Five Years of Blogging

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Today is my fifth birthday as a blogger! (Here‘s my first entry from 2005.) Five years, that’s 13% of the time I’ve been out of the the womb so far. I had no idea that I’d be doing this. Funny how your life can change.

My mean number of unique readers per day has been as follows.

  • 2006: 157 daily readers
  • 2007: 852 daily readers
  • 2008: 937 daily readers
  • 2009: 714 daily readers
  • 2010: 1005 daily readers (updated after year’s end)

These stats might suggest that the blog has just regained its health after a serious slump last year, but actually the mean values for ’07 and ’08 are skewed by huge spikes on a single entry each for those years (here and here). If we looked at the median (which is much more labour-intensive to calculate) instead of the arithmetic mean we’d see an accelerating growth rate in the readership over the years. Aard is always near the middle of the traffic-ranking list we keep backstage here on Sb.

These encouraging figures are not just a result of some upgrade in Sb’s overall Google rank or of increased spillover from the hugely popular Pharyngula. Aard’s steady following is actually expanding. Three years ago 130 of each day’s readers on average were identifiable returners. A year ago 150 were. Now you guys are 185 on average! Keep those comments coming!

I plan no changes around here, so unless you guys write me interesting letters whose replies might make good blog entries or give me speaking gigs in funny places, I’m simply going to continue writing about whatever pops into my head at the current rate of six entries a week. Because, as Terry Pratchett once said, writing is the most fun anyone can have by themselves.

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Amnesia Was Her Name

Junior, who is a digital native and knows way more about current net fads than I do, turned me on to the multi-talented Neil Cicierega and his band Lemon Demon. Excellent synth pop that should hit the sweet spot of any Apples in Stereo fan. I know it hit mine!

Here are the beautifully clever and happy-sad lyrics to the Lemon Demon tune “Amnesia Was Her Name” that has been playing in my head lately. It’s from the 2008 album View Monster.

Amnesia was her name

By Neil Cicierega

Amnesia was her name, she had beautiful eyes
And every word she said, it was a little surprise

Can’t remember when I realized I was in love
La-la-love
Can’t remember who it was I was thinking of
Oh my god
Oh my god

The doctor said that I had tomato loss (all right)
Dr. Amnesia was her name, she had beautiful eyes
We had spaghetti with long term memory sauce (all right)
And every word she said, it was a little surprise

Can’t remember how she smiled when she said my name
What’s my name?
Can’t remember ’cause my heart jumped and hit my brain
C’est l’amour, et blessures

I guess she didn’t know how treat me right
Because I can’t recall where I slept that night
I can’t recall that special way
She told me, each and every day, her name
I can’t recall the fact that I always said I loved her back
The same way, every time the same

The doctor said that I had beautiful eyes (all right)
Amnesia was her name, she had memory loss (no, wait…)
And every word I said, it was a little surprising (all right)
And every word she said didn’t make it across

Can’t remember when we walked past the O.R. Sign
Surgery
Can’t remember passing out with her hand in mine
My-my-mind
I remember waking up with my mind repaired
A-okay
I remember when I realized she wasn’t there

Swedish Historical Bibliography Mysteriously Threatened

Here’s a case of odd priorities. The Royal Library in Stockholm keeps a copy of everything that is printed in Sweden (and Swedish), and also has a lot of people tending LIBRIS, the national bibliographic database. Recently, the folks who keep track of scholarly publications in historical research (through the Swedish Historical Bibliography project) completed the digitisation of a huge printed bibliography for their field, which means that LIBRIS now contains references to almost every piece of historical research that has ever been published in this country.

Now, how is the Royal Library celebrating this milestone in Swedish historiography? Well… By terminating the Swedish Historical Bibliography project! We have just attained this unbroken slab of on-line digital bibliography, a boon to everyone around the world who takes an interest in Swedish history, and now it’s just going to end with 2010!

The Director of the National Library, Gunnar Sahlin, refers scholars to the new user-generated database Swepub instead. Trouble is, Swepub is only open to contributions by authors employed by a university – and not all those who are ever update Swepub. Looking at publications from 2009, for instance, Swepub has caught 655 pieces of historical research, while the professional bibliographers have put 2218 into the Swedish Historical Bibliography. Swepub has only 30% of the material.

Not all worthwhile historical research is produced by people who work at universities and use their Swepub accounts. Sooner or later someone will reverse Sahlin’s decision, the Swedish Historical Bibliography machinery will have to be reassembled and re-started from a stand-still, and then there will be a backlog starting in 2011 to process…

The Swedish Library Association’s newsletter covers the issue.

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Gingerbread Cult of Saint Lucy

A re-run from 12 December 2006.

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Tomorrow’s the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son’s school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It’s a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we’re still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can’t believe it’s almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here’s the first verse:

Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,
Lícumafinde!

And in Swedish:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!

The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento…, “The silver star gleams over the sea…”.

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Hope for the Humanities?

