I Hate the Great Firewall

Here’s just short note to tell you, Dear Reader, that the Great Firewall of China is fucking annoying. I am unable to access Twitter, Facebook, any Blogspot blog and often most of Google’s services including Gmail.

Meanwhile, the Chinese populace is so closely keyed in to what’s happening in the West that girls in remote Qingtian are wearing exactly the same ultrashort denim shorts as their contemporaries in Stockholm this spring. But I guess the Great Firewall is intended to keep domestic dissidents from reaching an audience as much as or more than to keep the Chinese from learning about the outside world.

Somebody mentioned subscription proxy services. That’s what I would buy if I settled here for any longer period…

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Len Fisher, The Science of Everyday Life

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Len Fisher is an Australian physicist based in England. He’s also a foodie involved in molecular gastronomy. In 2002 he published an essay collection on the UK market, The Science of Everyday Life, which has now been re-issued for US readers.

Before looking at the book’s contents I have to comment on how Fisher’s US publisher, Arcade, has packaged the thing. On the front cover is a nonsensical pseudo-mathematical formula made from clip-art, stating that one’s enjoyment of a doughnut approaches infinity as the amount of coffee and the number of empty cups associated with it decreases. This looks cheap and is stupid, and I’m sure the author had nothing to do with it, even though it is of course possible that he loves doughnuts but hates coffee and china cups.

Then there’s an erroneous sub-title: “An entertaining and enlightening examination of everything we do and everything we see”. The book is indeed quite entertaining and enlightening, but of course the essays make no attempt to cover everything we do and see.

Finally, the back-cover blurb is prominently headed “What is the art and science of a slam dunk?”. A slam dunk is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of basketball shot that is performed when a player jumps in the air and manually powers the ball downward through the basket with one or both hands over the rim”. But basketball is not mentioned in the book. Instead, Fisher’s first essay is entirely about his rigorous, Ignobel Prize-winning experiments with biscuit dunking, the dipping of biscuits into a beverage. The person writing the cover copy clearly has not even paid the most cursory attention to the contents. So boo to you, Arcade Publishing.

With that out of the way, let me say that Len Fisher is a charming and humorous essayist who conveys a fine sense of enthusiasm on his wanderings through the everyday world. Mostly he talks about physics, but there’s also a lot of chemistry and one essay on statistics. All in all there are nine essays, a coda, two appendices and a meaty & talkative endnotes section.

I particularly liked Fisher’s history-of-science sections. But as his editor, I would have stricken out some of the more technical nerd-outs he indulges in, such as when he looks at supermarket prices from the erroneous supposition that the cent amounts are evenly distributed from .00 to .99, when everyone knows that they’re heavily dominated by .99. Still, I didn’t tire of the book, and if I had tired of an individual essay I would still have flipped on to the next.

There are many little gems in these pages, such as the story of a man who made a see-through boomerang, threw it, and then realised to his horror that he couldn’t see the thing coming back and risked having his head bashed in by it. Another fine image is when Fisher calculates the time it would take a weightless astronaut to move from one end of a space station to the other exclusively on the reaction force of an ejaculation. To anyone with a love of science, it’s a fine read. And it doesn’t take a degree either – I haven’t had any formal science training since high school, myself.

Antique Collectors In China Don’t Care About Provenance Either

I’ve criticised Western museums for buying or accepting as gifts looted Chinese antiquities. This practice, in my opinion, stems from an outdated and irresponsible fine arts perspective where the exact provenance of a museum piece is not very important. When you’re dealing with anonymous prehistoric or early historic art, you can’t attribute it to any named artist, and so an art curator will quite happily settle for “Han dynasty, probably the Yellow River area” as a date and a provenance.

As an archaeologist, I do not accept the category “fine art”, and I claim precedence for the classification as an archaeological find over that of a museum display piece. Any object that has been part of the archaeological record must have a recorded exact provenance: otherwise it is a stray find or loot. The beautiful pieces shown in exhibitions of ancient Chinese artefacts deserve a find-spot provenance recorded to the nearest centimeter, with photographs, field drawings, environmental samples and an exact record of what was found along with each piece.

Let’s be clear about this: archaeological context or provenance is not about when and where an object was made. It’s about when and where it entered the ground, and under what circumstances it was unearthed. The archaeological context describes an object’s find spot.

