Robot Rhino

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I really like this shock absorber at the end of the Minneapolis light rail line under the Mall of America parking garage. It looks like a robot rhino.

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Two Museums in Minneapolis

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Touching down at Minneapolis airport shortly before 19:00 last night, my wife and I were met by the charming Heather Flowers and Erin Emmerich from the Anthro Dept. They got us installed at our hotel and joined us for dinner at the food court of the monstrous Mall of America. (There’s a theme park inside it.) Then to bed.

This morning we negotiated the ample, varied and sugar-rich breakfast buffet here at the Fairfield Inn, and then went to the light rail station. We’re in the second-generation periphery of Minneapolis near the airport, outside the old industrial fringe. The roads are 6-lane highways here, the buildings huge hotels and malls, everything thinly spread like in the recently developed fringes of Chinese cities. And of course anything catering to pedestrians and cyclists is an afterthought: the railway station is under a multilevel parking garage and to get there on foot you either have to go through the mall or wander in via the automobile ramps. The train is a little clunky and rickety, but it speeds along fine, it’s not expensive and it does have bike racks. We changed to a bus at Franklin Avenue and found that apparently only poor people ride buses here. But then, this was at 09:45, so I guess anybody who wasn’t at work already was probably unemployed.

We spent 3½ hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer there. They have a bit of everything ancient and modern from around the world, in large numbers and top quality, with free admittance. A very impressive museum. But I was truly appalled to see how much recently looted archaeology they show. The Chinese collection, for instance, appears largely to have been acquired in the past 20 years, and there’s no provenance on anything. “Figurines from an 8th century Imperial burial, probably in the Luoyang region” etc. This is in stark contrast to a temporary exhibition of exquisite 15th century French mortuary sculpture from Dijon, where the context of each piece has been painstakingly documented. It’s the exact same kind of objects: sculpture from royal burials, but under very different circumstances.

The French aren’t looting their heritage, they’re curating it and lending bits of it to US museums. The main reason why the Chinese are looting theirs is demand from unscrupulous art collectors. Why is the art world still allowing this to happen? These are not just “works of art”. At least half of everything in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is archaeological finds. We should demand a detailed excavation report before we even considered touching the stuff, let alone buying it. I don’t want to see objects dug up “probably in the Luoyang region” and donated by an American collector. I want to see pieces excavated by Chinese archaeologists to modern standards of documentation and lent by a Chinese museum. I mean, look at me and my team, pinpointing fucking quartz chips with GPS in a muddy field in Södermanland, while at the same time looters are opening 8th century Imperial tombs in China and carting out T’ang sculpture by the wheel barrow, destroying its archaeological context. It’s sad, so sad.

But as I said, the museum is wonderfully rich, and if you don’t care about provenance or archaeological context you will be able to enjoy it far more than I did. We were intrigued and enlightened by a collection of 16th-17th century classicising bronze statuettes shown to us by a friendly and knowledgeable docent, and those 15th century Dijon Mourners were truly a treat.

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We walked to the American Swedish Institute, which is housed in an early 20th century sandstone mansion built by a Swedish immigrant newspaper baron. Program officer Nina Clark welcomed us, fed us cardamom buns, conversed in idiomatic Swedish and showed us around. She remarked that the house is coeval with early modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright etc., yet is anchored firmly and lavishly in later 19th century bourgeois taste. It reminded me of what the Rettig family was doing with their town house in Stockholm at the same time, now home to the Royal Academy of Letters with one floor being a museum. I used to share a small office there with an extremely overdecorated pink, baby blue, gilded, eagle-topped tiled fireplace, and the ones at the American Swedish Institute are very similar. Above, myself and Nina are standing in front of one such fireplace decorated with Viking gnomes (!?), a relief plaque reproducing MÃ¥rten Eskil Winge’s “Thor Battles the Giants” and odd Oscarian variations on late-1st millennium animal art.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ASI is not some sleepy outfit commemorating a dying ethnicity and catering mainly to retirees. Quite the contrary: there’s lots going on at the Institute, to the extent that they’re extending the building substantially and in very good taste. The people of Minnesota may not speak Swedish any more, but they’re interested in Sweden, and not just in what went on there in the 1800s. We met Swedish painter/cartoonist Jesper Löfvenborg who is there as resident artist, and best-selling hated-by-critics crime novelist Camilla Läckberg was visiting just as we were. Also, speaking more generally, all three of Stieg Larsson’s crime novels are on the top-10 US sales list for the first quarter of 2011.

