden or hard-to-reach areas. You don’t have to say anything terribly interesting or witty. Just record yourself playing the first couple of areas in a popular newish game, and loads of kids will watch the clip.

And this brings us to the next step: live Let’s Plays. For his birthday, Junior wished for only one thing: a video grabber with cables. While before he could record only games played on the PC, the grabber now allows him to capture the output from his Wii console. And it has streaming video capability. Yesterday Junior streamed over twelve hours of live video from that console (we sent him out to bounce on the trampoline every now and then for exercise). Over that period, 400 people checked in to watch the stream and listen to his banter. At most, 28 people watched at the same time. And the returning audience members converse with him on Skype while he does this. He has buddies all over the US and UK! It’s like a crowd of kids in front of a gaming console and a TV set, lounging in the living room and watching one kid play a game — only they’re all on different continents. Mind-boggling!

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Old Armenian Shoe Raises Hope for Archaeology in PLoS ONE

The Public Library of Science publishes a number of peer-reviewed Open Access research journals, most of which specialise in some specific field within the natural sciences. But PLoS ONE has a much wider remit within the sciences. When it first opened a few years ago, I looked for archaeology in it and was disappointed. But now you get 121 hits when you search the journal for “archaeology archeology”. This means that PLoS One might be a potential publication venue for research in my discipline.

So, what sort of archaeology does PLoS One publish? Well, just because a paper mentions the word, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the archaeology is a central concern. Looking at the 30 most recent papers of those 121, only one is mainly directed at answering archaeological questions in an archaeological manner, defined as variations on “What was it like to live a long time ago?” approached from an artefactual, non-textual source material.

Ron Pinhasi et al. titled their 2010 paper “First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands“. “Chalcolithic” means “Copper Age”, that is, the Late Neolithic when copper had become sparsely available but metalworkers had not yet started alloying it with tin to make bronze. The paper presents a well-preserved shoe found in Armenia and dating from c. 3500 cal BC. It’s made from a single piece of cow leather, stuffed with hay, size 37.

The other 29 papers mentioning archaeology mainly treat research in other fields where archaeology is touched upon only briefly or used to support work with other goals. A case in point is a paper where some volcanologists try to figure out how far from a pyroclastic surge you have to be in order not to get fried, and look at archaeological documentation from Pompeii. Then there’s lots of palaeogenetics papers where ancient population movements are traced with only the briefest of nods to archaeology.

But still, that Armenian shoe paper might equally well have been published in Antiquity (or Fornvännen if the find had been made in or near Scandyland), and that sets a precedent. I conclude that if your archaeological work has a nat-sci component to it, as almost all of our fieldwork-based publications have, it may be worthwhile to submit it to PLoS ONE.

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Drugs and Me

In the podcast liner notes to his new album (starting at 14:21), George Hrab talks to Milton Mermikidis for a space about how neither of them does any heavier drugs than caffeine. I realised that in close to five years of blogging, I’ve never talked specifically about my own drug abstinence, though I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m tee-total. So I thought I might say a few words on the subject.

The culturally accepted heavy drug in Sweden is alcohol, which is strongly mind-altering if used in a sufficient dose and lethal if overdosed. Drinking is so common here that if you don’t, then it calls for an explanation. The only other legal recreational drugs are nicotine, caffeine and theobromine. Illegal drugs are so rare in my circles that I can only recall encountering marijuana (let alone heavier drugs) three times in my life. One was in the Netherlands and one was when a prim American pop singer lit a small prim joint before a Stockholm gig.

Uppers and downers aren’t terribly interesting to me even as an observer. But I do take an interest in hallucinogens, to the extent that I love psychedelic music, film and art. I call psych music my vicarious high. But really, to me hallucinogens are just a chemical short cut to absurdism or surrealism, which I love. The Beatles famously did a lot of drugs. But they wrote all that (drug-) inspired music between trips. And the ground-breaking psychedelic studio tricks on their recordings were thought out in collaboration with a producer and sound engineers who had to be completely sober in order to achieve what they did with 1960s equipment.

So anyway, my not doing street drugs is no cause for surprise: we don’t in my circles. Still, people are surprised that I don’t drink. For instance, though I’m 38, my dad is still visibly peeved about it, which is kind of sweet. People my age aren’t expected to get drunk a lot, but most certainly shop at the liquor store one or two times a month, and knowing your wine and beer is sort of an expected cultural competence. So why don’t I, when most people do?

Finding out why a person does this and not that is complicated. You can go for the conscious reasons behind a decision, or some unconscious one, you can search for a cause in the past that has shaped a person to make her decide this and not that. Free will is a fuzzy thing. I’ll split the question in two.

Firstly, why didn’t I start drinking in my teens like everybody else? Well, I tried a few times, and I found that it tasted bad and had no effect on me in the doses I managed to down. I’ve never been inebriated. Also, I saw a lot of other kids drunk at parties, and I wasn’t impressed. Drunk people are stupid and boring. I like being smart, and drugs dull that edge, perhaps permanently.

