March Pieces Of My Mind #2

The Saltsjöbanan commuter railway is getting double tracks past Fisksätra after 130 years, and the 50-y-o station is being completely rebuilt.

  • Two months after this old fellow I know had his third stroke, he can walk around the house unsupported, is speaking pretty clearly and has shoveled the snow off the drive!
  • I’ve talked about this before, but it’s a remarkable thing to me so here I go again. Polish universities are really focused on evaluation by bibliometry, that is, services that count citations and assign scores to scholars and journals. My colleagues in Łódź and I are well aware of the criticism against this imperfect and often unfair system. But there’s a side to bibliometry that is super valuable to me. For the first time in a research career of 30 years I have a clear idea of where I’m supposed to publish. It’s a huge change to have access to the rule-book before I sit down to play the game.
  • I don’t see why our well-founded hostility to banks should focus on one ethnic group among bankers.
  • Movie: Forbidden Planet (1956). Neat set design and effects, cool theremin soundtrack, stilted acting, silly story. Grade: OK.
  • Educated urban Poles usually have liberal values and an international outlook. I was pleased a few years back when the Rector of Uni Łódź reacted to the homophobic climate in rural and small-town Poland with an open letter of support for our gay faculty and students. I am pleased today upon receiving a faculty group mail from the university’s Equal Treatment Council about how to treat trans and non-binary students. It ends, in machine translation: “Please, let’s help our people students who are in the situation described above, which is not easy for them and often giving rise to concerns about social reception at a time when it itself undertaking studies and joining new peer groups is not uncommon stress. Let’s work together to make these people feel fully accepted in our group.”
  • When I teach Scandy prehistoric chronology, I always tell students this. If you are only going to remember one single date from this course, make it 3950 BC. Because that is the year in which, due to a little plateau in the radiocarbon calibration curve, it looks like southern Scandinavia switched to agriculture. (In actuality it may have taken 200 years or so.) 3950 was an important date to the Renaissance-era mega-scholar Joseph Scaliger too. He reckoned that this was when God created the world!
  • Movie: La Mauvaise Graine (1934). Action comedy about a Paris car thief gang. Lots of car chases. Co-directed by a young Billy Wilder. Grade: OK.
  • I’ve spent a quarter century visiting restaurants where almost everyone is East Asian and I don’t understand the language. Experienced the same tonight, only the food and the other customers and the languages were North-East African.
  • Stockholm’s Khazaks are celebrating Newroz at the Film House and watching a band documentary from the homeland.
  • Jrette goes to a Cambodian used book store, finds a copy of Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing in Swedish.
  • La Mauvaise Graine features a really interesting example of something that is not very common in American films even today, and which was to my knowledge impossible in an American film at the time. I’m thinking of actors of colour playing roles that are not about them being people of colour. The car stealing gang in the film consists of funny loveable ruffians who like to play practical jokes on each other. Gaby Héritier plays one of them who happens to be very tall and very Black. But otherwise he’s just one of the gang. In the only scene where his character is subordinate to another, he’s playing the role of a taxi driver and they’re actually collaborating to create a distraction while other members steal a car. Later they all go to a public beach together, have a swim, fall asleep in deck chairs side by side.

March Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • Someone with a busty profile pic wants to be my Fb friend again, and this time she’s named “Henga Rastkar”. Honestly, this has got to be someone’s D&D character!
  • Birdlike and sharklike creatures have evolved repeatedly from widely separated quadruped stock through Earth’s history. A dolphin is basically a deer that has undergone the same evolutionary pressure as that which created the tuna. I would love to see the next species of this kind, the ones that will radiate when H. sapiens is gone.
  • I asked ChatGPT who I am. It responded with a mix of fact and fiction. It made me 14 months younger than I am and attributed a fictional book to me. Not a work of fiction, mind you, but a book that does not actually exist. It’s called Fornminnenas värld / The World of Ancient Sites.
  • ChatGPT’s claim about a fictional book that I haven’t written reminds me of a scifi story. It’s about cinema buffs who take a print of a movie they like to a parallel universe and show it to an old director who, in that universe, never managed to make that particular movie. I forget why they wanted to do that. Maybe he made other movies that weren’t available in their continuity.
  • Movie: In the Court of the Crimson King (2022). Rock band documentary after 50 years on stage. Grade: good!
  • How many standup comedians have already opened with “I want you all to know that I’m asexual … maniac”?
  • “What if all the world religions are wrong, if the only true religion is one practiced by a remote and obscure Inuit tribe, and God is a polar bear?” /Jonas Gardell
  • In retrospect, Sweden’s unusual covid strategy turned out to be good. We’ve seen the least surplus mortality in the entire EU!
  • Movie: A Foreign Affair (1948). Straight-laced Republican congresswoman goes to bombed-out post-war Berlin to investigate the morale and/or morality of the US occupation troops. Gets involved with a dashing captain who already has an arrangement with an alluring night club singer / former Nazi top brass mistress / disillusioned survivor. Grade: great! Confession: it took me days before I understood the pun about foreign affairs in the movie’s title.
  • A memory: some of my co-workers at a contract archaeology unit in 1993-94 would select text from a document and print it. Not insert page breaks and print e.g. page 2-4.
  • Met my Umeå student George from 2014 at this gig. He has a bioengineering degree and works in pharma!
  • Tina Turner is amazing. Tony Joe White wrote “Steamy Windows”, but when he released his own recording of it after hers, it just fell flat.
  • “… as Gaznak fought he held his left hand hovering close over his head. Presently Leothric smote fair and fiercely at his enemy’s neck, but Gaznak, clutching his own head by the hair, lifted it high aloft, and Sacnoth went cleaving through an empty space. Then Gaznak replaced his head upon his neck, and all the while fought nimbly with his sword; …” Lord Dunsany, “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth”
  • It is a little known fact, rarely advertised by archaeologists, that many fairly well preserved sites offer only boring mundane repetitive information about people’s lives in the past.
  • Movie: Some Like It Hot (1959). Exaggerated cross-dressing farce among gangsters and lady musicians in 1929 Chicago and Florida. Grade: OK.

Mixed Feelings About My First Fieldwork Project

It took 9½ years from the day that I started the PhD programme at Uni Stockholm until the day that I graduated. It was supposed to take 4 years. There were many reasons that it took so long: I had two kids and took some parental leave, I worked 20% as a journal editor for half of the period, I worked one season in contract archaeology, I co-wrote one book and edited another that were not part of the thesis, I wrote lots of journal notes, papers and reviews. But perhaps the overarching reason that encompasses most of this was that I was not given, and indeed fended off, any strong goal-oriented supervision. Nobody knew from one week to another what I was doing or whether it would contribute to getting my thesis finished.

One thing I learned the hard way during grad school, and which I always tell PhD students, is this. Never collect any data of your own. Use under-utilised published or archival data. Leave that kind of work until after you’ve received your doctorate. And above all, do not excavate.

I excavated for two seasons, the first fieldwork I directed myself. Lately I’ve been going back to my archival reports in order to scan them and put them in the online repository of my work that the National Heritage Board’s archivists have created. And I find myself shaking my head in admiration, sadness and sheer disbelief at what this headstrong, independent, dissident, isolated 25-year-old was doing. My fieldwork of 1996-97 was nothing short of Quixotic. (When I say “we” in the following, I mean that this is how I directed my team of students and friends to work. Nobody else was responsible.)

  • Over-documentation: we levelled innumerable points on the ground surface and on stones in these structures. We planned every stone by hand, using folding rule, pencil and grid film. We hatched sandstone on the plans.
  • Under-documentation: we didn’t bring a step ladder or vertical photo tripod, so we couldn’t take any vertical photographs. This would have been much faster and more precise than planning on grid film, and given us much higher resolution. But it would also have introduced a wait, because we had only chemical cameras and the nearest photo lab was far away.
  • Methodological strength & weakness: as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we paid really focused attention to documenting the stratigraphical sequence. But again as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we left no standing section and so could neither draw nor photograph the section. This made it impossible for us determine whether a looting pit in one grave had reached into the top of the burial deposit or not.
  • Semi-pointlessness: neither of the two graves produced any interesting artefact finds. The documentation we created with such care is only useful to someone who studies minute structural details of 1st Millennium burial monuments on Gotland. Over the quarter century since 1997, to my knowledge that has amounted to no-one whatsoever, not even me.
  • Main value: within the local context of my project, we met our stated goal in that both graves yielded enough information to date them both pretty tightly. However, no scholar except me has ever had that locally focused interest in the Barshalder cemetery’s spatial development.

