Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #273 (Dec) has an interesting feature on an 18th century ship of the line found hidden as a construction kit under the floor of a workshop at a naval dockyard in Kent. The timbers were re-used, but not in an economically or structurally rational way. Instead the greatest possible amount of ship’s timbers had been crammed in under the floor. Markings on them and historical records identify the ship as the HMS Namur, famous in its time for the battles it fought. It was launched in 1756 and broken up in 1833-34.

Investigators have put forward an interesting suggestion as to why the Namur’s timbers were deposited in such an unusual manner. At the time when the famous ship was broken up, the head of the dockyard where it was found was a man who had served on it as a boy at the Battle of Cape Vincent in 1797.

In the same issue, I also enjoyed a feature on early industrial archaeology along the 1819 Tavistock Canal in Cornwall, where excavations have documented early non-standard engineering designs.

CA #274 (Jan) looks back at two decades of the hugely successful archaeology TV show Time Team, whose last season is now being aired. This is a very big deal in UK archaeology, and the show’s death throes has been covered incessantly by all of the popular magazines I read. Let’s hope the awful “History” Channel will not be all the archaeology TV can offer in the future.

In a fascinating feature on excavations at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, we learn about the habits of 19th century anatomy students. This is one of the more grisly sites I’ve heard of, but the reason it can’t compete with Mesoamerican ritual murder sites is that thankfully these bodies were dead when they were cut up. Many burials at the Royal London site contained recombinations of dissected body parts, and some included dissected animal carcasses as well. Nevertheless, burial was orderly and attempts were clearly made to put a complete body together in each coffin, although not all parts would come from the same individual. Frankenstein stuff!

1st century BC Gaulish copper-alloy helmet found serving as a cremation container near Canterbury

CA #275 (Feb) is an Orkney special but also announces the coolest cremation container I’ve ever seen, found by a Canterbury detectorist: a 1st century BC Gaulish copper-alloy helmet. It looks a lot like an old moped helmet and contained a fibula along with the cremated bones.

Robert Van de Noort’s new book North Sea Archaeologies, despite the redundant po-mo plural (oh, how I hate those), seems quite fascinating judging from CA’s write-up. Van de Noort envisages long-distance trade and travel as important rites of passage, indeed as real foundations of political power, for leaders across Northern Europe during Prehistory. And I was particularly struck by the maps of the North Sea’s late glacial and post-glacial shorelines, where so much that is now under water was dry land. The Thames and the Rhine were once tributaries of a much larger river that flowed south through the valley we call the English Channel! And as late as 5000 cal BC much of Dogger Bank between England and Jutland still formed a huge island.

I always enjoy reading Chris Catling’s columns, mainly because he writes well but partly because I agree with his politics. I find the opinions of CA editor emeritus Andrew Selkirk far less appetising, which sometimes makes reading his otherwise interesting contributions a bit of a chore. Selkirk is a Tory and appears to believe that the public sector should be funded by voluntary donations from the rich. He loves amateur archaeological societies and is on record saying that at least some rescue archaeology should not be developer-pays, but taken on for free by local amateurs. In CA #275 he gives an interesting run-down of who controls funding in UK archaeology, and opens with this gem:

It is a common complaint that our society has become too unequal. To an archaeologist, of course, this is nonsense. Compare our society to the pharaohs of Egypt, or most past societies, and we are remarkably equal. No one can afford to build a pyramid today, and even a cat may look at a king. Thinking that society is being made more equal by taking from the rich and giving to the poor is a big fallacy, I fear. In practice what happens is you take money from the rich and give it to bureaucrats.

Ain’t that lovely? We shouldn’t complain about inequality as long as things are better than in Old Kingdom Egypt. And anyway, redistributing wealth is useless since it will only feed those pesky public sector officials.

British Archaeology #128 (Jan/Feb) has a nice feature on an exceptionally well-preserved Neolithic settlement near the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. Lots of worked-stone architecture, some even retaining paint, and various decorated small finds. Then there’s a “goodbye Time Team” feature and a feature on messages carved into the bark of still living trees near a Salisbury Plain military training ground by soldiers heading for the 20th century’s wars. “Arborglyph” is apparently the word you’re looking for.


Quaint Local Pronunciation

My boss at the Academy of Letters used to head the National Archives. Here’s a story he told over coffee the other day.