Secondly, why don’t I start drinking now or try to get hold of street drugs? Well, the original reasons haven’t changed. Drink still tastes bad and I still prefer sober company. But I also have a feeling that people take drugs to still needs that I don’t have. Sung Marilyn Manson, “There’s a hole in our soul that we fill with dope”. There’s no hole in my soul that I’m aware of. I don’t feel any need to take a break from myself. I’m not shy, nor do I need anything to help me loosen up. On the contrary: I’m already all over the place. My friends have told me repeatedly that it’s a good thing that I don’t drink, bearing in mind how I behave when sober.

I should emphasise that though I (just barely) feel intellectually superior to drunk or stoned people, I don’t see myself as morally superior. If you can enjoy using recreational drugs in what for lack of a better term we might call a “responsible” manner, without screwing up your life or crashing your car or beating your spouse or bonking the neighbour, then why not? Most people do, after all. And if drugs do screw up your life, I tend to see it as a medical condition, not a sign of poor moral fibre (whatever that is). A drunk whose marriage collapses is not a bad person who gets what he deserves.

Now, Dear Reader, you most likely do use heavier drugs than caffeine. Please tell us why! Or you may not do so, like me and George Hrab and Milton Mermikidis. And if so, also tell us why!

Update same evening: I forgot to mention that I have no problem with people drinking in my home. We always have alcohol in the cupboard, mainly because my wife drinks very little too so we never run out. And we often offer dinner guests beer and wine. There was this one guy though that I never invited again after he brought a bottle of green Chartreuse liqueur to a party of ours, drank the whole thing (shudder) and got wasted…

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Amateur Impact Hypothesis Makes It Into Major Archaeology Journal

ResearchBlogging.orgShortly after my buddy Jeff Medkeff died in 2008, a joint book review of ours was published in Skeptic Magazine. Here we criticised a book by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, two aeronautics engineers, where they claimed that a 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia described an asteroid striking the Austrian Alps in 3123 BC. Their argument was in our opinion extremely speculative or pseudoscientific, regardless of whether you saw it from an astronomical, geological or archaeological point of view.

Bond & Hempsell self-published their book. But to my surprise, the summer issue of the prestigious archaeology quarterly Antiquity contains a paper on a similar topic. The head author is one Barbara Rappenglück who gives her affiliation as the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Gilching, Bavaria (pop. 17 000).

Briefly, Rappenglück et al. argue that the Greek myth of Phaëton joy-riding and crashing the sun chariot records a meteorite strike in the Chiemgau region in Bavaria some time in the Bronze Age. In their opinion, details in the various versions of the story found in Greek and Roman literature all agree with the circumstances of that strike.

Rappenglück et al.’s case is stronger than Bond & Hempsell’s in that the written sources they appeal to are not difficult to understand on the level of basic language, and the myth of Phaeton is quite likely to have been in existence about the time of the alleged meteorite strike. Overall, they also present and discuss their evidence in a far more sober manner than Bond & Hempsell. It’s not a crazy paper. But nor do I find it convincing.

The authors’ pattern-seeking willingness to see every little detail of the texts as relevant to their case is a bad sign. And a serious problem with their interpretation is that in order for it to work, there must be some way for eyewitness accounts to have travelled from Bavaria to Greece, and to impress Greek poets enough that they put the matter into their mythology. Rappenglück et al. don’t even tell us from what direction the meteorite approached Bavaria. I think we can assume that it did not pass over Greece, or they would have made a point of informing us.

Large meteorite strikes are no laughing matter, and the Mediterranean area would in all likelihood have felt the climatic after-effects of an impact like the one alleged for Chiemgau. But to think that Greek story tellers would have connected the atmospheric dust and the series of poor harvests they experienced to wild tales of crashing fire balls from the sky told in proto-Celtic by refugees or traders from across the Alps – that’s just silly in my opinion.

Still, the main weakness of Rappenglück et al.’s work is one that it shares with Bond & Hempsell’s book. The latter could point to no impact crater at all. And the Chiemgau features are not accepted as impact craters by most professional geologists. The idea in fact originates with a group of amateur metal detectorists who formed a research group after finding odd metallic remains in 2000.

So Antiquity’s peer review has failed in this case. Rappenglück et al. say “These meteorite craters date from the Bronze Age, and we think they can explain a motif in Greek mythology”. But the reviewer (an archaeologist? a classicist?) doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that at this point in time, belief in those meteorite craters is a speculative minority position. And before geologists reach a consensus that the craters exist and are due to an impact (as seems unlikely right now), archaeologists and historians cannot use them to explain anything. Greek mythology certainly can’t be used to strengthen the impact hypothesis.

Atlanta area denizens, don’t miss the Charity Star Party in Jeff Medkeff’s memory on September 2! George Hrab and the hosts of the Astronomycast will be there. The proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Barbara Rappenglück, Michael A. Rappenglück, Kord Ernstson, Werner Mayer, Andreas Neumair, Dirk Sudhaus, & Ioannis Liritzis (2010). The fall of Phaethon: a Greco-Roman geomyth preserves the memory of a meteorite impact in Bavaria (south-east Germany) Antiquity, 84, 428-439

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