Today I visited a lovely museum in Hangzhou for the second time, the Southern Song Official Kiln (Guan Yao) Museum. And I was reminded of the fact that the Chinese themselves have a 2500-year tradition of collecting choice artefacts without recording their provenances. The museum displays hundreds of pieces of Chinese pottery from the Neolithic onward with emphasis on the 13th century when the site itself was an Imperial celadon factory. Not one of them has a provenance. Everything is generic: labelled only with functional category, type of ware, sometimes the kiln site, and dynasty with start and end dates. The pottery in the museum has no individuality. Each piece is just an example of a generic type belonging to a generic time frame. In some cases the visitor is told that the pottery was found during excavations on the kiln site itself, but we learn nothing about the closer context. Most of the pieces are incomplete and look like wasters, but you can’t be sure.

In the indigenous elite tradition, it is irrelevant where a certain Zhou dynasty bronze sacrificial cauldron-tripod was found. The important things are to be able to classify it and read its inscriptions. This gives some background to the on-going clash between the fine art world and the demands of archaeology. It’s not entirely a question of Western dealers, collectors and museums exploiting China’s heritage. The Chinese have had an established tradition of their own for collecting fine art for millennia. As a rigorous discipline, archaeology is barely 200 years old in the parts of the world where it has been practised the longest. We want the finds to speak to us about the past. Non-archaeologist Chinese want the nice ones to exemplify classical categories of fine art. And the not so nice ones, they don’t want at all.

China’s Named and Inscribed Places

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Chinese tourist sites follow a set of conventions that seem to go back hundreds or thousands of years, far into a past when tourism, as we understand it, did not yet exist. Essentially we’re dealing with named and inscribed sites. I have visited many in my Chinese travels, but since I can’t read the language I have formed my ideas about them from reading English-language signage and asking my wife to translate or explain. So I may have misunderstood the nuances. Here nevertheless are my impressions.

A Chinese tourist site always originates with an educated male member of the elite some time during the past 2000 years. On his travels he sees something poetically inspiring, usually but not always a piece of unusual natural or rural scenery, and he writes a few lines about it. The following causal chain is unclear to me, but what ends up happening is that the place gets named for the guy’s poem, something like “Moonlight On Crane Pond” or “Tiger Boulder With Dragon’s Tail”, the poem is incised on a stele or convenient rock face at the site, and the place enters some kind of central canonical list of poetic places. (I guess the site’s success in this regard will depend to some extent both on the man’s fame and on the quality of his poetry.) Through the centuries similar men will then continue to visit the site, write poetry about it, and possibly add more inscriptions.

Wednesday we visited a typical example of these places near Hecheng (“Qingtian City”). Shimen, “Stone Door”, is a dramatic canyon with an extremely high and beautiful waterfall at the inner end. Under a large rock shelter at the side of the waterfall’s lower pool are poetic inscriptions from about 20 famous scholars, and in the vicinity are several other named sites that apparently owe their existence to other elite tourists who came to visit the waterfall site and ended up writing their “Kilroy was here” poetry about something else nearby that caught their fancy. It’s the same around the West Lake in Hangzhou, where you’ll find a named and inscribed site behind every bush. I imagine that stone carvers could always make a living at places like these by waiting for rich men to come by for a peek, and immortalising their poetic effusions in stone.

The Chinese tourist sites I’ve visited since 2001 have all been very well kept, to the extent that there is little to be seen there that is older than the 1990s. Paths, signposts, buildings, terracing and flood-control walls: everything’s new. The only old stuff visible is mostly cliffside sculptural reliefs, vandalised during one or another of the Chinese’s recurring iconoclastic phases such as the Cultural Revolution (or by European colonial powers). And then there are the inscriptions, which I cannot date at all since the script was standardised millennia ago and they’re usually well painted in. But under the Shimen rock shelter I was pleased to find a number of badly worn, unpainted inscriptions that the management clearly didn’t expect us tourists to want to read. I guess they’re from visitors who came long ago and are not much remembered today.

The Chinese concept of a famous site is similar to the Japanese uta-makura, a term I picked up from the 17th century poet Basho’s lovely little travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Interior”. Literally meaning “poem pillow” (!?), the uta-makura is a kind of poetic allusion. Poet A writes about, say, plum blossom in Yokohama, and the poem becomes widely read. Poets B, C and D can then mention Yokohama as a poetic shorthand for plum blossom: it has become an uta-makura. During their trip to the interior, Basho and his friends move from uta-makura to uta-makura, paying little attention to anything that hasn’t been written about in famous poetry. To them, poetry is not about beautiful scenery – it’s the scenery that is about poetry.

This seems very similar to the Chinese idea. Classical education was all about studying and memorising famous ancient texts. And nature appreciation is all about visiting named and inscribed sites whose beauty is vouchsafed by famous ancient poets. If I visit a beautiful place that nobody has written poetry about, and do not write poetry about it myself and hire a stone carver, I might as well not go at all.

