Jim’s Aard T-shirt Design

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Here’s the first t-shirt design suggestion, from Jim Allen/Sweeney! Says Jim, “The image could be printed in black or white on a contrasting shirt, or even in three colours – say, white for the eyes and trowel, tan for the outline and green for the lettering.” I’m thinking that the URL would go on the back.

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Student Labour Wasted at Ales Stenar

It’s that time of the year again when little usually happens and Sweden’s loudest and most aggressive amateur archaeologist likes to get in the news. As mentioned here before, Bob G. Lind has managed to get my otherwise respected colleague Wladyslaw Duczko to join him and dowsing-rod geologist N-A. Mörner for some fieldwork near a lovely standing-stone ship in Scania, the famous Ales stenar, built in the 7th century AD. Duczko’s involvement solved the problem previously alluded to here, that when local bodies give Bob funding for fieldwork, they’re betting on a horse that can’t actually get a fieldwork permit.

The merry three believe, against all dating evidence from this and similar sites, that the monument dates from the Bronze Age. They are digging with Duczko’s Polish students within sight of the stone ship, but not close enough to harm it. Nor, indeed, close enough for their results to have any relevance for the dating and functional interpretation of the monument. They’re on a spot where there’s faint remains of a trackway down the erosion scarp above the seashore. Such an erosion scarp moves inland over the centuries. This means that the stone ship was much farther from the sea when it was built than it is now.

The placement of the track is contingent on where the scarp is currently located, and so the track can’t be very old. But Duczko & Co assume that the track was used to pull the stones to the site of the ship. So they want to date the track. If they can date it to a period before the Late Iron Age, their reasoning goes, then this will date the stone ship. This is really lame. Even if the track were Mesolithic in date, even if it were early post-glacial, then nothing would keep people in the Late Iron Age from plonking a monument down on or near the track. And there is nothing to suggest that the stones of the ship were really brought up the scarp along the track.

So what has the fieldwork shown? Touchingly, Duczko & Co emphasise that they have not found anything to date the track to the 1st millennium AD, as if this were an important result. Have they, then, been able to date it to the Bronze Age? No. The track remains undated and functionally unrelated to the stone ship.

I feel really sorry for the students who waste their time on this project. Scania is an extremely rich archaeological province, and there are so many amazing sites where these young people could contribute to new exciting discoveries, make useful contacts and learn something. Instead they’ve been lured onto a pointless dig devised by a crank with whom not one Scanian archaeologist is willing to collaborate.

The TT news agency called me about this and wrote a nicely understated treatment that made it into various papers: DN, SvD, GP. They got one thing wrong though. I didn’t say that every known large stone ship has been dated with radiocarbon. I said that those that have been dated thus have given consistent late-1st millennium dates.

Aard T-Shirts? Help Needed!

A company has offered to sponsor Aard with 15-30 free printed t-shirts bearing the design of my choice, delivered to a US address. I’d like to accept their offer, and so I need help from my readers.

1. I need a hi-res design to put on the shirt. I only have the blog’s venerable masthead as a lo-res file, and the anonymous artist who made it four years ago doesn’t reply to email on their old address. If you want to submit a design, please write me for info on how to go about it.

2. I need a regular commenter based in the US who is willing to take delivery of the t-shirts and send them on to their destinations on my dollar.

My current idea about how to share the shirts around is to give two each to the people who help with the task as detailed above, ten to the most active commenters of the past year, and then organise a lottery for the remainder among any readers who sign up. (Don’t sign up yet, that comes later.)

Update 22 August: I’ve selected a design by Joseph Hewitt.


And by the way, I’m on Google+ now if you want to follow me there.

I hate that expression. Actually, I’m on Google+ regardless of whether you want to follow me there or not. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s like the inexplicable Swedish preface to saying something, Jag kan säga att si och sÃ¥, “Well, I can say that blah blah blah”. I always reply “Great, feel free to do so!”. Another logic peeve is “All X are not Y”, when what people really mean is “Not all X are Y”.

