Old Uppsala: Big Dig, Standing Stone Alignments

Major excavations are taking place in Old Uppsala because of railway work. Old Uppsala was a political, religious and mercantile centre from about AD 600 to 1274. In fact it may be termed the central place of the Swedes – tribe and kingdom – during those centuries.

My friend, author Kristina Ekero Eriksson, is the fieldwork’s outreach officer and keeps a blog. So far there hasn’t been much to report beyond what you might expect on a contract excavation in the region, but now some interesting stuff is popping up. How about some long lines of regularly spaced stone-filled pits? They’re in the big field south of the Royal Barrows, and they look like they once held standing stones like the ones along the ancient road at the Anundshög barrow in the neighbouring province. Huge Late Iron Age barrows and roads lined with standing stones… Now all we need are the foundations of some good stone ships at Old Uppsala to complete the picture of a Viking Period royal centre!

Pit alignments south of the Royal Barrows

And where are the standing stones now? They were long gone by the 17th century. Well, soon after Christianisation a cathedral was built in Old Uppsala, most of which was then torn down and, unless I’m mistaken, sent downstream on rafts to build the current Uppsala cathedral.


The Changing Fortunes of a Labour Monument

Vår Gård in Saltsjöbaden is a conference venue and training centre whose history illustrates political trends in Sweden over the past century and more.

1892. The Thiel brothers, two of Sweden’s wealthiest art patrons, buy a property by the sea in the new fashionable resort of Saltsjöbaden and build two luxurious summer mansions. They name the place Vår Gård, “Our Farmstead”.

1899. The Swedish Cooperative Union is founded.

1924. The Cooperative Union buys Vår Gård and adds a number of buildings to the property to house its new training centre and its art collection.

1932. Sweden’s first Labour government is elected.

1944. “The Rochdale Monument”, a large gate-like stone memorial by sculptor Nils Sjögren, is placed in a peripheral spot overlooking the sea at Vår Gård to mark the centennial of the founding of the world’s first co-op at Rochdale in England.

1950. Mot framtiden, “Towards the Future”, another sculpture by Sjögren, is erected in a dominant position at the entrance to the property. This heavy larger-than-life granite social-realist piece depicts a working-class couple and their children in a typical Stalinist / Maoist fashion, gazing steadily towards the horizon.

1976. Labour loses its first election since 1932.

"Towards the Future", Nils Sjögren 1950, current placement, note dumpster

The Cooperative Union has in recent years turned Vår Gård from a training centre into a commercial conference venue, hotel and spa. It’s a very non-co-op place these days. And somewhere along the line – ten years ago perhaps? – they decided that a brutal granite Stalin family might not be the best representatives to welcome the businesspeople who come to Vår Gård for conferences and spa workovers. So they had the piece moved out of the way. It currently sits off to one side, hidden by trees from the sea it faces, next to a parking lot with a dumpster. Towards the Future, indeed. But the dedication plaque is still on the original plinth at the entryway, suggesting confusingly that what the Cooperative Union erected there in 1950 was an ornate lamp post.

This kind of life history for a piece of sculpture is a post-modern archaeologist’s wet dream. And me? Though I admire Sjögren’s technique, I think it’s a pretty damn ugly piece of work.

The sculpture's original plinth

Students Decide Archaeology’s Geographical Coverage

Following up on Saturday’s entry on the bleak prospects for many UK archaeology departments, I’d like to share a remark made by a senior colleague a few years back.

All archaeological research covers a certain area of the world. What parts get covered is largely decided by 19-year-old non-archaeologists.

The mechanism is simple. For reasons of convenience and economy, most academic archaeologists study the region where their workplace is located. Regardless of any on-going research, an academic department is dependent on students for its livelihood. Therefore, if students avoid a department, then it will have to close, and archaeological research into that part of the world will cease.

