Recent Archaeomags

i-846a3cbc4464efdfecf6c7254ee54627-ba-latest.jpgFor some years I have been a happy reader of (and frequent commenter on) Current Archaeology. Now Dear Reader Marcus Smith has arranged (or bought?) a complimentary subscription for me to the other big UK pop-arch mag, British Archaeology. While CA is a private property, BA is published by the Council for British Archaeology, “an educational charity working throughout the UK to involve people in archaeology and to promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations”, as Wikipedia puts it.

The first issue of British Archaeology to reach me is #118 (May/June). My favourite piece in it is a feature on the osteology of Gough’s Cave, an Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic site in Somerset with excellent bone preservation. We get a fine popular illustrated write-up of painstaking labwork that makes the case that people about 12 700 cal BC used the cave not only for cannibalistic and other meals, but also for the manufacture of bowls or cups from human skulls!

Another piece on an interesting theme is a report on recent fieldwork at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland (the site where the first excavator went crazy on the job and never wrote his multi-year campaign up). Sadly the new trenches were very small – largely flower borders! – and the results thus rather inconclusive.

I was horrified and incredulous to learn that since 2008, the rule in England and Wales has been that archaeological human bone must be reburied!? Apparently this has something to do with an 1857 law whose interpretation is currently fluctuating. Anyway, it seems that reburial will no longer be demanded as of this year. But what, then, was the practice like between 1857 and 2008?

As for the rest of the magazine issue, I’m afraid there’s a lot of depressing meta-archaeology. I’m not very interested in meta-archaeological issues except to the extent that they impact concrete examples of research into the past. And if there is one kind of meta-story I certainly do not wish to read for entertainment in a popular archaeology mag, then it’s accounts of threatened, looted or destroyed sites and finds. Therefore I flipped past BA’s stories about the Egyptian revolution and “6 Threatened Sites” (in the UK). Depressing.

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Populär Arkeologi 2011:1 also has a depressing story about looting, in China, but in it Magnus Fiskesjö makes an interesting point. I recently wrote about the looted Chinese archaeology I saw on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Turns out, the Chinese themselves just barely have a cultural concept of specific archaeological context for individual objects. Their National Administration of Cultural Heritage recently changed to that name in English, but it kept its Chinese name: Wenwuju, the “Bureau of Cultural Relics”. The Chinese have been thinking about ancient material culture in terms of wenwu, “cultural/inscribed relics” no doubt for over 2000 years. The culture thus has a deeply internalised idea of archaeological sites as find mines, in comparison to which archaeology with its demands is a recent arrival from abroad. And once you have mined ore, then who really cares where it sat originally? The main issue is who gets to sell the ore.

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Archaeology Southwest, which is put out by the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson AZ, devotes issue #24:4 to 13th century pueblo sites in New Mexico. Beautiful landscape, beautiful sites, beautiful finds, beautifully exact dates thanks to preserved wooden beams and dendrochronology. But I must say that I’m surprised at the cavalier attitude of my colleagues in the area to certain issues of interpretation.

First and foremost, here pottery style equals archaeological culture equals living ethnic identity, with no mention of what would happen if for instance a potter from one group marries into another group. Secondly, interregional similarities in pottery styles equals migration. And thirdly, visible site count equals population density, and so a drop in the number of visible sites means emigration.

Not to put too fine a point on it, and Dawkins knows I’m no fan of fashionable archaeological theory, but every single one of these assumptions was either abandoned outright or became heavily qualified decades ago in my part of the world. And we’re certainly not dealing with any continent-wide lack of insight in the US: the basic textbook I read as an undergraduate 20 years ago was by an American, David Hurst Thomas! Very good book, too. I saw it being cleared out at the department in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. Time flies.