Tombs and Opium in Qingtian

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My mother-in-law grew up in the mountains near Fushan in the prefecture of Qingtian (pronounced CHING-tien), inland Zhejiang province. Though the prefecture’s name means “Green Field”, it’s pretty poor and has been a major emigration area for decades. The owners and staff of many or most Chinese restaurants in Sweden are from Qingtian. Yesterday we rode a train for nearly seven hours from Hangzhou to get to the district capital, and all along the way we were accompanied by a line of enormous new concrete stilts on which a future fast railroad will run. Next time the trip may take only an hour and a half.

This morning we went up to Fushan to see the ancestral hamlet and pay our respects to some of the ancestors. We had a wonderful day, and here I’ll only touch upon three of the things I experienced.

To begin with, as you can see above, Qingtian is extremely beautiful. Endless vistas of steep terraced mountain sides, cloud-obscured peaks and mirror-like rice paddies, and no signs of tourism though the roads are good. Go to Qingtian city on the valley floor, stay in a hotel and make day trips with a taxi. Breathtaking!

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Secondly, we came upon a small field bearing ripe opium poppy right beside the road. The farmer (who looked perfectly healthy) happily informed us that he smokes the stuff sometimes but that it is mainly used in cooking pig’s trotters. “Everybody’s always very merry when we have trotters for dinner.”

Thirdly, I learned about an ongoing conflict between the farmers and the Party officials of the area. The Party has decided that, bearing China’s huge population in mind, too much agricultural land is being wasted on the construction of low buildings and traditional hillside terrace tombs. Modern Chinese people are encouraged to live in high rises and bury their dead in Western-style flat cemeteries. The mountain farmers, however, prefer their old way of doing things, and they either can’t get or don’t apply for building permits. They just build anyway and hope for the best. The authorities respond by sending out semi-official house-and-tomb vandalism crews.

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Tombs and low houses built before some recent cutoff date are exempt from these rules and are never vandalised. Therefore new burials are now often added to old tombs by families who might have been able to afford new ones. But I saw many new house ruins and many vandalised new tombs. When somebody builds a new tomb, however lavish, they try to make it look old and uncared-for by covering it in brush, which must be rather confusing to an ancestor who expects to be venerated by his descendants. The tomb above is unusually large and lavish, covered in brush by its builders and vandalised by the Party — and it was built last year.

I also saw large amounts of destroyed tomb stonework lying around or re-used for road pavement. A lot of it seems to come from new tombs vandalised by the authorities, but other fragments look like they may come from old tombs that have been removed to make room for new ones — which might perhaps save the new structure from vandalism as long as there are no descendants of the original tomb’s inhabitants around to complain. Anyway, for reason’s of taboo, there is no aftermarket for used tomb sculpture.

Airborne Chinese Marketplace

On the flight from Amsterdam to Hangzhou Saturday, I observed some interesting behaviour on the part of my Chinese co-travellers. After the main meal, the stewardesses went around hawking tax-free goods. At this time, a bunch of people stood up and formed a large prattling group in the aisles toward the rear of the plane where myself and Junior were seated. They seemed to be discussing the merits of the wares among themselves and with the Chinese stewardess, reading labels and handing packages around for inspection. The whole thing looked like a cross between a cocktail party and an Oriental market, and it sounded like a flock of jackdaws. Everybody was clearly having a good time. Then, after 45 minutes or so, they went back to their seats and most of them fell asleep. Upon landing I learned that these gregarious people were on a group trip and so must have been at least slightly acquainted.

West African Marabout Con Man

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Marabouts are West African con men & fortune tellers who market their services in Europe with little flyers printed on coloured paper. In France, there’s an ongoing collectors’ craze for these notes. I found one under my windshield wiper the other day. I translate:

Mr Seeki

Fortune teller, international marabout

Born with spiritual power. I am known worldwide. I can solve all your problems e.g. love, health, family problems, business, legal issues, financial transactions, weight loss. You learn how to protect yourself and your family from the enemy and how you get your near and dear ones back into your life. Guaranteed result.

Speaks French, English

Call and schedule an appointment!

Subway Farsta Centrum

The stationary phone number belongs to a guy on Molkomsbacken in Farsta, a Stockholm suburb. He’s registered for six cell phones and four stationary numbers at three street addresses.

Other marabouts who have operated in my area in recent years are Professor Manfaring and Jimbo. In 2009 the latter was detained by the police along with his interpreter after selling unguents and potions at exorbitant prices to an old man who hoped to have his youth restored. I have now tipped the police off about Mr. Seeki. Though I guess he won’t stay in Sweden for very long.