Walking east to the light rail though a somewhat run-down neighbourhood of two-story houses, we went back to the hotel for a nap. The idea was to go a barmeet with skeptics late in the evening. If you go to bed at 17:00 you expect to sleep maybe for an hour and a half, and jet lag made me too sleepy to think clearly. I forgot to set the alarm clock and woke at 23:30. Too late for the barmeet, which really disappointed me. And worse, it undid all the work I’d done on resetting my internal clock, and now I’m likely to be sleepy as hell for the boardgame night tomorrow.

So now it’s 02:15 in the small hours and I’m awake. But I’m also sleepy, so maybe I can get in a few hours more towards the end of the night and get my clock reset after all.

New Visa Rules, Lessened US Hospitality

Three years ago I visited the US. Security at Newark was a little slow, but I just showed them my Swedish passport and sailed in. You see, there was a visa waiver agreement back then. And I thought there still was until 1½ hours before I was scheduled to take off to the US again this morning.

I don’t know if any country still has that agreement with the US. Sweden doesn’t, and I found this out at the luggage drop. There’s an on-line application routine for the visum (sing.) that often works really swiftly, but in my case it didn’t. It’s a black box and nobody knows how it works. So I missed my flight and would by rights have been forced to buy a new ticket since the one I had wasn’t rebookable. But KLM air has this semi-official policy of helping people who fall afoul of the new visa rules. So I’m just going to be a few hours late to Minneapolis. Security theatre…

Lost On A Fieldwork Gamble

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Success and failure in archaeological fieldwork is a graded scale. I wrote about this in autumn 2008:

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

I’ve spent the past two days metal-detecting and fieldwalking three Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren region with a team of up to eight skilled volunteers, and pretty much it’s one second-worst possible result, one inconclusive and one worst.

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At our Nyköping site we got lots of knapped quartz and fire-cracked stone, allowing us to posit a ploughed-out settlement site. But no pre-modern metalwork. This suggests that narrows in lakes such as the nearby finds-producing one were really important in situating sacrifices. Celebrants didn’t stray much from them. 14 person-hours of metal detecting and 10 of field walking.

At our Gnesta site only a fourth of the surface was open to study due to remaining snow and meltwater. It’s richly seeded with recent rifle cartridges, some so fresh that they aren’t even verdigrised yet. 6 person-hours of metal detecting. I need to get back there.

At our Enköping site we found nothing. No pre-modern metalwork, little modern, nothing. 15 person-hours of metal detecting. The field’s under stubble, so conditions aren’t ideal. I’m coming back after harrowing in August.

Luckily, thanks to the interest and generosity of my collaborators, these two days in the field cost me only two tanks of gas and six person-nights at an affordable hostel. So unlike in the case of Sättuna, the lack of useful data isn’t a big setback. My current Bronze Age project is much more of a high-risk game than the Late Iron Age one I did in Östergötland. Sites of the latter period are littered with metalwork and debris. Bronze Age ones are far more frugal, reflecting the period’s relatively poor metal supply where every gram of metal had to be imported or recycled. We were at sites where major metal finds were made a century ago, and found nothing. I’m headed for sites were nothing has been found yet…

[More blog entries about ; .]

Chairman of the Swedish Skeptics

i-83b37cc0e6ae5e44726a14026c0aed6f-logga.gifI joined the Swedish Skeptics Society in 1997. Not because I was particularly aware of or bothered by paranormal claims or alternative medicine, but because I was an unhappy grad student in an Artsy post-modernist environment that was extremely hostile to the idea of cumulative rationalist Enlightenment science. It was a huge relief for me to come into contact with science and engineering people with an unabashedly scientistic world view. They would happily say “There’s no data on that issue so its useless to speculate about it” and “Both interpretation A and interpretation B can’t be true”, and I felt like I had come home.