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Current Archaeology #253 (April) has excellent coverage of a sanded-over Norse settlement at the Bay of Skaill in the Orkneys and 16th century phases of Stirling Castle on the Scottish mainland. Yet I was particularly struck by a report on a small Roman roadside industrial estate or “service station” in Staffordshire. The team started digging out a well and found some nice small finds. But the well just kept going down and turned out to still hold water. At 3 m they hit a layer of oak planking and hazel rods. Below that was an almost complete cow skeleton, then meters of latrine. And at 6.5 m the whole well was filled up with perfectly preserved shoes from about AD 150! At 7 m the team gave up because they feared the whole thing would cave in on them. And yet the well continued down…

A story about Wareham in Dorset had me wincing in pain, much like the news above about mandatory reburial of human remains. In the early 90s, about 55 hectares (78 soccer fields) of “marginal heathland” there was bought by a gravel extraction firm and evaluated by a major contract archaeology firm. The unit found very little and the County Archaeologist pretty much let the area go. Instead, the local amateur archaeology society began a 15-year-long volunteer watching brief. Here’s some of what they found and apparently had to excavate all by themselves:

  • More Middle Bronze Age pottery than any other site in Dorset
  • Eight foundations of Middle Bronze Age round houses, made up of fire-cracked stone, Sw. skärvstensvallar
  • Several Late Roman pottery kilns mass-producing Black Burnished ware

In Sweden, even one far less impressive site would have been a reason to re-do the evaluation and call in professionals.

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Current World Archaeology isn’t quite up my street since I am very much not a World Archaeologist. (I just feel tired and inadequate when faced with the innumerable ancient cultures around the world that I know nothing about. I’m not into reading about exotic archaeology as escapist fun, and most of them are being wrecked by looters and developers anyway.) But issue #46 (April/May) does have one story that I liked – about Sweden. Osteologist Caroline Arcini writes about a 1710-11 plague cemetery in SmÃ¥land that she has previously presented in the fine 2006 anthology Pestbacken. I found it particularly interesting that she could document the traces of a 1690s famine in the skeletons of people who had survived that disaster only to die of the plague 15 years later.

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So there you have it: five good popular archaeomags. If you too read these magazine issues, tell me what you think and feel free to ask questions!

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The Lord Is Great Because He Saves/Kills Us!

Bertil Albrektson is a very cool Bible scholar. A former professor of Old Testament Exegetics in Turku, Finland, he was on the most recent Swedish Bible translation commission despite being an atheist. His ground-breaking little 1967 book History and the Gods. An essay on the idea of historical events as divine manifestations in the ancient Near East and in Israel was recently re-issued, and I read it for the first time. Its basic message is that on two important points, Hebrew monotheism is not as dissimilar to other religions of the Ancient Near East as had previously been argued. Good stuff!

In the book, Albrektson alludes to an observation that was not original with him but which I really like a lot (and I paraphrase):

In the various Ancient Near Eastern religions (including the Hebrew brand), people tended to see great events as signs of how powerful their respective gods were. This thinking applied regardless of how things happened to turn out for the people themselves. If they had good harvests and made military conquests, they concluded “God is mighty – and pleased with us! Oh, how mighty is our God!” If they starved and got their asses kicked by invaders, they said “God is mighty – and angry with us! Oh, how mighty is our God!”

Is Child Porn In the Eye of the Beholder?

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In issue 2011:1 of Fotografisk Tidskrift, the journal of the Swedish Photographer’s Association, is a fine essay in Swedish by Jens Liljestrand (Twitter @jensliljestrand) about current attitudes to images of children and the definition of child pornography. Before the piece could be printed with the accompanying photographs, the journal’s editor, my friend Jenny Morelli, had to clear its contents with the rights holders, who don’t know Swedish. So she asked me to translate it into English. For reasons of space, the journal then printed a shortened version of the text. Jens Liljestrand and Jenny Morelli have kindly given me permission to publish my full translation here on Aard.


The Sacred Child

By Jens Liljestrand

English translation by Martin Rundkvist

Goa, India, 2009. A shimmering white beach. Clear blue water, a cloudless sky. The rush of waves and a constant din from jet skis. Behind us: rust-coloured sand, skinny cows browsing among trash and dry bushes.