LOGIC, PEOPLE! ALWAYS SPEAK IN A MANNER THAT COULD BE PARSED BY A COMPILER! AND FEEL FREE TO USE PARENTHESES TO DELIMIT THE SCOPE OF MODIFIERS AND SUBCLAUSES!

Norway’s McVeigh Murders

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening on Twitter and news sites, following the information that came out of Norway about the terrorist attacks. At current count, a madman has murdered 87 people, most of them teens he mowed down with an automatic rifle, and injured a similar number.

The killer targeted the Norwegian Labour party and is an Islamophobic opponent of a multi-cultural society. I am a Labour voter and a member of a multi-cultural family. People of 70 nationalities live in my neighbourhood. The ancestry of my friends is all over the map. I always keep chicken meatballs in my freezer because several friends of my daughter have Muslim parents.

When it comes to violence like this, the question of sanity becomes moot. The act is all the diagnose we need. Most people who share the 22 July killer’s opinions never harm anyone, because they are not insane. All we can really do is try to keep guns and explosives out of the hands of madmen. It’s akin to installing a lightning rod on your roof.

All those bereaved people. All those traumatised hundreds of Labour Youth campers. So sad and pointless.

The Nightmare World of P.G. Wodehouse

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Of late I have spent some time in the nightmare world of P.G. Wodehouse, reading his 1946 novel Joy in the Morning.* Written though it was after WW2, it is set in a timeless travesty of pre-WW1 England. Much of the humour, as you will know, revolves around the interplay between the mentally challenged Bertram Wooster and his manservant Jeeves who possesses Holmes-like intelligence and enormous erudition.

Wooster is about 30 and independently wealthy. He spends much of his time at gentleman’s clubs, when not getting snagged in extremely contrived intrigues that usually involve people blackmailing him to do embarrassing things. Women are immensely powerful and threatening beings in this world, whether they are forbidding aunts or the 20ish girls of which Wooster and his friends keep finding themselves semi-unwilling fiancés. Sex isn’t mentioned, though implied, and these girls of good family come across at the same time as heading straight for an early marriage and as man-crazed polyamorists. Matrimony is like unto death.

People’s motivations (at least in this late novel) are so unrealistic that the whole story seems surreal and dream-like. Hapless Wooster is shunted from one sticky situation to another, being saved by Jeeves or some coincidence, until a suitable book-length text is on the table.

Toward the end of Joy in the Morning, for instance, Wooster has been forced for the second time into betrothal to young Lady Florence and is too afraid of her to tell her “no”. He has previously written a drunken letter to a friend where he enumerates Florence’s many unattractive traits. This friend now offers to show the letter to Florence, thus letting Wooster off the marital hook, if he will only perform an embarrassing task.

Wooster must attend a fancy dress ball wearing a policeman’s uniform stolen from Florence’s former fiancé, who has threatened to put Wooster in jail. The motive for this demand is murky, as all Wooster is required to do at the ball is a) encourage his uncle (who needs to be there for a secret business meeting but is embarrassed about the setting), b) recommend his friend to the uncle so that the friend may marry a girl some months before her 21st birthday instead of after that date. And why Wooster goes along with the scheme against his will is even harder to understand, since he could easily get drunk and write another unflattering letter about Lady Florence. Or simply tell her “Sorry, but I refuse to marry you”. Jeeves would know that. But needless to say, Wooster gets off the betrothal hook again in the end. And the book is a pretty entertaining read between the spots of agonising embarrassment.

* A fresh copy of the first UK printing of 1947, no less. I wonder how it ended up at the Stockholm Archipelago Museum’s summer rummage sale.

Sacrificial Finds in the Late Bronze Age Local Landscape

Since the autumn of 2009, I’ve spent most of my research efforts studying sacrificial finds in the Bronze Age local landscape. I was thus pleasantly surprised (though a little disappointed because I missed the whole thing) when I learned that there had been a symposium on the theme “Sacrificial finds in the Late Bronze Age local landscape” at the museum in Viborg, Jutland, in March last year. Recently, only about a year after the event, a fine proceedings volume (104 pp., A4 format, 2-column text, colour printing) was published, and I was kindly sent a copy for review here on Aard.

