Viking Period Drinking Bowl

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My colleague Karl-Magnus Melin specialises in ancient and modern woodworking and has a major paper in Fornvännen’s summer issue about well fittings made from hollowed-out tree trunks. He’s kindly sent me some post-conservation pics of a Viking Period wooden drinking bowl. It’s lathe-turned unless I’m very much mistaken. The bowl was found sitting in a back-filled well last autumn, during excavations directed by Anne Carlie for the National Heritage Board at Lindängelund near Malmö.

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Waterlogged wood is a bit like precious metal in that little really happens to it as the centuries pass. With such finds, we get to see how good ancient craftspeople really were in a way that is often difficult to appreciate when you’re looking at corroded metal objects.

One thing about the Viking Period. In Anglophone historiography, almost everybody calls this time span the “Viking Age”. I can’t bring myself to do this, as it mixes taxonomical levels. In Sweden, the Neolithic is about 2300 years, the Bronze Age 1200 years, and the Iron Age 1600 years. The Viking Period is only 300 years long and forms the final Period of the Iron Age. Thus it cannot be an Age unto itself. That would be like calling dandelions a phylum.

And while I’m at it: well-educated Minnesotans recently told me that they found it enlightening when I said that being a Viking is a job, not an ethnic denomination. Most Scandinavians who lived during the Viking Period were not Vikings. It’s just that the Englishmen and French who wrote about them at the time never met any non-Viking Scandinavians, poor fellows.

Update 18 May: Anne Carlie and Anna Lagergren explain that the bowl was found sitting on the bottom of a well whose overlying back-fill contained complete flax plants. When making linen fibre, flax must be retted, “the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer fibers intact”, as Wikipedia explains, under water. This suggests that the well was used for flax retting during a period before it was back-filled. A sample of the flax has given a radiocarbon date of 986±32 BP, that is, 990-1160 cal AD (95% likelihood).

This means that the bowl is almost certainly older than AD 1160. And since wells like these did not survive for long, it unlikely to be older than AD 900. Thus, from the radiocarbon alone we can’t rule out that the bowl may actually post-date the Viking Period by a few decades.

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The Perfection of the Hideous

In the car yesterday I listened to two excellent narrations of Lovecraft short stories. And I marvelled upon re-encountering the opening paragraph of “The Picture in the House” from 1919.

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

Andrew Leman does a great job with “Picture“, and Bruce Green likewise with “From Beyond“. But there’s one annoying glitch in Green’s otherwise stellar performance. The mad scientist in “From Beyond” is named Crawford Tillinghast. Green consistently pronounces his surname “Tilling-hast”. But this should surely be “Tilling-gast“: cf. Prendergast, ghastly, aghast, Gormenghast.

Thanks to Joel for introducing me to the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.

Lead Seal and Engine Spec Plate, 20th Century

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Today I did four hours of metal-detecting at a site in VÃ¥rdinge where a Wendelring bronze torque from about 600 BC has been found. Reiner Knizia’s popular card game Lost Cities has a thinly applied archaeological theme, and on the board is actually an image of a Wendelring torque just like the one from VÃ¥rdinge. (A Lost Cities deck can easily be made from two packs of normal playing cards using a marker pen on a few cards.)

The torques often come in twos and threes, so I was hoping to find another one today. In early April when my team was there, the site was still largely covered with snow and melt water, but today was a beautiful summer day. No Late Bronze Age torque though: only a lot of 20th century stuff, mainly rifle cartridges, bullets and bottle tops.

Two of the finds are inscribed and kind of fun.

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The older one is a lead seal used to seal something tied up with string. It bears the legends “SALVSJÖ- QVARN” and “STOCKHOLM”. This is funny because a) it’s a typo for Saltsjöqvarn, and b) the place is in my home municipality Nacka. It was a major industrial flour mill that operated from 1890 to 1988.

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To someone with my background, Baldor is a prince of the Rohirrim in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Anglo-Saxon Cossacks, to use the recently deceased Diana Wynne Jones’s term) who makes a drunken vow and enters the Paths of the Dead, never to be seen again. To a 20th century Swedish farmer or an inhabitant of Fort Smith, Arkansas, however, Baldor is a maker of electrical motors. The company is still around and was bought last year by ABB, an industrial multinational with some Swedish roots.

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The VM3542 motor whose spec plate I found is still made and retails for about $275. Don’t know if a date of manufacture can be inferred from the punched info on the plate.