The example my colleague pointed to was Umeå in northern Sweden (c. lat. N 64°). Our population is concentrated in the country’s southern third. Umeå has (after the short life of the Östersund department) the only archaeology department in the northern two thirds. Rumours about its imminent demise have been circulating for years, and it hasn’t advertised an open position in the past decade. If this department were to be closed down, Uppsala (c. lat. N 60°) would once again be Sweden’s northernmost archaeology department. But Sweden extends to c. lat. N 69°! And whose call is it? The National Science Council’s? The Ministry of Education’s? Yes, to some degree. But largely it is up to Sweden’s 19-year-old non-archaeologists. If they choose to study the subject in Umeå, academic research into the archaeology of northern Sweden will continue.

Tech Note: Comment Moderation Is Glitchy

Aard has a persistent problem after the migration of Sb to WordPress. Every day up to a couple of hundred comments spontaneously get “reported” and become invisible. This mostly hits old entries but also some of the newer ones. So don’t despair if your comment shows up on the site briefly and then disappears. Nobody’s out to get you. I check the list often and re-approve the erroneously hidden comments.

UK Archaeology Departments Face Sustainability Crisis

As noted here three years ago, UK contract archaeology is in a deep slump where hundreds of archaeologists have been laid off and a number of excavation units have closed shop. Those experienced and well-connected field archaeologists who got the sack didn’t evaporate: many of them are still out there waiting for the job market to improve.

Now, in Current Archaeology #268, Mark Horton (prof. arch. Bristol) warns about “an oncoming archaeological crisis in universities”. After an all-time high in the 90s and mid-00s, UK archaeology student admittance numbers have declined steadily:

1996: 704
2005: 681
2011: 511
2012: 450 (projected)

This has taken place without the impetus of any changes to the student funding system. The figures basically describe the passing of a media fad, with Horton attributing the peak to Time Team’s mid-90s popularity. But starting in October, UK universities will raise their term fees sharply due to a recent political measure. There are currently about 28 archaeology departments according to Horton’s estimate. Marginal ones are now gravely endangered, it appears. (For an idea of which ones will close first, check this ranking list that many students use.)

What then is Horton’s advice? In his opinion, the best way forward is to market archaeology as a fun subject that will give you useful secondary skills. We should tell students to study archaeology without any expectation of working as archaeologists. He may be right: that might be the best chance those 28 departments have. But it’s not a good one. As I always say, employers usually have their pick of people with useful primary skills.

If you take a larger view of these developments, though, you’ll find that the upcoming employment crisis in university archaeology is not a major social ill. It affects a few hundred teachers. University departments are not there primarily for the students, nor for the teachers, nor for the well-being of academic subjects in abstract. They are there to serve the societal machine’s needs of specialised parts. And making far more spare parts than society needs is poor resource management. From the individual’s point of view, meanwhile, it is of course also deeply damaging to be lathed into a part that never gets slotted into its place in the machine – witness my own periodical whining on this blog.

Update 5 July: The Birmingham department is being closed down. So far no explanation has been offered to the public.

Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

With Fornvännen’s summer issue on its way from the printers to subscribers, we have published the full contents of last winter’s issue on-line (2011:4). This is one of the rare cases where no women have contributed papers, but it’s good stuff anyway.

  • Robin Lindblad on why axes were depicted on Bronze Age rock carvings.
  • Michael Schneider on the landscape / societal background to Broby place names.
  • Helmer Gustavson & J.O.H. Swantesson give three newish runic inscriptions with the early futhark the full philological treatment.
  • Andreas Wiberg & Anders Wikström on geophys mapping of a Sigtuna monastery.
  • Anders Nord & Kate Tronner on the pigments used by Medieval mural painters in Sweden.
  • Robin Gullbrandsson on dendro dates that prove a Småland tithes barn to be Sweden’s oldest standing wooden building.
  • Per-Axel Wiktorsson on who wrote the Chronicle of Duke Erik, the oldest narrative source on the Swedish Middle Ages.
  • Christian Lovén on previously disregarded written sources regarding the arm position of Medieval burials.
  • Immo Trinks & Anders Biwall on what a lightning strike site looks like on a magnetometry map.
  • Book reviews.