Some decades ago a delegation of Swedish archivists was driving across the American Midwest to visit a Mormon microfilming facility. Stopping in a small town for lunch, they noticed that it had an unusual name in a Native American language. At a fast food restaurant, the head of Stockholm’s town archives asked the cashier,

“Excuse me miss, we’re from Sweden and this place has such an unusual name. Could you please tell me how to pronounce it?”

The young lady stared at him for a moment, and then said loudly and slowly,


Scam OA Journals: Who’s Fooling Whom?

Two years ago I was dismayed to find that a pair of crank authors had managed to slip a pseudo-archaeological paper into a respected geography journal. Last spring they seemed to have pulled off the same trick again, this time with an astronomy journal. Pseudoscience is after all a smelly next-door neighbour of interdisciplinary science.* When I realised that the second paper was in a bogus Open Access journal, I drew the conclusion that the authors had fallen for a scam, paying the OA fee to get published in a journal whose academic standing they had severely misjudged. That’s still my belief. The authors were fooled.

But check out this paper in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health put out by the dodgy OA publishers Hindawi that I wrote about the other day: “Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons“. Here a quintet of purveyors of pseudoscientific health-care gear have paid the OA fee to get an appallingly bad in-house study into the journal. I’m pretty sure they know exactly how little academic credibility the JEPH has. Instead, they are likely banking on the inability of their customers to judge that credibility. The authors are buying a veneer of scientific solidity for their products. And their alt-med customers are fooled.

In the long run, of course, this will return to bite scam OA publishers in the butt. They can make some money selling column space in their journals to cranks and scammers as detailed above, but sooner or later this will impact their reputation. Science and Antiquity have a very good reputation thanks to their long record of publishing good research. When a new OA journal is started, it has a nul reputation or a somewhat positive one if its title is similar to that of a respected journal. But with time, such a journal will acquire a negative reputation because of the crap it publishes, and people will get wise to it. And then, Dear Reader, once the revenue stream has shrunk far enough, you can be pretty sure that the OA back issues of that journal will mysteriously drop off-line.

Harriet Hall the SkepDoc drew my attention to the JEPH paper in her column in Skeptic Magazine 17:4.

* Pseudoscience tends to get into academic publication venues in situations where it’s hard for the editors and peer reviewers to evaluate it. This is particularly common with interdisciplinary science, where as an archaeological editor I may find it hard to tell if e.g. linguistic content is solid or not. Also, it is extremely common outside of academic venues for amateur scholars to range freely and fearlessly across disciplinary boundaries, as seen e.g. in Thor Heyerdahl’s onomastic speculations. (“The Vanir came from Lake Van in Turkey.”) Good interdisciplinary science is when people from different disciplines collaborate, not when specialists in one discipline naïvely try their hands at another.

Thoughts of Violence Past in a Peaceful City

Ferdinand Balfoort contributes a guest entry upon a recent ancestral pilgrimage to Stockholm.

I gladly agreed to write something for the blog after being introduced by Martin to a book by Frans G. Bengtsson about Early Modern Scottish brigades (and brigadiers) in the Nordic region including Sweden. I visited Stockholm in December on my quest to find my 16th century ancestor Gilbert Balfour who lost his head during a public decapitation procedure with a sharp implement, somewhere in the Old Town. So far I am no closer to retrieving his head or his grave site, but some illumination has been provided by the good people of the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet), who sent me a scanned copy of another book by a Swedish author named Fridolf Ödberg: Stämplingarna mot Konung Johan III, “The Plot Against King John III” (1897). My ancestor and his antecedents are duly noted, and on the face of it the story is not a wholesome one.

Gilbert Balfour (and his brothers) are noted for their various involvements as ringleaders or participants in conspiracies against several notable persons in Scotland and Sweden. The Riksarkivet noted rather bluntly that it would be unlikely to find my ancestor’s last resting place in the hallowed ground of Riddarholmskyrkan church, and I appear to have opened a can of worms as far as family geneology is concerned, in all meanings of that popular saying. Which takes me to observations about Stockholm.

One key observation is that the city (and the people here) are very peaceful considering the often violent past. That is no different from the rest of Europe and many places are still wrestling through the violent cycles towards calmer waters. It begs the question as to why such violent pasts have created the current stability and relative peace that is built around consensus rather than the sword, especially in the northern part of Europe. Since this blog lists an eclectic mix of topics, including brain functionality, it might therefore be interesting to tie family history and neuroscience to Vikings. For it appears that a specific gene called the “Warrior gene” (see Science Daily) is responsible for somewhat sociopathic or very psychopathic tendencies, where the MRI scans of such perpetrators as Anders Breivik appear to show a differently coloured pattern in the neocortex. The milk of human kindness appears to dry up in such individuals, but it is also apparent that our evolution necessitated such genetic evolution.

