Boardgaming Retreat

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I spent most of the weekend at a gaming retreat organised by my buddy Oscar. It was like a small exclusive gaming convention. Oscar found a small B&B outfit in Gnesta, a small town an hour’s drive from Stockholm, and negotiated a deal with them. 18 people, two nights’ board, two excellent dinners and breakfasts and lunches. Everybody paid about $220 (1500 SEK) for the package (not including drinks).

And we had two days of solid board gaming. We were 15 guys and three ladies, all between 25 and 45, and all boardgame geeks. Everybody was extremely friendly, as gamers are wont to, and I had a lovely time.

Here’s the games I played:

  • Small World (about fantasy-world conquering hordes)
  • Zendo (abstract)
  • Endeavor (about Early Modern global trade)
  • Sechs nimmt (abstract)
  • Wallenstein (a Risk-like war game about 17th century Germany)
  • Navegador (about Early Modern global trade again, a game released just a few weeks ago)
  • Das Zepter von Zavandor (abstract, thinly overlaid with new-agey stuff about magic and chrystals)
  • Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow (a psychological experiment with 17 participants!)
  • Roll Through the Ages (Yahtzee meets Civilization))
  • Atlantic Star (about Edwardian steamer cruise lines)The one I enjoyed the most was Wallenstein, partly of course because I managed to win, but also thanks to its ingenious source of the random element for battles. It’s a cardboard tower with hidden grids and shelves inside, and you toss little painted wooden cubes into it. Many of the ones you toss in don’t come out immediately at the bottom, but on the other hand a lot of old cubes from previous fights may pop out. And so you never know quite what the outcome will be.

    Even the drinking was geeky: last night some of the guys brought out a few beers each, and every single bottle turned out to be a microbrewery specialty offering. Nobody got sloshed.

    Then, after lunch today, I drove down to Norrköping and gave a talk at the town museum on the area’s 1st Millennium elite, which was very well received. And when I got home Jrette gave me a warm Father’s Day welcome!

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Berlin Excavation Unearths Modernist Art Buried by Nazis

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As mentioned here recently, the Nazis didn’t like Modernism, pessimism or decadent urban themes in art. So in 1937 they sanitised German art museums, removing stuff they didn’t like. Between 1937 and 1941, a selection of the censored work formed a travelling exhibition under the title Entartete Kunst, “Degenerate art”. The intention was to teach the public what NOT to like. As you can imagine, artists since then haven’t minded much if you call them entartet.

Now something mind-boggling. During an excavation for an extension of Berlin’s subway in Rathausstraße, archaeologists have found a cache of bronze and ceramic sculptures from the Entartete Kunst exhibition! It includes pieces by Edwin Scharff, Otto Baum, Marg Moll, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, Naum Slutzky, Karl Knappe, Otto Freundlich and Emy Roeder. Fans of H.R. Giger will recognise where he was coming from in the above piece.

Update 16 November: The sculpture was buried accidentally when the house it was stored in was hit by an Allied incendiary bomb. One of the tenants there was an anti-Nazi who was decorated after the war, which may explain the presence of the cache. More details at Lost in Berlin.

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Thanks to Claes Pettersson and Peter N for tip-offs.

Monday Miscellany

  • On Sunday 14 November at 1400 hrs I’m giving a talk on the aristocracy of the 1st millennium AD at the Town Museum of Norrköping, Holmbrogränd.
  • On Monday 15 November I’m speaking at a seminar in Gothenburg about social media and scientific and political communication. My talk will be some time between 1300 and 1600 hrs, and treat of how I as a professional research scholar take part in the writing of Wikipedia. The venue is most likely at the IT University, ForskningsgÃ¥ngen 6 on Lindholmen.
  • On Thursday 9 December some time after lunch I’m speaking at a seminar in Stockholm about the current and future conditions of the humanities in Sweden. The venue is Storgatan 41, stora sessionssalen, and the organisers are the Forum for Heritage Research.
  • For those who heard my talks about pseudoarchaeology in Oslo and Uppsala and wonder who Finland’s equivalent of Erich von Däniken is: Finnish colleagues inform me that it’s Jukka “Jukkis” Nieminen, author of The Lost Kingdom of Finland. Yay! But as Peter Olausson points out to me, also check out Ior Bock
  • My part-time employers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, have decided upon the same enlightened publication policy for their books as for the journal Fornvännen. Full text Open Access publication six months after the paper version appears! Agrarian historian Janken Myrdal’s biography of his University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign colleague Folke Dovring is already available as a free e-book in English. I am particularly pleased with this step as my own upcoming book on Late Iron Age Östergötland under the Academy’s imprimatur will receive the same treatment.
  • Emma Vodoti has defended an interesting PhD thesis about invertebrate taxonomy at the University of Gothenburg. In the age of cheap DNA sequencing, the whole Linnaean edifice is going through some radical restructuring as it turns out that skin-deep classification criteria are not always enough to track real evolutionary genealogy.
  • Tobias Bondesson has sent me the full 7-page document (in Swedish) where the EU reprimands the Kingdom of Sweden on its restrictive metal detector legislation.
  • Jack of Kent comments on the TAM London skeptics’ conference on The New Statesman’s blog site.
  • Joacim Lund comments on the Kritisk masse skeptics’ conference in Aftenposten.
  • The European Association of Archaeologists is having its Annual Meeting in Oslo in 2011.
  • UK Museums are removing mummies and other human remains from display because of pressure from religious minorities including neopagans. At least they’re not caving in to demands for reburial. (Thanks to Christina Reid and Roger Wikell for the tip-off.)
  • A group headed by my old undergrad buddy Sven Isaksson has identified a biomarker that allows a test for yeast in ancient pottery. This will offer new data for the debate on the function of the Beaker culture’s essential piece of kitchenware!