I’m lounging on the sun bed with a mystery novel and keeping half an eye on my three-year-old daughter, who is sitting in pink swimming pants and playing with a bucket and spade. She is blonde, blue-eyed and unbelievably cute. People here stare at her, ensorcelled, love-struck, touching her hair, pointing at her. The other day the restaurant waiter – stoned? – approached and bit her tenderly on her yummy upper arm. And above all, they want to take her picture. In this country headed headlong into the future – the little dirt track back to the hotel that we walked when we arrived a week ago has already been tarred over with asphalt – every Indian seems to have a camera phone. Often they ask me, or more rarely my wife, civilly if they may take a picture. Having been brought up on Swedish school pedagogics, I relay the question to my daughter: “Is it OK for you if they take your picture?” I guess I think it’s her decision.

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Will the New Age Be Here Soon?

The other day I overheard a cringeworthy conversation between two 70ish ladies of the New Age persuasion. They were talking about how a great change is imminent in our society, as heralded by the unusually many catastrophes taking place (huh?), and by the 2011 end of the Mayan calendar, “or was it 2012?”, the Maya being of course the people who built Macchu Picchu (nope). The ladies seemed to think that the change, though scary, would be a good one. And then I remembered what the term “New Age” actually means. I just had to sing a line from the musical Hair to them:

“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Age of Aquarius…”

Incredibly, New Age Boomers are still waiting for that big vague groovy change in society that didn’t quite materialise in the 1960s. I pointed out that the new astrological age they’re hoping for is supposed to have begun decades ago. But their only response was some confused talk about something they’d read about the constellation Pisces. And of course, other deluded people are waiting for the Second Coming, for the Hidden Imam, for the Anointed One, for the Revolution, for the Classless Society…

My New Neighbours, the Beavers

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When I was a kid, beavers were kind of exotic animals that lived in distant parts, like bears or wolverines. Over the past decade or two though, they’ve multiplied here in Nacka municipality, much as the wild boar population has exploded in this part of Sweden. Still, the beavers haven’t really reached my part of Nacka — until now.

Today I found their tell-tale felled trees on the edge of the fen next to the Östervik commuter train station, a few minutes by bike from my home. This means that soon we’ll see them in Lake Lundsjön / Dammsjön where we swim every summer! (It used to be two lakes before the drainage was dammed, raising Dammsjön’s surface level until it joined with Lundsjön.) Welcome, beavers!

Update 18 May: The beavers are getting around, looking for more habitat. Local newspaper Nacka Värmdö Posten reports that one of them was found in the Södra länken highway tunnel complex in the small hours of last Thursday. The police came with two patrol cars, caught the beaver and set it free in nearby Lake Sickla whence it had probably come.

Classical Cult Figurines or Early Modern Cutlery Handles?

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My dynamic colleague Bengt Nordqvist, for whose project I volunteered a few days in the summer of 2009, believes that contacts of his have found two Classical figurines of Venus (above) in the Gothenburg area. It looks like a fun possible case of misidentification. I don’t know Classical Mediterranean sculpture, and I don’t know neo-Classical 17th century sculpture either, so I can’t really comment except to say that the bearded praying guy below definitely looks post-Reformation to me. But here’s what my correspondent John Kvanli tells me (and I translate).

Us in Rygene Detektorklubb have also found similar 5-6 cm tall figurines. And many others have found them in Denmark. I actually found references to these as 17th century cutlery handles at the National Museum of Copenhagen the last time I went there.

Sure, it may be Venus who’s being depicted here. But isn’t it likely that these hollow handles belong to knives and forks of the 16th or 17th century? As [Nordqvist] writes in his blog entry: both of the figurines have been broken off at the ankles. So why then? Well, that’s where the brass was fastened to the iron, and where the cutlery’s weakest point was…

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I append a picture of a male figurine of the same kind that us in the club have found in Norway. 5-6 cm tall too… Same general style… Hollow… Indeed, the same-colour verdigris…

i-b575f67adb29c61a1c8f64a074608401-Bronzefigur.jpgHere’s another detectorist that I got in touch with a few years ago. I suggested that he contact the National Museum to check his brass figurine, and they concluded that it’s a cutlery handle.