Birds of Paradise Pecking the Carolingian Lion

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Here’s a fun find, courtesy of my buddy Claes Pettersson. As detailed on Jönköping County Museum’s blog, a funny little cast-brass trinket came to light during fieldwork at Odensjö (“Odin’s Lake”), where recently a very fine Roman era weapon burial has also been unearthed. From a functional point of view it’s hard to say what the thing has been used for (no surviving pin arrangements on the back side to identify it as a brooch), but Annika Jeppson’s analytical drawing allows us to date it firmly to the Early Viking Period, probably the later 9th century.

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Two birds are pecking a round-eared beast on the head. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Johnson has pointed out that similar motifs are common on protective weaponry but not on offensive arms. Thus she suggests that the Borre style beast was seen as apotropaeic, magically protective. Is the beast taking life’s pecks to the head and kicks to the back-side here to protect its wearer from them?

As Egon Wamers has shown, both the birds and the gripping beasts enter Scandy art in the mid-8th century from Continental Christian sources, with missionaries as intermediaries. We’re dealing, at their roots, with birds of paradise and a Carolingian lion. The fact that the ex-lion or “gripping beast” has no limbs to grip with here suggests that we’re probably past AD 850. And why is the piece rare or unique? Probably because Odensjö is in thinly populated SmÃ¥land province were we know less about the regional archaeological record.

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Freshly Found Bronze Age Rock Art

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I’ve reported before [12] on the on-going discoveries in the Tjust area of NE SmÃ¥land province. Here Joakim Goldhahn is employing the country’s best rock-art surveyors to work through an area that is turning out to be extraordinarily rich and diverse in Bronze Age petroglyphs. These years will be remembered as a time when the Swedish rock art map was redrawn in a dramatic fashion.

Here are two fresh finds from last week, pics courtesy of my friend Roger Wikell. Some of this rock art is pecked on quartzite, a material so hard that Roger compares it to bullet-proof glass. The cool thing about such images (the motif, apart from cupmarks as below, is usually boats) is that though they hardly scratch the surface of the rock, the pecking has caused microscopic fractures that change the quartzite’s colour. And so you can see these images clearly without filling them in even after 3000 years of weathering.

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Also cool and unusual is the placement of this particular image panel: it’s on the vertical face of an erratic block instead of on the standard softly sloping ice-ground bedrock surface. Roger points out that the shards that can be seen to have flaked from the block may still be under the turf at its foot, and possibly bearing images. Myself, I wonder if the flaking is due to a (ritual) bonfire lit there.

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Doctors h.c. Sven Gunnar Broström and Kenneth Ihrestam paint one of their most recently found cupmark panels with non-intrusive chalk powder + water prior to documentation with permanent marker on plastic film.

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While on the subject of Roger Wikell’s activities, let me mention that he kindly classified the lithics from my Nyköping site the other day. It turned out that out of about 25 collected fragments, most were clearly naturally fractured and only three were clearly modified by people. Damn quartz.

What Makes High Elves High?

One of the stranger concepts in Tolkien’s writings is that of “High Elves”. Why are these elves high? It has nothing to do with drugs, though in the Tolkien Society we used to joke about them smoking lembas. And it has nothing to do with stature, though nobility and body height go together in Tolkien, nor with elevation above sea level. I’ve got an idea.

According to Robert Foster’s 1978 book Complete Guide to Middle-earth, Tolkien uses the term as a synonym for the Eldar. These were a subset of the original Elven population who accepted a summons to join the gods in their brightly lit country to the west. Those who refused and stayed in the as yet only starlit parts of the ancient world were called Dark Elves. This ethnic division corresponds to the main split in the history of Tolkien’s fictional languages between Quenya and Sindarin. High Elves spoke Quenya, or High-elven.

Tolkien was a linguist and philologist before he was a fantasist. My guess is that he constructed a language that he called High-elven just as there is High German, and as a convenient shorthand he called its speakers High Elves. High German, Hochdeutsch, actually takes its name from elevation above sea level, as opposed to the Low German spoken in the lowlands. (High Germans, however, are rarely seen outside rave parties and Amon Düül II gigs.)

The High Elves have since escaped from Tolkien and become a commonplace of pseudo-Medieval fantasy. According to Wikipedia, “High elves are distinguished from other fantasy elves by their place of living, as they usually dwell in stone cities, instead of woods … Typically high elves consider themselves the most purely good race of all, and haughtily view all other races beneath them”.