The Huskvarna Drug

Recently while reading Mats Keyet’s 2000 biography of Swedish beat novelist Sture Dahlström, I came across the sad story of the Huskvarna drug. It killed Dahlström’s father and many others.

In 1961 Dr. Hjorton’s powder was made a prescription drug. This measure was of no great consequence anywhere except in Huskvarna, a small single-company industrial town on Lake Vättern. To Americans, it’s probably mostly known for the old Husqvarna motor bike brand. In the mid-1950s the company doctor realised that Dr. Hjorton’s powder was not only dependency-forming but in fact caused lethal kidney damage when taken too often and for too long. Workers at the Huskvarna factory had been taking it regularly even when not ill. They were in fact chemically dependent on a lethal drug. But outside of Huskvarna, few had even heard of Dr. Hjorton or his drug. What had happened here?

The powder was no patent medicine: its composition was known and it was made at the local druggist’s. The ingredients of a dose were:

  • A pain killer and fever reducer: 500 mg phenacetin (Now known to cause cancer and kidney damage)
  • Another pain killer and fever reducer: 500 mg phenazone
  • A stimulant: 100 mg caffeine

Herman Hjorton opened his medical practice in Huskvarna in 1903, the year of his graduation and the year when the gun factory expanded into motorcycles. He was 34 and had sensed an opportunity in the expansive little town. Hjorton was the town’s first doctor and he soon got a reputation for diligence, compassion and approachability, making house calls at all hours. In 1906 a drug store opened in Huskvarna and Hjorton moved his home and practice to the same building.

In 1918 the Spanish flu pandemic struck: an aggressive influenza that often caused lethal pneumonia, particularly in young and strong people. Medicine at the time had no antiviral drugs (we still don’t for flu) and the first antibiotics were hard to come by after WW1, so there was not much a doctor could do for the sufferers. Except for the fever, and the muscle pain that was a common symptom of the viral infection. Dr. Hjorton could treat those. And so he came up with his formula, which actually seemed to help.

Hjorton’s 50th birthday party in 1919 was a huge event for the town, whose inhabitants saw him as a hero. When he died of a heart attack four years later, the whole district was rocked by grief and he was given the biggest funeral in Huskvarna’s history. He had been cycling to a patient when his heart gave out. But though the Doctor was dead, his formula lived on and the sales continued to increase.

Sales increased though the pandemic was over? People were no longer taking it as a flu remedy. They took it as a stimulant. Everybody knew about the powder after the pandemic, and since it wasn’t a prescription drug no doctor needed be involved when you bought it at the drug store. Nor was there any limit to how much you could buy. Many working class families took Hjorton’s powder every morning. Factory workers found that the powder made them faster, stronger, less tired and free of pain. This improved their earnings: in the 1920s performance-related pay became common. They took the powder at work, offering each other a baggie of Dr. Hjorton’s like workers elsewhere would share cigarettes or snuff. The medical establishment didn’t react other than to call it a bad habit. And Dr. Hjorton himself had become a silent authority.

During WW2 phenacetin became rationed and Huskvarna’s inhabitants had to mail-order the powder from drug stores all around Sweden. Their use of it peaked in the 1950s, when one Huskvarna drug store sold 8000 baggies a day. The company that made the baggies was told that a million of them would only last for three months in that drug store. And for some reason, the town’s workers were dying young of kidney failure.

Indirectly, the Huskvarna drug decades ended thanks to the labour union. It was making a general demand that major factories employ doctors, and so, in the early 50s when the drug use was approaching its peak, Kurt Grimlund was hired as company doctor. He came from the neighbouring town of Jönköping where he had already seen an unusual number of kidney failure cases. In 1953, Swiss researchers published a study documenting a link between phenacetin use and kidney damage. Phenacetin was a widely prescribed drug, and so the study sparked intensive international research, some of which Grimlund performed in Jönköping. As a result phenacetin became a controlled substance in Sweden in 1961, and in 1983 it was taken off the list of legal drugs entirely.