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A Dozen Years of Fornvännen

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When I was in grad school, twelve years ago to the day, my thesis supervisor gave me a part-time job. He got me onto the editorial board of Swedish archaeology’s main research journal.

I became co-editor of Fornvännen on 15 April 1999. The other editors were pretty busy people, I was paid by the hour, I enjoyed the work and I saw the career potential. So I made sure from the start to grab all the responsibility I could. This state of affairs was formalised in 2008, when I was made Managing Editor, a box that hadn’t existed on the org chart before. I did the journal work in my research office until October 2006, when I got a desk at the Royal Academy of Letters and started to edit books for them as well. And since January 2009 my part-time position there has been a steady one.

Editing a major journal is an excellent side job for a research scholar. You get to know everybody in your field. You get to read everything a year before anyone else does, including lots of stuff that never gets published. (Fornvännen has a 1/3 refusal rate.) You learn endlessly about new subjects. And you become keenly aware of academic prose. I copy-edit everything in the journal pretty strongly, aiming for a clear, sparse, jargon-free, non-archaic style.

Since issue one in 1906, twenty people have been credited on the title page as Fornvännen’s editors. I’m number 18. The median number of volumes each editor has contributed to is 8.5. My friend Göran Tegnér leads the field, currently contributing to his 37th volume. The list below is however most likely not complete for the first decades, where only the Head Editor is credited. There must have been editorial secretaries back then, particularly under Sigurd Curman whose main job was as Custodian of Ancient Monuments.

1. Emil Ekhoff, vols. 1906-23
2. Sigurd Curman, vols. 1925-46
3. MÃ¥rten Stenberger, vols. 1947-52
4. Erik Bohrn, vols. 1953-65
5. Ulla Behr, vols. 1956-65, 1974-75
6. Gösta Selling, vols. 1961-65
7. Egon Thun, vol. 1966
8. Ingrid Swartling, vols. 1966-72
9. Bo Gräslund, vols. 1966-72, 1985-96
10. Åke Hyenstrand, vols. 1972-75
11. Lars. O. Lagerqvist, vols. 1972-75
12. Göran Tegnér, vols. 1975 onward
13. Ann-Cathrine Bonnier, vol. 1975
14. Jan Peder Lamm, vols. 1976 onward
15. Ingvar Jansson, vol. 1976
16. Torgny Säve-Söderberg, vols. 1976-85
17. Gustaf Trotzig, vols. 1997-2007
18. Martin Rundkvist, vols. 1999 onward
19. Elisabet Regner, vols. 2007 onward
20. Lars Larsson, vols. 2008 onward

Talking and Listening in Minneapolis

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So Friday morning, we swam in the hotel pool after breakfast. Then we went into town and had lunch with Heather Flowers at the Acadia café, whereupon I gave a well-attended lunch talk about my Bronze Age project to staff and students at the U Minn Anthropology Department. Good to reconnect with Prof. Peter Wells, and I received a tea mug! I’ve already put it to good use as everything on our hotel’s breakfast buffet, plates cups cutlery packaging, is disposable. (We’re re-using our table gear day after day.)

Heather then took us on a road trip to Swedish immigrant country around Lindstrom where we saw bison and white-tail deer and eagles, and finally up to the interstate park on the Wisconsin border where we saw a beautiful stretch of the St. Croix river (above) and loads of interesting kettle-holes in the basalt. Then back into town for gaming night with the undergrads at Nica Carillo’s place. We were fed pizza and cake and played Apples to Apples and Settlers, and I had a blast!