Yesterday I had been invited to speak at a seminar organised by the Forum for Heritage Research, a network sponsored by four Swedish organisations in the field. The headline was “Hope for the Humanities”, and I must admit that I gritted my teeth at the idealist, anti-market and downright unrealistic perspective presented in the invitation copy. Here’s a piece based on what I said at the seminar.

I’m very interested in the humanities, particularly archaeology, which is my profession. But I have no interest in TV game shows, even though I know that they’re extremely popular. Why is that?

A cultural idealist will reply that it’s because I have good taste: historical humanities are inherently and objectively more interesting and worthwhile than TV game shows. But I’m no cultural idealist. I’m a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.

This means that I can’t say that it would be better if everyone who likes football took up historical humanities instead. Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use. Which one we choose is a matter of individual character and subcultural background.

This is important. We do a lot of what we do because of our subcultural background, which is largely composed of class background. I am a second-generation academic from the middle class. I do middle class things such as reading novels, skiing on the golf course in the winters, writing essays like this and studying historical humanities. If my parents had been workers, then I would most likely have been doing quite different things. And that would have been fine too. One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

This is by the American author Robert Erwin Howard, writing in 1932. He’s 26 years old and has four years left to live. At age 30, he will kill himself because his mother has died.

Conan the Barbarian, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter all represent something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general. At the same time, on the one hand they embody something we must always seek to achieve, that is the wondersome excitement of discovering a fantastic past – and on the other something we must avoid if we are to fill any independent purpose at all, as these characters and the worlds they inhabit are fictional. Historical humanities, excepting the aesthetic disciplines, deal with reality. This is our unique competitive selling point that we must never lose sight of.

“How can humanistic and historical scholarship contribute to a better society?”, asked the seminar’s hosts.

The humanities won’t mend a leaky roof. They won’t put food on the table. They won’t cure polio. They won’t create peace or prosperity. And taxpayers know this perfectly well. For these reasons, I believe that we absolutely cannot market ourselves in terms of any indispensable societally structure-supporting utility. We will only makes fools of ourselves. Because the raison d’être of the historical humanities doesn’t lie in any practical utility, but in their enjoyment potential. In the joy of learning something interesting about the past that is true. In the joy of seeing something for real that has survived since antiquity.

There are those who claim that the historical humanities fill an important purpose in reinforcing democracy. Sometimes their rhetoric suggests that the main task of the humanities is indeed to keep people from becoming Nazis and repeating the Holocaust. To those who claim this ability for our disciplines, I can only say “Show me the evidence”. There is in fact nothing about the humanities that automatically makes its results politically palatable. The non-humanities people I know are equally good liberals as the humanities majors. Actually, the most brown-shirted individual I have ever spoken to was an archaeology post-grad for a while in the 90s.

In the invitation to the seminar, we were warned about “heritage populism without reflection or depth”. But in my experience, many of the taxpayers who fund us actually really want to enjoy the cultural heritage in a populist manner without any great reflection or depth. They understand that Late Medieval murals painter Albertus Pictor and Conan the Barbarian are not the same kind of character. But they consume stories about both for the same reason: for enjoyment’s sake. This means that it’s our job to make humanistic knowledge available on all levels and to meet every member of the audience where they stand. Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories – that also have to be exciting and fun. Because there really is no practical use to the humanities. And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.

“… culture and heritage suffer under a utilitarian economical mode of thought that focuses on which museums, heritages [this probably refers to archaeological sites], interpretations and blogs can attract the most visitors. Such a bestsellerism can give rise to trivialised and unreflected messages.” (from the invitation)

“Does the heritage sector flatten perspectives by presenting the heritage in a simple, measurable and manageable package?” (from the invitation)

This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says “I’m not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!” And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it’s worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.

So, to conclude: if humanities scholars produce stuff that is neither practically useful nor enjoyable, if our output is not only useless but also boring, then there is no hope for the humanities. Then we simply have to starve.

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Another Ancient Johnson

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Hot on the heels of the Motala bone boner, here’s another ancient likeness of a wee-wee.

Dear Reader Martin Kenny has kindly given me permission to publish a few pictures of his cock. It’s made of sandstone or a similar rock, and to my eye it’s pretty clearly modified by human hands, though it may have originated as a fossil cavity of some ancient mollusc. Measuring 6 inches long by 1.5 inches thick (small by Martin’s standards, he assures me), the rock-hard member was found in the 1990s on a construction site near Red Point in Elk Neck State Park, Elkton, Maryland.

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I must admit that the simple presence of red nail varnish in that picture makes it weirdly sexy to my eyes.

Update 13 April 2016: I had to remove the word d1Id0 because it annoyed Google AdSense.

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Swedish Cabinet Opens Door to New Metal Detector Legislation

In October, I wrote about a ruling of the European Commission against Sweden’s restrictions on metal-detector use. The angle, kind of irrelevantly one may think, was that our rules counteract the free mobility of goods, which is of course a central concern of the EU.

On 30 November Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied to the European Commission. The gist of the reply is that “We think protection of the cultural heritage, which is also central concern of the EU, should trump the free mobility of goods in this case”.