My Check List for Metal Detecting

Once I went metal-detecting without my GPS. Luckily the site was not far from my home and I found only one object worth collecting, so I could mark the spot with a stick and return after dinner to get the coordinates. Another time I forgot my rubber boots and was confused by my detector’s strange behaviour until I realised that I was wearing heavy steel-capped workman’s shoes that triggered the detector at a distance of decimeters.

These days I have a checklist that I use to pack for metal-detecting. Here’s what I need to bring when going into the field.

  • Metal detector (!)
  • Batteries
  • Spade
  • Headphones
  • Ziplock baggies
  • Pens
  • GPS navigator
  • Camera
  • Coin manual
  • Working gloves
  • Orange road-worker’s vest
  • Lunch
  • Water
  • (Check weather forecast)

Treatment of Archaeological Human Remains in the UK

The other day asked what UK practice regarding the treatment of archaeological human remains has been like in recent decades. Dear Reader Dustbubble gave such a good answer that I must promote it to guest-entry status.

Martin sez “.. But what, then, was the practice like between 1857 and 2008?”

Well from personal experience, in the last quarter of the C20th it would be infinitely carefully excavated and drawn/photogged in situ (did you know that a well-preserved adult skeleton, if arranged in the now-traditional urban mediaeval digger’s fashion, fits perfectly in a two-gallon builder’s bucket?), equally painstakingly scrubbed, washed and dried (to remove any remaining obnoxious analysable adherents that might yield information), squinted at cursorily along with dozens, if not hundreds of its companeros, by a harassed postgrad student while laid out on a civil service utility table (the skelly, that is) to see if there are any particularly outstanding deformities or injuries, dumped in the largest size of minigrip bag or just straight into the regulation Stationery Office brown cardboard box, if they were lucky along with a manila label with some unique-to-the-excavation-director code on it, and consigned to “long term storage” (metal racking in a damp tin shed on some godforsaken industrial estate).

I dunno, landfill eventually, when the overarching (non-archae) Govt. Dept. had a clearout?

Mind you, the original Proprietors had “variable” attitudes. One lot we had stolen at night from the freshly-prepared-for-piccies graves by the housebuilder (sand site, utter carnage, might as well (in fact did) pack up and go home).

And then there was Minister of the Established Church who leapt the wall of the (disused for centuries, just a grass field) med. cem., in high dudgeon at our presumptuous interference with the millennial repose of his parishioners (obviously just chucked Official Gubmint Mail straight in the bin).

On learning that the reason for the lack of headstones was that these were (1)Very Old and (2)irremediably catholic he did a complete volte-face, and barked in shock “What?! Catholics!!? Get them out of my graveyard! Now!!

A long, gentle, and incomprehending-on-the cleric’s-part explanation of subjects such as .. the Reformation had to follow, from our urbane and ever-civil director.
This lot were eventually (like, years and years later) reburied in nice wooden caskets, surprisingly. Politics …

In short, a bit of a shambles, I suspect. Like everything in this country.

The Silly Conventions of Funding a School Trip

Funding trips for classes of school children is a complicated business in Sweden. This is due to two commonly held conventional ideas. One is that it would be unfair to ask each family to simply pay for their kid, since not all families may be able to afford the trip. The other is that the kids should somehow prove themselves worthy of the trip through work. Typically, this will lead to a great number of schemes and events to collect funds for each trip. And these fund-raising activities have a few things in common: they pay poorly, most of the labour is put in by a few parents (not the kids), and most of the collected funds actually originate with the kids’ families, as parents either donate goods or buy donated goods from the kids.

I think this whole business is ridiculous. I challenge the two basic assumptions and I think the fund-raising activities are insanely inefficient.

To begin with, I am in all likelihood the least affluent dad in both my kids’ classes, and it still would be no problem for me to front the bill of their participation in school trips. We live in a cheap part of one of Sweden’s richest communities: these people have the means. Secondly, their kids travel all the time with their folks and sibs without having to work for it, so why should a school trip be any different?

My solution to the problem, which I have aired at a number of school-parent meetings to responses ranging from high praise to shocked disapproval, is this. Dear affluent parent of a school-mate of one of my children: instead of working for five hours on the traditional poorly paid and inefficient resource reallocation schemes, arranging a bake sale or overseeing the kids’ busking at a subway station, just stay one extra hour at work and make twice the money. Nothing you do with the kids on communal fund-raisers will ever approach the wage you see at work every day.

In some cases, school rules forbid the direct payment of a trip fee. This is easy to circumvent. You just buy one cheap item for each kid, say, a pack of candles, and tell the parents that to send their kids on the school trip they have to buy a pack – and it costs $300.

Of course it’s fun for the kids to engage in communal activities with parents, working towards a common goal. But why bring money into it? Just take the kids hiking or fishing.