The volume contains seven papers ranging in length from 5 to 26 pages. All deal with the Danish Late Bronze Age. Three don’t actually say much about sacrificial finds, but concentrate on other aspects of the landscape (mainly traffic routes, graves and assembly sites with many cooking pits) and mention the sacrificial deposits only briefly in relation to these. The shortest paper is a poorly referenced contribution by a revered senior scholar who mainly opines on why the metalwork deposits were made and says little about their landscape situation. This leaves three solid papers for me to comment on that fit the volume’s title and are relevant to my own work.

The longest paper, by Martin Mikkelsen, takes the FÃ¥rdal find as its point of departure. This large mixed bronze hoard from central northern Jutland dates from about 800 BC and is mainly known for a handful of rare and intriguing figurines that may once have adorned a ceremonial ship model, as depicted in the period’s rock art. Railroad workers found it in 1926, and Hans Kjær commented in Aarbøger 1927 that the site appeared to have a peripheral location: “The manner of deposition seems to emphasise the general trait that gifts to a deity are placed at spots where no-one goes.”

Mikkelsen recounts the results of excavations and collections since Kjær’s time and shows that he was quite wrong. The deposit was actually buried on one of the aforementioned assembly sites with many cooking pits, and within a few kilometres are several others of the same kind as well as coeval burial sites, settlements and sacrificial deposits. This brings the location of the Lilla Härnevi hoard to mind, that was buried about 500 BC on a probably recently abandoned very large settlement site in Uppland.

Lifting his gaze, Mikkelsen proceeds to look at five other sacrificial finds in their landscape situations. This is where it gets really interesting to me, as I’m interested in the generalities here, in “landscape rules”. And sadly, Mikkelsen concludes,

“The picture that emerges from this attempt is ‘motley’. … By extension from these results, we must conclude that those sacrificial finds that have been found ‘near’ assembly sites [with many cooking pits] display such variation that we cannot operate with any simple relationship between sacrificial finds and assembly sites.” (pp. 57-58)

In other words, the situation at FÃ¥rdal cannot be generalised, and though Mikkelsen’s study collects lots of interesting information about six individual sacrificial sites in their landscapes, it does not arrive at results applicable to the entire class of sites. Nevertheless, it’s an honest attempt and a good paper.

*

In 2008, Lise Frost defended a PhD thesis on the landscape situation of Late Bronze Age metalwork deposits in the Himmerland (Cimmeria!) region of northern Jutland. Her contribution to the book is an 11-page summary of that unpublished work, with particular reference to four areas with evidence for repeated depositions. She sees a recurring (though far from universal) preference for bogs next to prominent hills, and for the vicinity of fords and probable road corridors, concluding in her summary,

“… depositions must be seen as an aspect of the spatial structure of a settlement complex. Centrality in this way can be connected to concentrations of hoard finds in areas significant for rituals. Areas, that can also lie close to important lines of transport and communication.” (p. 71)

This contact with settlement is something I see as well in the Lake Mälaren provinces of Sweden.

*

Martin Mikkelsen returns with five pages about a fine bronze sword of c. 1000 BC found in 1930 near Rødding, Rødding hundred, in central northern Jutland. The find spot has long been misidentified in the literature as a parish with the same name in another nearby hundred. Now Mikkelsen has re-identified the spot with great accuracy and gives it the same thorough treatment as he did the Fårdal find. There is settlement nearby, but possibly centuries later, and the spot is a nondescript and rather steep slope below the spot of a destroyed barrow. Mikkelsen argues, quite well IMHO, that this find is likely to be a non-ritual deposition intended for retrieval. But we can never know.

*

It really isn’t good enough for archaeology to continue sitting around waiting for the public to locate Bronze Age sacrificial sites, then look at each one in isolation as an interesting anecdote. We need to take a general look at the landscape situations involved, like Martin Mikkelsen and Lise Frost do, so that when someone makes a new find we can say “This is an expected spot” or “This is unusual”. And more importantly, we need to build models so that when given a piece of landscape to study, we can point to a spot on the map and say, “This is the most likely spot for a Bronze Age sacrifice”. The symposium publication discussed here contains much food for thought to anyone interested in this work.