But what about the Huskvarna substance abusers after 1961? No doctor would prescribe anywhere near the amount of Dr. Hjorton’s that they were used to taking. They were recommended Koffazon powder instead and seemed quite happy with it. It probably helped that Grimlund had run an information campaign about phenacetin and early death at the factory in the mid-50s. Koffazon is still an over-the-counter drug in Sweden. It’s Dr. Hjorton’s powder minus the phenacetin.


This blog entry is based on C. Andersson 2009, Sippan som hjälpte mot allt. En studie runt det omfattande bruket av Dr Hjortons pulver som ägde rum i staden Huskvarna och på fabriken Husqvarna AB, BA thesis, Jönköping University College. She refers repeatedly to K. Grimlund 1963, “Phenacetin and renal damage at a Swedish factory”, Acta Medica Scandinavica, Stockholm. Andersson’s maternal grandfather died young from kidney failure in Huskvarna.

20 Years Working In Archaeology

Today I celebrate 20 years as a professional archaeologist!

In the spring of 1992 I turned 20, completed my BA, got married and moved out of student accommodation. I was very lucky: I had immediately upon graduation gotten a four-month job on a contract dig for the Arlanda airport bullet train, conducted by the National Heritage Board’s Stockholm unit and headed by Marja Mutikainen. To some extent I got the job because I had some professional experience with computers and magazine writing, but more importantly I got it because I had made a friend among the contract archaeologists at a dig where I had trained the preceding autumn. I called her and asked her to find my application in the stack. And so, on Monday 15 June, I started work.

The site was at Åshusby in Norrsunda parish, Uppland province (Raä 185 and others). It’s next to the Märsta & Sigtuna off-ramp from the E4 motorway heading north, on the flat ground between the road and the glacial ridge. It had already been stripped when I came there, one big sandy playa dotted with dark-fill sunken features. I spent that summer endlessly sectioning those features, section-drawing them and sieving their fills. Most couldn’t be interpreted at all. But there were post holes too, some forming Early Iron Age house foundations, and hearths, and collapsed drystone field walls, and the remains of a triangular stone pavement that covered a cremation grave containing a simple bronze armlet. Still, small finds were extremely few. Nobody metal-detected before stripping in those days (few still do), settlements of the period are notoriously short on finds, and the sandy subsoil meant very poor preservation conditions.

Found one of our fixed surveying points from 1992

This was the unit’s first season not only with me, but also with EDM total stations. This surveying instrument improved the speed and accuracy of planning immensely. But we didn’t quite know how to use it in the best way. We had been told that we had to put the machine on one of our three fixed points (bolts in rock outcrops, with known XYZ coordinates), when afterwards I learned that we could in fact have put the machine anywhere, taken measurements with it of where the fixed points were, and then it would have known where it was. Another aspect was the software we were using. The field computer we used to collect the data from the EDM was a Psion Organiser with a dinky screen. And we kept our measurement data not in CAD files, but in a huge dBase III database, where every coordinate point had an ID number. Every time we wanted to look at new measurements, we had to run a conversion utility on the database that converted it into a CAD file. (This utility was the embryo of the successful Intrasis software package.) And we used a pen plotter to make hard copy. My first archaeological publication, in a little-known Danish newsletter on digital methodology, is about what I learned there.

I went back today and checked the site out. Deep railway cut through the excavated area, fast trains shooting past, vegetation regenerated, hardly any traces of our trench edges to be seen. But I found collapsed stone wall Raä 105 in good shape, including stretches of it that were in our trench I think. And I found the trench edges around house foundation I in the south-east where we extended to get all of the house. And I found the surveying bolt in the outcrop across the off-ramp.

I was proud back in the day when I managed to impress the team by solving the problem of how to change parts of stuff we had measured earlier but needed to update. Long after surveying the main trench’s edges, we extended it at the northern end. I figured out the ID numbers of the old data points on the trench edge we had moved, went out and measured the same number of coordinate points for the new trench edge, and replaced the coordinates of the moved section by hand in the database.