Up until §27 there is little new here. But then we get this (and I translate):

“§28. […] However, Cabinet believes that there may be reason to question whether the current general ban on metal-detector use is entirely appropriate, and is therefore prepared to re-evaluate the extent and design of the ban.

§29. For this reason, Cabinet intends to task the National Heritage Board with swiftly investigating alternative rules. These should primarily be directed towards the prohibition of metal-detector use on and next to archaeological sites and to prohibit any search for archaeological objects. In particularly exposed regions, such as Öland and Gotland, a general ban should [still] be considered. Other solutions should also be taken under consideration, from the point of departure that the general ban shall be modified and the Swedish rules be harmonised with EU law. The National Heritage Board shall present its task in the spring of 2011, after which its suggestions will be referred to the interested parties.

§30. Then a lagrÃ¥dsremiss with suggestions for revised legislation shall be produced and delivered to the LagrÃ¥det, after which a Bill will be drafted and handed to Parliament for resolution. Cabinet’s intention is that it shall be made possible to enact the new legislation early in 2012.

This is good news and quite astonishing! But I see trouble in the words “prohibit any search for archaeological objects”, which is in all likelihood intended to mean “prohibit any search for metalwork older than AD 1900”. That’s ridiculous.

You never know what you’re going to find, and indeed, the main value to society at large of amateur metal detectorists is when they do find and salvage otherwise unknown archaeology. Also, it would remain legal (and commendable) to field-walk for ancient flint and pottery and report such finds to the authorities. Why should it then be illegal to want to find ancient metalwork? And how do you police the issue? Must the County Archaeologist waterboard all metal detectorists and ask them if they really don’t want to find any older objects?

Everybody wants to find something old and interesting! We need to enable responsible Swedish detectorists to do so for the common good of Swedish archaeology, and encourage a culture of skilled hobbyists that condemns looting. Our legislation already demands of anyone who finds ancient copper alloy or precious metals, regardless of how they make the finds, that they report to the authorities.

Thanks again to Tobias Bondesson, detectorist and contributor to Fornvännen and Aard, for the tip-off.

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Chiemgau Impact Hypothesis is Dead

Update 13 December: Florian at Astrodictum Simplex has translated the whole entry into German. Thank you, Florian!

Update 21 December: German pop-sci web zine Scinexx reports on the poor status of the impact hypothesis and refers to this blog entry. They also mention a really weird idea of the CIRT’s that I hadn’t heard about: that the impact event somehow taught certain Celts to make better steel, and that this material eventually allowed the Roman empire to expand!

Back in August, I blogged about this dodgy paper that had been published in Antiquity. Subsequently, German geologists Robert Darga and Robert Huber and I got together and wrote a rebuttal, which we submitted to Antiquity. It got turned down for a pretty good reason: somebody else wrote a rebuttal featuring original results from the site in question that blows the whole idea of the original paper to bits. That work hasn’t been published yet, and the authors of the dodgy paper have been busy promoting their freaky ideas, so the two Roberts and I have decided to publish our paper here on Aard. The title pretty much says it all:

The Site of Phaëton’s Chariot Crash is Most Likely Illusory, as the Chiemgau Impact Hypothesis is Not Accepted by Geological Consensus.

Continue reading

Saturday Sundries

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  • My old buddy, Aard regular Hi33y, spotted something worth taking a picture of Tuesday night in Birmingham. Not only have I apparently been canonised, I am also the owner of a Brummie rag market!
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  • Yesterday at Landvetter airport near Gothenburg, I found a local wood-stove company demonstrating this fine gynaecological model. It’ll keep you warm all night long.
  • Some weeks ago after the Kritisk Masse skeptics conference, I was interviewed by the Trondheim student radio. Listening to myself, I find myself sounding like the love child of my friends Tor and Jesper. I didn’t even know those two were an item.
  • The less-famous half of 80s pop duo Wham was a guy named Andrew Ridgeley. This once caused an acquaintance of mine to believe that “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” had been co-written by the Sisters of Mercy’s lead singer, Andrew Eldritch.
  • Oxford archaeology publishing house Archaeopress, of British Archaeological Reports fame, has a Facebook page. I put out an anthology with them in the 90s. Good people!
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  • Went skiing on the golf course for the first time this winter!

Snow Screwed Up My Travel Plans

I was at a Viking Period workshop in Birmingham until Wednesday noon. A sudden, major and sustained snow dump on the area south of London meant that I couldn’t go home the way I had planned: train to London, train to Gatwick airport, plane to Skavsta, bus to Stockholm, be home in the early hours of today. Instead I had to sleep at a B&B near Gatwick, and then strike out for home after breakfast.

Here’s what I’ve managed so far. Bus through the snow from Gatwick to London, train from London to Stansted airport where I type this, and now I have an air ticket for this evening to Gothenburg. There I will sleep on the couch of my friend Dr. Mathias Klang, and then fly to Stockholm tomorrow morning, if all goes according to plan.

My Birmingham trip was actually originally scheduled for April. But it got canceled because of a volcanic ash cloud…