Annual thematic symposia on Late Bronze Age landscape archaeology are planned to continue at Viborg and Holstebro museums until 2016. The next one, on burial, will take place in Viborg on 8 March 2012.


Boddum, S. et al. (eds). 2011. Depotfund i yngre bronzealderens lokale kulturlandskab. Yngre bronzealders kulturlandskab vol. 1. Viborg Stiftsmuseum & Holstebro Museum. ISBN 978-87-87272-94-0. [Order the book from Martin Mikkelsen.]

Swedish Pyramidologist

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Pyramidology“, says Wikipedia, “is a term used, sometimes disparagingly, to refer to various pseudoscientific speculations regarding pyramids, most often the Giza Necropolis and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.” The encyclopedia goes on to explain that there are several kinds of pyramidology that do not necessarily correspond, one of which is the metrological kind, where the dimensions of these great edifices are studied. In the archaeological trade, we sometimes (uncharitably) refer to writings of this kind as “pyramidiocy”.

In late March I got a call from Lars Lison Almkvist who has self-published a book titled Cheopspyramidens nyckel, “The Key to Khufu’s Pyramid”. Almkvist explained that he contacted me in my capacities as skeptic and archaeologist, and offered to send me a copy of the book. I emphasised that I know very little about Egypt, but accepted his kind offer. And now I have studied the book and come to some conclusions.

Before I say anything about the book I must underline that Lars Almkvist has been unfailingly courteous and friendly to me. He has also shown great courage and good scientific sense in sending his work to an avowed skeptic instead of preaching only to the choir. When I criticise his book, this is in no way intended as comments on him as a person. We may disagree on points of archaeological fact and interpretation, but we share an interest in the distant past and a will to find out about it.

Approaching the book, I immediately reacted to the title, the subtitle and the first sentence of the preface. I translate:

The Key to Khufu’s Pyramid
The solution of the geometrical riddle

As a lone interpreter of the ancient geometrical language, I must be strictly scientific.

I asked myself, “Why does Almkvist believe that the Great Pyramid hides a geometrical riddle that awaits its solution or a message that awaits decoding?”

As regular readers will know, I have helped my dad on and off to build an octagonal sauna. A considerable amount of 3D geometry went into its design. But I am quite sure that my dad and the architect have hidden no riddle in the sauna. Sadly, the Rundkvist lineage does not perpetuate any ancient tradition of sacred geometry. The sauna’s design conceals no message. And sauna or pyramid, it’s all architecture. So I entered into the book with this question foremost in my mind.

We learn in the preface and introduction that Almkvist’s pyramid geometry is actually a recent outgrowth of his interest in an Early Iron Age cemetery at Gettlinge in the Swedish island province of Öland. This is a standing-stone cemetery of the same kind as the one in Ravlunda, Scania, that Bob G. Lind has been seeking alignments in. Almkvist applied his results from Gettlinge to Bronze Age rock art sites in nearby parts of the Swedish mainland, found correspondences with Babylonian mathematics, and only then took up pyramidology by way of the Fibonacci series. He finds the same mathematical relationships in all of these sites though separated by centuries or millennia and thousands of kilometres. In his reading, he has come across ideas that he has felt a need to accommodate about an Early Iron Age settlement hiatus on Öland. (This interpretation has long been abandoned by archaeology – we have found that the hiatus is one of furnished burial only, not of settlement.) To explain how the geometrical knowledge survived this purported abandonment, Almkvist suggests in a true Bob G. Lind fashion that the Gettlinge cemetery actually dates from the Bronze Age.

With these preliminaries out of the way, Almkvist launches into 40 pages of geometrical operations on the dimensions of the pyramid, explicated by over 50 schematic drawings. In his own words (p. 3, my transl.), “The very detailed scientific account is only comprehensible if one devotes a very long time to all of the drawings, c. 50 of them.”