Rode Some Planes

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Last week I rode some planes: Stockholm – Brussels – East Midlands Airport – Brussels – Stockholm – Oslo – Stockholm. Two of the engines involved were kind of fun because of their small size. The movements of EU bureaucrats has created a market for short plane hops anchored in Brussels, and so the cheapest way for the rest of us to move about by air in Western Europe is often to join the briefcase carriers and change planes in Belgium. These were the machines:

If you want to know what model you’re riding, just check the seat-pocket safety folder. Sometimes several similar models are indicated, but the air hostesses will know which one you’re on.

Someone on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast recently pointed out that it was only 60 years from the Wright brothers’ first successful flight to the first moon landing. Quite something, huh?

Oh, and I finally got an explanation (don’t know if it’s the whole explanation) for why you’re not allowed to walk beneath the wings of passenger aircraft on the tarmac! A sign told me that it was because dirty water might drip from the wings and soil my clothing. I thought it was to keep insane gamers from tossing toy-soldier goblins into the jet motors.

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Thor Heyerdahl and Hyperdiffusionism

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Lately I’ve been thinking and giving some talks about Scandinavian pseudoarchaeological writers, that is, people who publish books on the past with unsubstantiated claims to scientific credibility. The beyond all comparison most famous of them is the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002).

Heyerdahl is mostly known not as an archaeologist, but as a great navigator, being the organiser of numerous projects where he would have a reconstruction built of some ancient boat and make an ocean voyage with it. Most famously, he travelled by balsa raft from Peru westwards to Tuamotu in 1947 (with my countryman Bengt Danielsson on board). What may not be apparent to everyone is that almost everything Heyerdahl did throughout his professional life was motivated by one overarching archaeological hypothesis: hyperdiffusionism.

Diffusionism is the view that ideas (such as tech inventions) travel. If I invent something good or interesting, then people who see it may pick up the idea and run with it, and the idea will propagate across the world like rings on a pond do when you drop a prosthetic silver nose into it. Ideas will diffuse like drops of watercolour in a glass of water. It is generally accepted among scholars that this does happen to some extent in real cultures, with the important caveats that sometimes inventors will try to keep their ideas from propagating, and in many cases potential receivers will refuse to pick up certain ideas. An important example of the latter is what happened to the diffusion of agriculture when it reached northern Germany. The Linearbandkeramik culture had agriculture, and their Ertebölle culture neighbours to the north were well aware of it, but they refused to copy it for a thousand years. They were happy to continue with their fishing and oyster-collecting Mesolithic lifestyle despite having an alternative. Apparently, people in the past did not always feel that steps that led in the direction of modern civilisation were very attractive.

Another important argument against diffusionism as a wholesale explanatory model is that if one group can invent agriculture / pottery / pyramids / irrigation / writing / metalworking, then clearly it wouldn’t be too hard for a similar group somewhere else to make the same inventions on their own. This has been proved to have happened, for instance with agriculture in the Americas, where the cultivated crops are completely different from the ones in the Old World. Biologists will recognise this as convergent evolution: every marine top predator throughout geological history ends up looking pretty much the same regardless of its ancestry, simply because of hydrodynamics.

Thor Heyerdahl could not accept the idea of independent inventions, of convergent cultural evolution. His thinking wasn’t just diffusionistic on the small-to-middle scale. Every one of his boat trips revolved around hyperdiffusionism, being designed to show that it was possible, more specifically regarding the package of ideas that we call state civilisation. And that’s where he went wrong. Instead of searching for evidence that diffusion had taken place (e.g. Egyptian pottery in Mexico), he spent his life “testing” whether the needed sea travel could have taken place in antiquity. This is still apparent even in his last book, “The Hunt for Odin”, where he goes back to some euhemeristic ideas of Snorri Sturluson and argues that a real person named Odin brought civilisation to Scandinavia from the Middle East.

Thor Heyerdahl’s forays into archaeology were pseudoscience because he had a single favourite model that he refused to let go of. But he also displayed another typical trait among pseudoarchaeologists: hostility against mainstream academia. With Heyerdahl, we are looking at a man with a great many honorary doctorates, but no university degree. He was unwilling to work within the confines of science with its peer review, its debates and its career structure, and he got a lot done beyond that world. But while many Norwegians celebrate him as a national hero and a conqueror of the seas, one whose memorial museum is (tellingly) located a stone’s throw from the Viking Ship Hall in Oslo, scientific archaeology and ethnography and biology have all but forgotten him.

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Pseudoarchaeology Talk in Uppsala on Thursday

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Two days ago I talked about four Scandy writers of pseudoarchaeological books at the Kritisk masse conference in Oslo: Bob G Lind, Lennart Möller, Erling Haagensen and Thor Heyerdahl. Despite being largely composed of Norwegians, the audience seemed unperturbed by my unflattering views of Heyerdahl’s archaeological contributions. He is a national hero and the museum celebrating his achievements is (tellingly) just a stone’s throw from the Viking ship museum in Oslo. Them Norwegians like their maritime identity! But I don’t think the country’s skeptics are being fooled, as shown i.a. by my colleague Jørgen Bøckman’s great talk about modern Viking mythology. His brother Petter’s talk about cryptozoology was really good too, though he talked a bit too fast for this poor Swede.

On Thursday night 4 November I am speaking on the same theme as two days ago in Uppsala to an audience of Christians, skeptics and Christian skeptics. Come and hear me and say hi! I don’t know what the door fee is, but the venue is Missionskyrkan on Sankt Olofsgatan 40. I start talking at seven o’clock.