How Can We Keep Students From Jobless Subjects?

Here’s a piece of radical Libertarian politics for you. The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Svenskt Näringsliv, is a respectable mainstream employers’ organisation. Their people have identified a problem with the Swedish university system, viz, that unemployed people are entering undergraduate programs that do not actually make them employable. The Confederation points out the Humanities specifically. And they suggest a solution: students in these programs should not receive the same amount of study loans as other students.

I agree that the problem exists, but not with the suggested solution. The problem is actually due to the orthodox marketism that the Confederation espouses, where universities compete for students according to the students’ demand. If the students want an MA in queer Mickey Mouse studies, then that’s what Swedish universities will offer. Trouble is, the students are not making rational or informed choices. They do not know or care what education they need to have a decent career. They are 19 and choose on a whim.

My solution to the problem is to change whose demand decides what university programs will be offered. Don’t ask the students. Ask the employers, by means of the unemployment statistics. It is much cheaper for society as a whole if university teachers in jobless subjects are allowed to do research full time for a few years than if they have to educate a new generation of unemployed queer Mickey Mouse experts.

Via my buddy Ny Björn, who doesn’t share my views. See also DN and SvD.

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Classification Presupposes Type Definitions

Andreas Oldeberg (1892-1980) is rumoured to have had some pretty ugly political leanings. But just because you like cheese, you needn’t socialise with cows. If you’re into Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age metalwork from Sweden, there is absolutely no getting around Oldeberg’s huge illustrated catalogue from 1974.

I’m currently grabbing data out of the catalogue for my sacrificial sites project. And I’ve come across a funny detail that shows that old Oldeberg was not up to speed with his day’s archaeological methodology.

Whenever Oldeberg describes a spearhead, he classifies it according to a fairly new piece of work at the time, Gernot Jacob-Friesen 1967. This scholar named his types for find spots, such as Valsømagle, Bagterp etc. But quite often, Oldeberg isn’t sure what type a certain spearhead belongs to. He’ll say wahrscheinlich Typ Bagterp, “probably Bagterp type”, for instance. This is fully understandable if you only have part of a spearhead: the distinctive characteristics of various possible types may not be extant on the bit you’ve got. But Oldeberg does this all the time with complete objects. And that makes no sense whatsoever after 1962.

In his 1962 dissertation, Jungneolithische Studien, Mats P. Malmer established that an object type’s identity rests entirely upon a verbal definition. Material, dimensions, proportions, decorative details: a scholar must tell her readers clearly what the rules are for inclusion and exclusion in a type, or it isn’t a type. Do feel free to illustrate the definition with pictures of objects that belong to the type in question, but don’t ever think that it’s enough to say (as Jacob-Friesen did) that “Type Valsømagle is spearheads like figs. 1-3”. Because that doesn’t tell the reader what characteristics specifically make those spearheads members of type Valsømagle. And it doesn’t tell the reader what sort of variation is permissible within the confines of the type you’re proposing.

So the reason that Andreas Oldeberg often couldn’t tell what type a well-preserved spearhead belonged to was that Jacob-Friesen’s classification scheme is completely flawed and contains no stringent type definitions. Oldeberg could see that a given spearhead looked kind of like the pictures of Jacob-Friesen’s “type” Bagterp, but he had no way of telling whether Jacob-Friesen would have accepted it as a member of the type. Because Jacob-Friesen’s work does not contain instructions for how to make that call.

Gobi Desert Romans Are Unfounded Speculation

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I’ve written before (123) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.

The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.

In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.

If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.

The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.

Failed Attempt To Use Aard For Anti-Cult Propaganda

I don’t like Falun Gong, which I regard as a crazy manipulative cult. And I don’t like the Chinese government, which I regard as a repressive capitalist dictatorship. These two organisations, in turn, hate each other. And it looks like someone in the Chinese government is trying to use me to disseminate anti-FG propaganda.

This morning I received two letters from people claiming to be FG members trying to convert me. Neither letter is very long. Both contain loudly racist statements about black people and “mix-blood”. It is a matter of public record that my wife is Chinese and that we have a child. So I guess the gamble here was that I’d be angered by the racism and publish an anti-FG screed quoting the letters.

FG’s prophet actually has made some racist statements, but they are peripheral ideas in the movement and certainly not something a FG proselytiser would shove in someone’s face when making a first contact. They’re religiously deluded, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.