In present-day Palestine, an author of research into the warrior gene – himself the proud possessor of an underendowed neocortex due to the apparent presence of no less that 16 violent murderers in his ancestral matrilineage – has found that through generations of conflict the warrior gene is now establishing dominance in the Palestinian gene pool. His hypothesis is that the more violent males attract mates due to a higher chance of survival for progeny fathered by those with the warrior gene. And so the process selectively advances and causes a cycle of violence which have less to do with politics and more with human evolution. As more violently tending persons are born, this begets more violence and so forth.

As the Riksarkivet person noted, Gilbert Balfour was a rather violent person, who was put to death in a rather violent period of history. And we have fortunately arrived at a much more benign state of affairs, which sees Sweden (and the Nordic countries) ranking highly on the quality of life index, anti corruption, civil society etc. It may in fact all be a case of selective breeding as I have noted. Our ancestors were partners and actors in progress and it is good to know they were there along the way. I am glad myself to now be able to visit Stockholm and enjoy the warm hospitality and the people without fear of being taken off to the Stortorget for a public decapitation. We have come a long way since those unruly days. May it long be so.

Ferdinand Balfoort is a nomadic governance and risk expert dealing mainly with accounting and auditing. In his free time he pursues studies of genealogy, ethics and neuroscience, Sufism and other metaphysics, and plays the trumpet.

Hindawi: Another Dodgy OA Publisher

Hot on the heels of the hapless Science Publishing Group, I have received solicitation spam from another dodgy OA publisher, Hindawi Publishing in Cairo, with another odd on-line archaeology journal.

The Journal of Archaeology has 71 academics on its editorial board. And a strangely generic name. What it doesn’t have is any published papers yet, after months on-line, or an editor-in-chief. So I wrote to some board members at European universities, and they replied that they thought the journal was probably legit, though they weren’t exactly sure. “The lack of published papers and low manuscript turnover has concerned me, yet they appear very professional in approach”, says one scholar, and “I personally know a good handful of the other Editors including a senior member of staff in my department. They are very well respected and knowledgeable so I would be surprised if we have all fallen for a scam, but I will look into it further”, says another.

Anyway, Dear Reader, if out of the blue you get an offer to do something with an on-line scientific journal you aren’t absolutely sure about, here’s some advice.

1. If they immediately offer you to not only contribute papers, but to also become a member of the editorial board and a peer reviewer, then it’s a scam.

2. Search the Wikipedia article about the publishers for the word “predatory”.

3. Look the publishers up on the Scholarly Open Access web site.

4. Does the journal have a named editor-in-chief? If not, then it’s a scam. If there is a named editor, google that person. If the person seems legit, email them at their departmental address and ask them to confirm that they stand by the journal.

Note that when I say “scam” here, I mean that the journals in question have no academic standing, no impact factor and no readership. They will almost certainly publish any piece you give them once you’ve paid their fee. But equally certainly, nobody will ever read or cite that piece.

November Pieces of My Mind

Selected Facebook updates:

  • John Lennon offers a grammar lesson: “A working-class hero is something to be”. It’s an adjective and a noun. Not a verb.
  • A friend of mine is rehearsing Orff’s Carmina Burana and not loving it: “I’m liking the work less with every rehearsal and we’re performing it three times in one week, so pity me in my Nazi-approved quasi-Medieval dungeon where the artistic ceiling is looow indeed!”
  • Kelly Link believes that reindeer have manes.
  • Swedish Xenophobe Party tries to get Parliament fact finders to list MPs with foreign citizenship. You couldn’t make this up.
  • The next issue of Fornvännen contains the words “Martin Rundkvist has praised the use of metal”.
  • Remember my slow boogie “Anarchy in the UK” problem? Today a Swedish spelmanslag folk string orchestra is playing the guitar intro from “Ziggy Stardust” in my head, complete with the typical rhythmic emphases.
  • Hugo Ball wrote a biography of Hermann Hesse.
  • My next book will be titled The Soteriology of Lake Sottern. Towards a Limnology of Salvation.
  • A teacher in a Stockholm school just sent me a warning about impending poor grades in English and French for a certain Sven. I’ve never heard of him before. Nor his mom. I wonder what she’s been telling them.
  • This is scandalous. I’m marking exams for students born years after I lost my cherry.
  • My son’s Skyrim character is so loaded up with gear that he can’t move faster than at a walk. Among other things, he carries the big toe of a giant and 23 tomatoes.
  • Man tells kid to quit throwing gravel at his window. Kid’s dad shows up with two friends, threatens man with gun and beats him with a didgeridoo. Don’t harsh my mellow, dude!
  • I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK. Je suis à l’ombre Jacques et je suis d’accord. Jag tillhör skuggan Jakob och jag jobbar på ackord.
  • 85% of the Swedish Xenophobe Party’s voters have no post-high-school education. 50% haven’t even completed high school. This is very rare in Sweden and suggests that the party already has all the voters it can attract.
  • In Swedish, “Vespasianus” means “mopeds in butt”.