The report appeared six years after the dig.* I’m not quite happy with the dating conclusions drawn (Dunér & Mutikainen date the settlement’s life to a span from the Iron Age’s period III to V when the earliest datable find is from period IV and the radiocarbon dates cluster neatly in periods V and VI), but it sets out the evidence we gathered well and places appropriate emphasis on the well-preserved house foundations and their interrelationships within the two farmyards we uncovered.

Somebody's been hunting for voles here

And so here I am now, twenty years down the road. I wrote the dissertation I was planning already when I dug at Åshusby, and a lot of other things, and I dug some pretty cool sites, and handled a lot of finds, and went to a lot of conferences, and got a lot of appreciation for my activities. Archaeology has fed and entertained me quite well, and I think 20-y-o me would approve of my CV. Academia hasn’t rolled out the red carpet for me in the manner I had hoped, but that’s mainly because I have slight delusions of grandeur – and because I’ve tried to brute-force the system on my own terms instead of relying on vassal relationships with professors. The one feudal lord I did swear fealty to made me editor of my field’s main research journal, so that wasn’t so bad.

Bullet train across the Iron Age farmstead

* Dunér, J. & Mutikainen, M. 1998. Arkeologisk undersökning. Boplatslämningar, stensträngar och hålvägar norr om Åshusby. Arlandabanan, Uppland, Norrsunda socken, RAÄ 93, 105 och 185-187. Rapport / UV Mitt 1998:28. National Heritage Board. Stockholm.

China’s Tech Is Independent Of Its Ideology

I had a brief but interesting conversation with a distinguished Chinese art historian the other day. He’s my age but has been far more successful than me despite relocating to Sweden. We were talking about science and superstition, because apparently someone had described the Swedish Skeptics that I head to him as “The Swedish Anti-Superstition Society”. Anyway, he told me this (and I paraphrase).

“I’m not sure China is going the right way now with its emphasis on Western science, technology and capitalism. Just look at the environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. If my country hadn’t been forcefully opened to these influences by the Opium Wars, we might have chosen a way of our own.”

He didn’t make it clear just what this Chinese way might have been, other than that it would be less scientific, less technological, less capitalist, not communist, and more like imperial China. Thinking about this, I’ve concluded that he’s getting it all mixed up.

To begin with, there is no such thing as Western science. There is only one world and science is the only semi-reliable way to find out how it works, regardless of what culture you operate in. From this follows that there is no such thing as Western technology. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of engineering problems. And so, if China hadn’t lost a war against technologically superior opponents when it did in 1860, it would have lost the next such war. No amount of imperial ceremonies or Buddhist meditation would have helped.

As for capitalism and communism, neither of them is a necessary corollary of scientific and technological advances. Imperial China could have started the scientific revolution long before the 17th century when capitalist Europeans did. But we must remember that although China’s current capitalism and its recently ended communism both led to atrocities, this was in fact a continuation of a tearful history reaching back to the dawn of recorded Chinese history. Being a majority farmer or worker in China has never so far been a pleasant way of life. So my guess is that any continuation of the imperial Chinese civilisation would have been pretty draconian too.

Scientific advances lead to improved technology. And improved technology tends to improve living conditions at the expense of a degraded environment. But the way out of this is to improve technology further, not to sit down and meditate or dream of the lo-tech past.

Weekend Fun

  • Played the zombie movie boardgame Last Night On Earth and Airlines Europe, both very enjoyable.
  • Had a party where I couldn’t understand what anybody said since they spoke Mandarin, but I was happy being Grillmeister, waitor and dishwasher.
  • Logged five geocaches, which involved cycling around, climbing a tree and faffing about in the woods north of Älta. Saw the traces of a recent forest fire and found an abandoned camp used by homeless substance abusers (note the toothpaste and beer cans).

And you, Dear Reader?