One Stupid Geocacher

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Geocaching is a GPS-aided combination of hide the Easter egg and orienteering for internet nerds. I have logged >700 caches since 2005 and had lots of fun.

Borås Tidning now reports about a not terribly thoughtful geocacher. He had placed a cache in a space locked with a combination lock. Part of the puzzle was to figure out the combination. So far so good.

But.

The locked space was a sealed 650-meter utility tunnel excavated through bedrock for a sewage line at a depth of up to 10 meters below ground surface. And the sewage tends to leak hydrogen sulfide, which makes the tunnel a potentially lethal place to be unless you’re carrying a scuba-diving tank. And before locking the hatch to the tunnel with his combination lock, this geocacher removed a conventional padlock whose key was held by Mark municipality.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Update same evening: The kids who placed the cache have spoken to the newspaper, claiming that a) they found the hatch rusty and unlocked, and b) there was no sign suggesting that the tunnel was dangerous. Municipality staff do not challenge these statements, but contend that the kids should have understood that they were not allowed to enter the tunnel. As far as I can tell, there is no solid evidence for how dangerous the atmosphere in the tunnel really is.

Thanks to Niklas Krantz for the tip-off.

Fornvännen’s Autumn and Winter Issues On-line

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Is this part of the Stone of Mora?

After some issues with the image resolution in the PDFs, we’ve now put Fornvännen 2010:3-4 on-line. Read new research for free!

  • Middle Neolithic festival site in Scania
  • Roman bronze coinage found in the woods of northern Sweden
  • Roman mirror shard found on the coast of Western Bothnia
  • Pre-demolition documentation of a richly be-muralled Medieval church in SmÃ¥land produced in the 1820s
  • 1st millennium AD gardening
  • Thieves, counterfeiters and murderers in Birka
  • What happened to the Stone of Mora onto which Medieval Swedish kings were hoisted at their elections?

Charles Stross at EuroCon 2011

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Spent four hours at the EuroCon 2011 science fiction convention Sunday afternoon. That’s about enough for me. Though I love sf, and I’ve made a few appearances as speaker and panelist at cons, I’ve never really been part of sf fandom. It has always struck me as a strangely rearward-looking kind of futurism as Swedish sf fandom’s oft-recalled glory days occurred in the 70s. But there certainly is life in the movement still: this con was the biggest one ever in this country, with ~800 international participants.

I came mainly to hear Charles Stross do a reading. iPad in hand, he gave us an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Apocalypse Codex (July 2012). It will be the fourth of his “Laundry” series of Lovecraftian spy novels. This time Modesty Blaise gets the treatment. Here she parachuted onto the roof of the Schloss Neuschwanstein, broke in and was menaced by a finely described Hound of Tindalos. Then I enjoyed an interview with the fan Guest of Honour John-Henri Holmberg, and Guest of Honour Elizabeth Bear’s speech (another writer of fine Lovecraft homages) and humorous Q&A.

Holmberg said something that confirmed an old suspicion of mine. 40s, 50s and 60s sf fandom mainly consisted of young boys and men of various ages. Looking at pictures from gatherings of that era (suits, ties, brylcreem), I’ve been thinking “woah, that looks at least latently homoerotic”. And Holmberg said it was indeed so: a considerable number of the adult men, including the most famous of all US sf fans at the time, were very fond indeed of the fresh-faced younger fans, though Holmberg himself (father of five, thank you very much) did not partake.

Not the Big Chinese Power Dam

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The rivers run almost dry in Qingtian prefecture, Zhejiang province, China, because of recently built power dams. This particular dam on a tributary of the main river was completed three years ago. The resulting lake is 100 meters deep above the drowned villages on the valley floor.

And if they didn’t build these dams? Either burn coal, build more nuclear plants or stay an undeveloped nation.
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Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #254 (May) has a pretty funny 6-page feature by Spencer Smith of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. He claims to have found the site of a Surrey manor house that saw the birth of the last Prince of Wales who was actually an independent Welsh prince: Owain Lawgoch, Owain of the Red Hand (b. c. 1330, d. 1378). But reading the article, I found that it is actually a long piece of special pleading to explain why Smith did not find the desired remains on site! The whole thing was prompted by a TV documentary, where of course you have to put a spin on your non-results. Says Smith: “But where was the manor house? Before filming could begin, the site had to be found. … Funding was then provided by the series producers to research and direct an archaeological excavation.”

