Dungeon Dudgeon Gudgeon Bludgeon

Dungeon: a massive inner tower in a Medieval castle or a dark usually underground prison or vault. Traceable back to Latin dominus, lord.

Dudgeon: a wood used especially for dagger hilts or a fit or state of indignation. Traceable back to Anglo-French digeon.

Gudgeon: a pivot or a small European freshwater fish (Gobio gobio, Sw. sandkrypare). Traceable back to Middle French goujon resp. Latin gobius.

Bludgeon: a short stick that usually has one thick or loaded end and is used as a weapon. Unknown origin, first known use 1730.

Thanks to Merriam-Webster.


Recent Archaeomags

i-1adad3a4c44d052143e9178665c4609e-263cover-228x300.jpgBritish Archaeology #122 (Jan/Feb) has a good feature on the origins of Roman London, presenting and collating evidence from excavations in the 90s and 00s for a military camp immediately post-dating the AD 43 invasion of Britain. The editors have slapped a silly headline on the thing though, playing up a short passage about human heads deposited in the Walbrook stream as if this were the main issue dealt with in the piece.

The unsigned last page discusses the important work of Raimund Karl (in The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice Oct 2011; read it on-line), who has compared the results of the English/Welsh and the Austrian legal attitude to metal detecting and other situations where members of the public make archaeological finds. In the former case, the Portable Antiquities Scheme encourages the public to report their finds voluntarily. It was instituted in 1997, and reporting immediately exploded in volume. Year after year the PAS is seeing an exponential increase in the number of reported finds, and it’s not just metalwork either: fieldwalking flint enthusiasts are also participating very actively. Meanwhile, Austria has put a tight lid on things: if you find anything you’re legally obliged to report it within two days, only archaeology graduates can dig, and only archaeology graduates with a licence can metal-detect. The result? Reporting of the finds that are always made went down and stayed down.

“The conclusion must be that when it comes to the practice of public archaeology, openness, co-operation and education trump suppression. The law-breaking, abusive minority of English and Welsh detectorists, however should be exposed and stopped. They poison the atmosphere for everyone.”

I’d like to add that law-abiding amateur archaeologists (with or without metal detectors) are not a problem that the discipline (grudgingly) must deal with. They represent an enormous resource in free labour, political clout and local knowledge that should be celebrated and made good use of. Archaeology and heritage management has incomparably better chances of reaching their goals with the public as participants than as spectators.

Archaeology Magazine #65:1 (Jan/Feb) has a great piece on underwater archaeology at the site of the naval Battle of the Egadi Islands off western Sicily in 241 BC. The Roman’s beat the Carthaginians here, but there are no shipwrecks to be seen on the sea floor: shipworm has eaten the wood and recent trawling has bulldozed what was left. Still, there is one find category that survives: large cast bronze objects, such as ship rams and helmets. And Florida-based non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation is locating and lifting these things with the aid of remotely operated subs. They have six of the huge rams now! And every one of them pinpoints a spot where either a ship went down or a ram was dropped after a collision. Few naval battles of the 2nd millennium AD are mapped to such precision.

On thing that takes me aback however is the ads. Advertisers are usually pretty savvy about who the target audience of a given media outlet is. You won’t see ads for home mortgages or cars on the Disney Channel. And the ads in Archaeology Magazine show clearly who reads the mag: people who might want to buy collectible coins, cruises in the Mediterranean, “The world’s simplest computer … designed for seniors”, running shoes that “defy aging”, simple-to-use stripped down cell phones, hearing aids, cultured pearl necklaces and staircase lifts. I wonder if the publishers expect the next generation of senior citizens to start subscribing when they retire, or if the mag will fold when the current readership kicks the bucket. It reminds me of when Skeptical Inquirer used to run an ad in every issue inviting readers to provide for CSICOP in their wills (are they still doing that?). Doesn’t give a very forward-looking impression.

In issue #263 (Feb) of Current Archaeology, one of my favourite pop-arch mags, is a piece on a great new find from the famous Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire: a silted-up river channel with six well-preserved Bronze Age canoes, a fish-weir and some sacrificed weaponry. The canoes were left in that river from about 1300 to 700 BC, which opens for several possibilities: it’s continuity either of everyday boat management, or of boat sacrifice, or (less likely) of where the natural waterflow liked to deposit stuff that floated downstream.

Likewise fascinating is a feature on Irish souterrains, secret underground stone-walled passages dug as refuges at ordinary farmsteads in the Viking Period. An early type allowed people to escape into the open air, but later they decided that it was better to simply crawl into the passage with your kids and a spear and stay there until the Vikings left, as if the passage was just a corridor-shaped cellar. The passages zig-zag and so it was impossible for people on the surface to find the end chambers where people were hiding at short notice. Similar passages occur in Pre-Roman Denmark a thousand years previously.