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Saturday was the first day of the annual Undergraduate Anthropology Conference at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, a great big park with a convention centre. Rebecca Dolmon drove me there and I spent the day hearing interesting talks, hobnobbing with people and checking out bits of the as yet leafless park. Finally I gave my own talk on gold in 5th, 6th and 7th century Scandinavia, which was very graciously received. Though I really don’t like having a manuscript like I did. I keep getting ahead of the text and talking about things that are later in the script. I should just have written down the five main points on the back of my hand and spoken as prompted by the pictures I had collected, like I’m used to these days.

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Yesterday morning Mike Haubrich drove me & YuSie to the studio whence the Minnesota Atheists’ Sunday radio show is broadcast, and we met with my Sb blog neighbour Greg Laden. Their hour-long on-air chat with us went by really quickly: my first live radio appearance, and I liked it a lot. Listen to it as a podcast! Afterwards we joined 20 non-believers at a great progressive brunch place and had a long chatty meal together. Very nice people! And Greg’s little son is a real sweetie.

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The proud father then drove us the the Arboretum where we caught three more talks and mingled for a while, before Heather and her hubby Gabe drove us back to the hotel. We went to the nearby Mall of America for a decent Cajun fish dinner and wandered about for a while in search of shoes for Junior, but we soon got tired and fled back to our room. We’ll make a new attempt tomorrow, and then fly home.

My heartfelt thanks go to the students and staff of the Department of Anthropology for inviting me to speak here, to all the friendly and charming people who have taken such good care of me and YuSie, and particularly to my new friend Heather Flowers!

Kenyan Villagers Deny Chinese Allegations of Being Related

Journalist Geoffrey York has dug deeper for the Globe and Mail into the story about alleged descendants of Medieval Chinese sailors on the coast of Kenya that I wrote about once in ’07. He finds that not even the locals, who supposedly tell “legends” about their Chinese ancestry, believe any of it or indeed know of any such legends prior to the recent foreign involvement. He quotes me, but it’s a good piece anyway.

Rob Thurman Gets Her Tenses Wrong

I’m a picky reader when it comes to entertainment, and if I don’t like the first 50 pages of a novel I rarely continue. The most recent casualty of this policy is a book I was very kindly given by Birger Johansson, Rob Thurman’s The Grimrose Path (2010). Its a modern urban fantasy with angels and demons and tricksters, and it failed to interest me much. Usually I don’t review stuff I don’t like here, since I prefer to offer the Dear Reader recommendations. But this book suffers from an interesting weakness that I can’t remember coming across before, and I thought I might say something about that.

We’re all very used to reading fiction told in the past tense. “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” And we’re all very used to reading fiction told in the first person: “I’ll tell you everything I can, there’s little to relate”. Quite often the two are combined, “I am old now, but I was once young, and this is the story of my first love. She was as fair as the moon as she came tiptoeing through the tulips on bright May morning…”.

The Grimrose Path is told in the first person, past tense. Nothing unusual with that. But the narrator shows no sign of residing at any point in time later than that of which she speaks. Our narrator is not reminiscing, she doesn’t know yet what’s going to happen next: she’s just right here, right now and unable to use the present tense. And this makes for some pretty strange and clunky exposition. After all, she needs to tell us a lot about her fictional world that is true in a general sense: “There are angels and demons and tricksters in the world”, but she tells it all in the past tense as if it were no longer true.

At a few points she slips up: on page 52 Thurman writes, “If they [an organisation named Eden House] had any idea what Griffin [an ex-demon] had been and what Zeke [an ex-angel] had abandoned, they would’ve done their level best to kill them both.” Since the narrator is speaking consistently in the past tense, this should have been “If they had had any idea … they would’ve” etc.

So my free advice to fiction writers on this point is this. If you’re writing in the first person, past tense, decide when your narrator is speaking about his past, and make sure to communicate this to your reader. And any general timeless information about your world, you impart in the first person, present tense. Because even in your narrator’s old age, there are still two moons in the sky just like in the adventurous days of his youth.

Now I’m hitting the Charles Stross novel Birger sent me. I like Stross a lot and I haven’t read this one before.