For years up until 1995, the fields of Church Farm in Tatsfield, Surrey, were metal-detected by amateurs. One of their finds is a 14th century horse harness pendant with Owain’s family crest. This was one indication used to place excavation trenches for the TV series (though it isn’t clear from the article with what sort of accuracy the object’s find spot is known). But: “there was a surprising absence of building material coming to light … heavily robbed-out foundation … some flint walling material … Some evidence for a made surface”. They didn’t even find Medieval nails! Some pottery can be dated exclusively to the 14th century though.

Here comes the best part. Having found very little, Spencer Smith argues that he was digging on the right spot but that the building had been meticulously taken apart and moved from the site, leaving few traces, because Owain was a politically dangerous character! This of course means that if in the future someone opens a test pit somewhere in a village with a historically documented presence of a Welsh prince and finds nothing, then they can claim to have found his manor house and expect Smith’s support for their view.

To my mind, the fieldwork results reported here suggest that the small excavation trenches were near but not in Medieval house foundations, with nothing to suggest that the houses’ owners or inhabitants were anywhere near princely status. The fieldwork results are in fact completely banal, and without the demand for a TV story, nothing would ever have been written about them.

If I were the editor of CA, I would have passed on this one.

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Current Archaeology #255 (June) has a long feature on a particularly irritating piece of 1990s symbolic determinism, viz the idea that Medieval castles were built more as idealised stage sets for aristocratic life than as fortifications. According to this school of thought, Medieval lords had castles built because they had been listening to poetry about what a lordly Medieval life was like, and thus wanted their own little Camelots. It surprises me to read this now, 15 years after the idea was really popular among hip theoretical archaeologists. (I first came across it regarding Glimmingehus in Scania.) And though the article documents that the real castles are indeed quite like the fictional ones, it does not offer any strong arguments to suggest that the fiction inspired the castles rather than the other way around. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to send troops wading across the artificial meres at Dunstanburgh.

Far more interesting is a piece about the Derbyshire hillfort of Fin Cop, where tiny excavations across the bank and moat have turned up evidence for a massacre in the 5th century BC – all women and children. If the density of war dead in the trenches is typical for the entire moat, then it contains dozens or hundreds of people. This has not seen before at similar sites, which may be due simply to the local geology – Fin Cop happens to be on a rare patch of rock that preserves bone. A previous consensus regarding a peaceful and ritual use for these sites may now have to be reconsidered. (On a proof-reading note, the blown-up quotation on p. 25 has been misedited to completely belie the gist of the article.)

And don’t miss Chris Catling’s understated criticism of the UK government’s “Big Society” political slogan on p. 48. “BS”…

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In Populär Arkeologi 2011:2, Anna Wessman reports on her recently defended doctoral thesis (on which my friend Howard Williams was the opponent) about the Levänluhta spring site in SW Finland. The spring is full of human bones and artefacts of the mid-1st millennium, and it has generally been considered as a sacrificial site. But Wessman shows that the actual artefact finds are typical of burial sites at the time. Levänluhta may simply be an unusual burial site, wet collective inhumation instead of the typical dry collective cremation. More fieldwork is on the way, and I will follow it with great interest. (Tarja Formisto’s 1993 PhD thesis about these bones contains something rather unusual: a piece of latter-day ethnic craniometry!)

Anne Westermark and Jimmy Axelsson Karlqvist report on another wet site with Iron Age human bones: in Motala, right around the famous Mesolithic deposits by River Motala ström. There are many Mesolithic human bones there too including skulls once raised on poles in a lake, but the new ones date from the 3rd or 4th century BC. Interesting indeed!

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Skalk 2011:2 has a good feature by my Academy boss Lars Larsson and Arne Sjöström on the bogs of Ringsjön, with pictures of two lovely and very rare Mesolithic finds. One is the bone head of a flint-edged fish spear in situ, only the bog chemistry has obliterated the bone: all that’s left are the flint microliths and the resin that glued them to the bone point. The other is the front end of a hazelwood arrow with microliths glued to it with resin – and this is the first time we get to see exactly how those microliths of various shape were used. Here, a lanceolate one formed the point and four triangular ones formed barbs. Carbon-dated to the Late Maglemosian, c. 7600 cal BC.

And I find this bit fascinating: the study of the Mesolithic lake settlements in these bogs is entirely dependent on industrial peat extraction, because they’re under >4 m of post-Neolithic bog peat! The Mesolithic scholars can only work where the machines have removed those meters of peat.