I have not devoted a very long time to all of the drawings. But I have looked them over in the light of my high-school geometry, and I have tried to find the answer to my first question. I have failed. Nowhere does Almkvist tell his readers why he assumes a riddle or hidden message in the Great Pyramid’s geometry. And it is also unclear what the answer he has found to the riddle is. We are never told the hidden message. All Almkvist gives us is a series of geometrical relationships that he finds significant. His main argument can be summarised as “Coincidence? I DON’T THINK SO!”.

To my mind, Almkvist’s pyramidological studies are a classic case of geometrical pareidolia, apophenia or patternicity. They are akin to the Kabbalah, to the Bible Code, to the Rorschach Test, to the meanings people find in hallucinations. Our brains are not very willing to accept that anything is random or meaningless. We seek meaning in any noisy signal – and often we find it. Watch a cloud for long enough and it will start looking like Ramesses II.

So as a friendly challenge to Lars Almqvist, I have sent him the designs of my father’s octagonal sauna, and a question. We know that the builders of the sauna are counting in base-10 and using a standard metre as their main unit of measurement. Is it impossible or very difficult to find geometrical relationships in the sauna of the same kind as those Almkvist operates with on the Great Pyramid? If it turns out that it is equally hard or easy, then this would to my mind suggest that the relationships Almkvist has found in the pyramid are quite fortuitous.

Neal Stephenson’s Subterranean Orgy Computer

i-5af72ea42f63ed1ac1b839434c847345-diamondage.jpgNeal Stephenson is an unusually inventive writer of historical and futuristic fiction. I have previously reviewed his 2008 novel Anathem here. And somehow I have now come to think of one of his weirdest ideas: the subterranean orgy computer in The Diamond Age.

This 1995 book bursts with far-out motifs and ideas, to the extent that I can’t say I really understood everything very well when reading it back then. I found the ending confusing and dissatisfying, possibly because I wasn’t entirely clued in to what happened or what it meant. But I did get this about the subterranean Drummer subculture. They’re a human computer cluster.

Every Drummer is infected with nanocomputers, microscopic smart particles that run code and talk to each other as well as to the bodily information networks of their host – importantly the brain. This overrides the host’s own consciousness, making each Drummer a mindless slave to their nanoparticles. Each one of them is in themself a walking computing cluster. Here’s when one of the novel’s main characters has been infected with the nano and enters a Drummer tunnel complex.

He could see the nanosites [nano parasites] in his skin. But for all he knew, he might have a million more living in his brain now, piggybacking on axons and dendrites, sending data to one another in flashes of light. A second brain intermingled with his own.

There was no reason that information could not be relayed from one such nanosite to another, through his body and outward to the nanosites in his skin, and from there across the darkness to others. What would happen when he came close to other people with similar infestations?

pp. 250-251, 1996 Bantam paperback edition

This suggests that whenever the nano in one Drummer wants to talk to those in other bodies, it can just blink its LEDs at them. But apparently this doesn’t provide enough bandwidth. So Stephenson introduces his computing orgy: the Drummers exchange nanites with each other by sexual intercourse. As punishment for a crime, our protagonist spends ten years semi-conscious in the Drummer tunnels, apparently crawling about and bonking whoever the nano deems appropriate. This is pretty risky, as the nano has severe cooling problems and fries hosts when the computation gets intense enough. Pretty silly in my opinion – why not just exchange saliva? – and it prompts a gratuitous mindless gang-bang scene that the novel would have been better without. But for better or worse, I must say that the Drummers are one of the most memorable motifs in this intriguing novel.

Kalv’s Runestone

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Driving through Hagby parish in Uppland on a tiny road Friday, I was lucky enough to cross the bridge at Focksta right at the moment when the afternoon sun hit this lovely runestone straight on. I didn’t even have to get out of the car to take the photograph.

Dating from the early 11th century, the stone is an unsigned work of Åsmund KÃ¥resson (U 875). It’s unusual in that it has a couple of Bronze Age cupmarks too. The inscription reads, “Tyrvi and Ingegärd and Tjälve had this stone erected after Kalv, Tyrvi’s husband. May God and God’s mother help his spirit.”

Note the cross and the prayer. Did you know that a huge majority of the runic inscriptions date from after the Christianisation of Scandinavia? The neo-Pagans should do their scrying in Roman capitals instead.