So I’m a bit of an odd skeptic, the science-friendly arts/anthro guy who came in from the cold. I’d barely heard of James Randi or Martin Gardner when I joined and I still haven’t read any of their books. But I immediately began contributing to the Society’s journal, Folkvett, and in 2002 I was invited onto the editorial board. In 2004 I joined the Society’s executive board. And yesterday I was elected chairman of the Swedish Skeptics — Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning.

The Swedish Skeptics have 2,600 members and add about 100 new people annually. That’s pretty respectable in a country of only 9.4 million. 15% of the membership (and 29% of the new Board) are women. In addition to the national Board in Stockholm we have regional chapters in Uppsala and Gothenburg.

The main demand that I’ve picked up from the members (and from critical non-member skeptics) is that the Swedish Skeptics should be more visible in the public space, take part in more debates, make more headlines, do more lobbying. And that is something I look forward to working with. Debate is after all something I’ve been doing professionally for over 15 years. This is my first stint as chairman of an organisation, and since I’ve made sure that other board members are willing to do the admin, I feel pretty good about the whole thing.

Earl Birger Rules

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Birger Johansson is an awesome guy. We’ve never met, but he’s one of Aard’s most prolific and witty commenters. And then, out of the blue, he suddenly tells me that he’s got some free shipping to spare on Amazon and sends me a hoard of books, a DVD and a graphic novel! THANK YOU BIRGER! I hereby grant you an Earldom and the right to be called Birger Jarl!

  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams 1987.
  • The Skinner. A Spatterjay Novel. Neal Asher 2002.
  • The Devil You Know. A Felix Castor Novel. Mike Carey 2006.
  • Halting State. Charles Stross 2007.
  • The Grimrose Path. A Trickster Novel. Rob Thurman 2010.
  • At Last the 1948 Show. 1967 British comedy series with, among others, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman. Proto-Python!
  • Criminal Macabre. A Cal McDonald Mystery. Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith 2004.

I’m particularly grateful for these near-birthday presents because Birger is introducing me to a lot of stuff I’ve never even heard of before. Can’t wait to read & watch! Stay tuned for reviews.

A Lot Going On

I’ve got a lot of fun stuff going on right now. Yesterday I drove to Uppsala, talked to the County Archaeologist about a site for almost two hours on an empty stomach, was fed cake by my friend and colleague Åsa of Ting & Tankar, spoke about Bronze Age sacrificial sites to her staff at the SAU excavation unit, was treated to dinner by Åsa and my old buddy Jonas, drove to Norrtälje, ran into the local history society’s meeting a quarter late and gave the Bronze Age talk one more time. Then drove home and spent half an hour before bedtime getting paperwork into shape as per the County Archaeologist’s wishes.

Today will be a bit more quiet: library visit before noon, then a seminar at the Vasa museum about Djurhamn where I did fieldwork a few years back and found that sword, you know. More specifically it’s about the underwater archaeology there – I was on dry land with my team. Tonight I need to pack my fieldwork gear.

Tomorrow’s the spring meet and annual business meeting of the Swedish Skeptics, which I will emcee. Chances are the board election may produce some drama – there has been growing criticism lately against the current board of which I’m a member, viz that we’re lazy ivory-tower academics who don’t engage enough with the media. So we’ll see if I’m still a board member at the skeptics-in-the-pub event on Saturday night. Also there’s likely to be some sort of manifestation of people who are unhappy with the society’s siding with mainstream science on the climate issue.

Sunday is the start of the fieldwork season: metal detecting and field walking with a team of ~10 volunteers near Nyköping. Monday more fieldwork at sites near Gnesta and Enköping. Tuesday will be quiet. And then, Wednesday, it’s off to Minneapolis for talks, skeptical events, some gaming, a museum tour and more.

As we say, rather earthily, in Swedish: I’ve got my ass full right now.