Boggy Test Pit


In the Lake Mälaren area of Sweden, you rarely find any large pieces of Bronze Age metalwork in graves or at settlement sites. When the beautiful larger objects occur – axe heads, spear heads, swords, neck rings, belt ornaments – they almost exclusively come from odd find contexts that I for one feel comfortable with terming sacrificial deposits. My current main project aims to find out the rules that decided where people made sacrificial deposits. This entails looking at the finds we already know of and trying to trace the find spots, which is difficult as most finds were made about 1900 by members of the public. This strange time framing has to do with the fact that most of the sacrifices were made in wetlands, and the wetlands of the Lake Mälaren area were mainly messed with by the public during the decades to either side of 1900.

I want to be able to predict where these sites are and dig them in their untouched state, thus helping to reinvigorate a field of study that has languished for lack of new data for half a century.

This far into my studies, I’m not very optimistic about finding any useful regularities regarding the dry land sacrifices. They are a minority of the finds, and dry land occupies a great majority of the area involved. I’m afraid that any rules I may be able to propose will be too vague to tell me where to dig. But with wetlands, it may be another thing. Far more finds and a far smaller percentage of the area.

In the past weeks I have finished primary data collection on the known finds and run some simple numbers. Looking at finds that are at least potentially from wetlands by parish, Skogs-Tibble near Uppsala leads the field. And a closer look showed me that the numbers represent a belt of finds scattered through three parishes, from Österunda through Skogs-Tibble to Vänge, with some peripheral occurrences in parishes to the sides. So at this point in the evolution of my model, it’s basically like this:

Look in the Skogs-Tibble scatter. In wetlands. About 1.5 km from burnt mounds and rock-art sites.

And that’s what I did Friday. Near the site scatter’s centre of mass is an oblong lake basin in Skogs-Tibble that has steadily been silting up since getting cut off from the Baltic some time in the Neolithic (current surface 37 m a.s.l.). Only at the centre is there still a small area of open water, while the rest is all bog. In 1891, someone found a bronze flanged-axe head of c. 1400 BC while digging at an unspecified point in the eastern half of the basin. Most likely the digging had something to do with drainage, that is, reclaiming strips of dry land along the basin’s edges to improve forestry. I fought through the undergrowth at the basin’s edge, had a look around, and then settled for a spot to sink a test pit.

You’ll have to understand that I’m pretty new to wetland archaeology, which has never been a big pastime among my colleagues in the region. We don’t really have a tradition. Opening that test pit was a first step for me in learning about how these places really look under the spongy ground surface. And I made a stupid mistake that I could have saved myself if I had remembered what I learned while digging at Djurhamn and Finnestorp in recent years. Maybe you’ll laugh at me, but anyway:

A lake basin is usually deepest at the centre. And my pit was almost as near the centre of this basin as I could get without diving into the lake. I had to remove 1.5 metres of finely layered Phragmites australis reed-root peat before I reached open-water sediment. When I was finished, that pit was deeper than my wife is tall, and it was surrounded by an embankment of turves. And I was grimy from head to toe.

So, what did I learn? Well, in the reed peat were a few well-preserved (though very soft) sticks and other pieces of wood that showed no sign of human modification. They suggest drier woodland episodes. I only went beneath the peat on a 0.5 sqm surface, stooping in the shaft. There was no identifiable organic lake sediment, just a thin layer of coarse sand and sharp-edged gravel, then clean grey glacial clay that was laid down long before the Bronze Age. No artefacts. The spot has been a reed belt for thousands of years, probably since before the basin became landlocked.

Next time I’ll spend comparable labour digging several shallower pits instead, closer to the respective basin’s edge where the sediment pillar above the Bronze Age level is lower. Live & learn.


People Messhall Pickled Cabbage


My wife’s from Zhejiang province, and so is this can of pickled cabbage that she bought yesterday. I like the label a lot. It’s not quite Engrish: of course, we would say “people’s mess hall”, but the Chinese characters actually denote an extremely basic canteen-like eatery. A mess hall, a canteen, maybe a refectory; very latter-day Maoist. It’s a correct translation.

I endorse the pickled cabbage of the Chun’an Qiandaohu Nongxing Food Co., Ltd.. It is by far good enough to be served not only in mess halls.

Where Trolls Deloused Themselves of Old

Skogs-Tibble parish near Uppsala is unusually rich in Bronze Age sacrificial finds, so I’m looking closer at it for some future fieldwork. And I found an awesome site in the Sites & Monuments Register, Raä Skogs-Tibble 93:3:

Skrubbstenen [The Scrubbing Stone]. Boulder with oral tradition, granite, c. 4 by 4 m a side … According to Ivar Hall, 80 years old, of SÃ¥gstennäs, his maternal grandfather told him that trolls used to scrub and delouse themselves against the inward-sloping side of the boulder in the two cavities there.

Welcome the SciAm Bloggers


Scientific American has opened a blog portal, poaching a number of excellent erstwhile SciBlings and other blog buddies of mine! Head on over and greet

Oh, and by the way. PZ Myers says he’s probably going to leave Sb soon. And with him goes a huge chunk of our community’s casual inter-blog spillover traffic. Not good.

No Sign of Cleopatra

i-ae543b86671b97dc989e70baf4088b95-a05b.gifI suddenly have this unaccountable urge to comment on the current issue of National Geographic Magazine. Maybe that isn’t so strange. I mean, after all, I like reading the mag and I’m on record as saying, in the Swedish Skeptics quarterly no less, that my ideal museum exhibition would be a 3D version of a Nat Geo feature story. Though I wonder if that’s the only reason. Well, anyway:

Nat Geo covers quite a bit of archaeology, usually of the same Great Civilisations and Opulently Furnished Tombs of Antiquity kind that we meet with in more specialised international pop-archaeomags such as Current World Archaeology. Thus, in the July issue, we find a feature by Chip Brown on the tomb of Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She was born in 69 BC, ascended to the throne at age 18, ruled successfully for two decades, and committed suicide for political reasons at age 39 in 30 BC. The study of her time is historical archaeology in Egypt, while Sweden where I work wasn’t even mentioned briefly in writing until the century following hers.

Cleopatra is said to have killed herself in a tomb stuffed with riches after Octavian’s successful invasion put an end to Egyptian independence. But nobody knows where the tomb was located. The most energetic of the people involved in the search is one Kathleen Martinez, a non-archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, who comes across as quite obsessive in the feature piece. She thinks the tomb may be somewhere at Taposiris Magna, a not very well-known city of Cleopatra’s time.

Why there? Because it had a cult of Osiris and Isis, which was not uncommon, and because Cleopatra used the imagery of Osiris and Isis in her propaganda, and… Well… Because Martinez has a hunch.

Has any evidence supporting her ideas surfaced in five seasons of fieldwork? No.

I think this is a pretty ridiculous story for Nat Geo to run.