Opportunity Mars Rover Still Working After Eight Years


Dear Reader, remember the remote-controlled Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity? How long is it since the last time you thought of them? Opportunity landed on Mars eight Earth calendar years ago today, and it still works fine! Its mate Spirit was mobile on the Red Planet for over five years and then functioned as a stationary science platform for another year before getting killed off by a Martian winter it couldn’t avoid. Amazing engineering that keeps working year after year without a technician so much as touching it.

Oppy is now at Endeavour crater and will spend the Martian winter in a sunny spot (good for battery charging), studying an interesting outcrop (image above) named Greeley Haven after planetary geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011). Check out the project’s web site for news! And meanwhile, the Curiosity rover is cruising on towards Mars…

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How Is Energy Consumption Moderated In A Car?

Car question. When I turn on my windshield wipers, the energy for those two step motors comes from the battery. And it comes to the battery from the gas tank via the alternator. This means that if I drive with my wipers on, I will run out of gas sooner. But doesn’t the alternator constantly attempt to charge the battery? Where is the “switch” that allows the alternator to suck less energy out of the tank when I turn off my wipers? I imagine something like a bicycle dynamo that can be either on the wheel, imposing drag, or off the wheel.

Spring Travel & Speaking Schedule

  • 25-26 February. Blankaholm, Swedish East Coast archaeology conference, speaking about picture stones
  • 7-9 March. Danish Viborg, Bronze Age burial conference
  • 15-17 March. Paris, European Archaeological Council, Annual Meeting
  • 21 March. Stockholm, Senioruniversitetet / ABF, speaking about pseudoarchaeology
  • 24 March. Eskilstuna skeptics group, speaking about pseudoarchaeology
  • 16 April. VästerÃ¥s / Westeros, Senioruniversitetet, speaking about regional archaeology
  • 28 April. Gothenburg, Swedish Skeptics’ annual meeting, emcee
  • 5 May. Olofström, speaking about Harry Martinson
  • 18-20 May. Berlin, 6th World Skeptics’ Congress

Anybody want to meet up, gimme a shout!


It’s time we had a de-lurk around this here blog! The last one was a year ago. If you keep returning to this blog but rarely or never comment, you are a lurker, Dear Reader, and a most welcome one too.

Please comment on this entry and tell us something about yourself – like where you are, what your biggest passion is, what you’d like to see more of on the blog. And if you are a long-time lurker who has de-lurked before, re-de-lurks are much encouraged!

(Note that due to spam bots and a faulty filter, I have to moderate comments by hand, and so it may take a while for your comment to become visible.)

Rue Poirier de Narcay

When I was 16 in 1988 I spent a couple of days in Paris with a language school. I brought the address for a game store, one that advertised in White Dwarf magazine. It was on Rue Poirier de Narcay, which turned out not to be a central location, and so I never went there. But I’ve wondered off and on through the years about this funny street name, “The street of the pear tree of Narcay”.

And now, of course, the net can cure any idle wonderings in an instant. Turns out, the street is named for a medical doctor, Robert Poirier de Narcay, whose dissertation De l’ascite congénitale was published in 1884. It’s about congenital ascites, “abdominal dropsy”. In 1900 the doctor published the novel La Bossue, “The Hunchbacked Woman”, which was re-issued in 1980.

So, no pear tree outside the game store.

Skeptic’s Guide Interview

I’m on the latest instalment of the Skeptic’s Guide podcast talking about the Mora/Orsa electrophobia case and the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award. I also mention a bunch of upcoming European skeptics’ conventions, though Steve Novella cut out the bit where I recommended that the skeptical rogues grow mullet hair styles and mustaches for the Berlin meeting in May to honour the German porn industry.

(My previous interview with the SGU, about the Swedish Skeptics and weird archaeology, was almost four years ago! Time flies.)

Drugstore Misunderstanding About Saltpetre

Saltpetre, potassium nitrate, is added to food to give meat products a nicer colour. One winter in the 70s when we were living in Connecticut, my dad went to a New York drug store to buy saltpetre for our traditional Christmas ham. And the elderly druggist winked at him and said this odd thing.

“Hehe, it’s an old army trick!”

As my dad told us later that night, he had to ask what on Earth the guy meant. And then he learned that the druggist thought he was going to take the saltpetre as an anaphrodisiac, to decrease his sex drive. Supposedly the US armed forces did this as a matter of course to improve discipline and troop morale, adding saltpetre to the rations.

Now I find that this idea, that somehow stuck with me, is a widespread piece of unfounded folklore. Saltpetre does not decrease a man’s sex drive, and the armed forces have never added it to rations.

A few years later I learned, though, that you can mix saltpetre with sugar and make your own fireworks.