Valkyrie Figurine From Hårby

Etymologically speaking, ”valkyrie” means ”chooser of the slain”. The job of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the valkyries waiting the tables.

We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief (pictures below). Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily. And now a 3D version of the motif has surfaced!

Detectorist Morten Skovsby found the first 3D valkyrie figurine late last year at Hårby on Funen. She wears a floor-length dress and has her hair in the typical knot we’ve seen for instance on the Lady of Sättuna in Kaga, and she’s armed with sword and shield. The interlace decoration on the rear of her dress should permit pretty tight dating once specialists get to see it clearly, but she’s definitely from the Vendel or Viking Periods, and I’d say probably from the 8th/9th/10th century.

See also the Lejre Lady. Thanks to Jakob Øhlenschlæger for the tip-off, to Jan Hein and Henrik Brinch Christiansen for the photographs and to Claus Feveile for additional information.

A man on a horse is greeted by a woman with a shield and a drinking horn. Brooch, Tissø, Zealand. Finder Flemming Nielsen.

Brooch depicting an armed woman. Gammel Hviding, Jutland. Finder Jens Chr. Lau. Photo Henrik Brinch Christiansen. Drawing Claus Feveile.

Bread and Microbes


I found some slightly mouldy bread in the cupboard, cut off the mould and made toast. And I thought about bread and microbes.

For flavour, not as a raising agent, I make sour dough. My method is simple: I mix rye flour with water in a glass, cover it with cling film and put it on the countertop for a week or so. Lactic acid bacteria soon colonise the mix, lowering the pH to make the environment cosy for themselves and deter any other opportunistic microbes.

When the sour dough smells like vinegar I make bread dough with it, adding a second microbe: yeast fungus. The yeast eats sugar in the flour that the lactic acid bacteria haven’t had time to gobble up, and then it emits carbon dioxide gas, causing the bread to rise. (Rubbery gluten protein in the flour makes sure tenacious bubbles form instead of the gas seeping out of the dough.)

Then I bake the bread, which kills off the bacteria and yeast. After 50 minutes at 225 C, the bread is sterile. And delicious! But after a week or so, the bread gets recolonised by microbes, unwelcome ones. This time its another group of fungi, blue-green mould. Tastes awful, so I cut those bits off.

And my toast? I ate it all, sending it straight into the greatest throng of microbes it had ever encountered: the symbiont bacteria in my gut.

Opportunity Mars Rover Still Working After Nine Years

The wonderful Curiosity rover on Mars has been much in the news lately, but let’s not forget about the previous rover generation! Opportunity landed on Mars nine Earth calendar years ago today on 25 January, 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 still on the rim of Endeavour crater, the area where it’s spent the past year, and is currently taking measurements at a spot called Copper Cliff. Check out the project’s web site for news! And meanwhile, elsewhere on Mars, Curiosity’s hammer drill is being prepared for its first outing…

2012 Enlightener & Deceiver Awards

The Swedish Skeptics have announced their annual awards for 2012. Both the Enlightener award and the Deceiver award are given to the editorial staff of programmes on Swedish national radio.

Medierna is a weekly media criticism show. They roast journalists in an excellently skeptical fashion and have during the year touched upon mistreatment of subjects such as climatology, alternative medicine and vaccination.

Nyhetsguiden is a daily news analysis show. In April and May they ran several anecdote-based antivaccine stories about the ongoing effort to vaccinate prepubescent girls against the cancer-causing HPV virus. This was particularly irresponsible as the Swedish public has a heightened vulnerability to antivax propaganda after the nationwide swine flu vaccination programme was found to correlate with a heightened incidence of narcolepsy. Nyhetsguiden also flirted with climate denialism in November. This kind of reporting is alas what often happens when the science beat is left to general news reporters.