I’m looking at the documentation we made in those two summers, not only of the graves we excavated, but also of test pits, metal detector work and local landowners’ collections of finds. And I see a young fellow who absolutely loves this site, this material, who wants to do right by it, who is enormously ambitious and conscientious but also over-idealistic and unrealistic about what it is all for. He is purposefully, consciously and proudly writing himself into the ATA archive folders, full of material from preceding generations of field archaeologists at Barshalder, that he has just spent two years processing. He is working really hard to avoid the mistakes of some previous excavators who left their careless documentation in such a mess. But he doesn’t seem to realise that though painstaking and time-consuming in its methodology, his documentation has way lower resolution and precision than the vertical photography work that was the standard on Erik Nylén’s Gotland before he was even born.

Ultimately, too, the grave excavations of 1997 were a gamble that didn’t pay off. Since neither of the excavated graves happened to contain anything interesting, all that fieldwork and post-ex work amounted only to a few lines of text in my PhD thesis, and to a footnote in the immensely rich record of burial archaeology on Gotland. It would have been much better for the project not to dig. Like most of my thesis work, it didn’t have a strong rational justification pointing towards a timely viva and a subsequent career. I was simply extremely keen emotionally to excavate at Barshalder and become part of the site’s history, not just to collect and assemble other people’s documentation. I wanted to establish myself as a producer of canonical fieldwork discoveries, not just an analyst or commentator. This I eventually succeeded in doing eight years later, when Howard Williams and I directed the boat-burial dig that carried us into the pages of Medieval Archaeology.

Nazi Internet Trolls Are Harrassing Our Librarians

Many or most Swedish archaeologists are in the same labour union as the country’s librarians, archivists and public information officers. But as a scholar and frequent outreach guy I feel a stronger kinship than most with these groups. I’ve hung out in libraries for over 40 years. Through decades of mostly rather lonely research, the Academy of Letters’ librarians and archivists have been my daily workmates.

When the union reports that one fifth of our librarians in the public sector have met with hate speech and offensive language from members of the public, I take it personally and I get fucking angry. Every third public information officer is at a workplace that has received a threat. The themes of the attacks are overwhelmingly racist, sexist and anti-hbtq.

This is not “polarisation”. This is a small demography of brutish asshole internet trolls who have been emboldened by online hate forums to forget the most basic rules of decency. Their mothers would be ashamed of them. And I remember what Dr. Jones taught us: punching Nazis is a core part of an archaeologist’s job description.

February Pieces Of My Mind #3

From the slow end sequence in The Parallax View where the pacing is all wrong

  • I just learned about “tipsy tubing”, a youth activity where you float slowly down a tropical river on a large communal swim ring while getting shitfaced on Mekhong rum (no, it has no similarities to whiskey).
  • At the end of the Viking Period, there were in all likelihood a lot of shipwrecks at a depth of less than five meters in Lake Mälaren and along adjacent stretches of the Swedish coast. They were all lifted out of the water by isostatic rebound, chewed up by the waves and ice along the shoreline when at surface level, and finally their last timbers rotted away when they came up into the air.
  • I wonder when the Roma quit practising a recognisable Hinduism.
  • “Groovy Kind Of Love” has extremely inane lyrics and rhymes.
  • A bird is singing the snowmelt song here!
  • Reading an excellent 1830s travel book by the energetic Victorian polyglot George Borrow, who married late, had no children and is strangely preoccupied with describing good-looking men that he meets. Another striking set of Borrow’s attitudes is that he admires Roma, respects Muslims and despises Jews.
  • Is the Škoda Enyaq named for Enya, Q and ENIAC?
  • The ageing body: at 50 I still have my six-pack, but I’m developing faint wrinkles between the beer cans.
  • Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950). Middle-aged former silent film starlet Gloria Swanson expertly plays insane middle-aged former silent film starlet Norma Desmond. Erich von Stroheim plays her valet. Buster Keaton has a cameo. Grade: good!
  • Funny thing about the male gaze in Sunset Boulevard. It seems to me that we’re supposed to find 50-y-o Gloria Swanson’s character hopelessly unattractive, and instead have the hots for 21-y-o Nancy Olson. She is presented as the proper and natural mate for 31-y-o William Holden, who looks like 40. Now, as a healthy 50-y-o man in 2023 with a healthy wife my own age, I feel that entertaining Olson would strictly be a job for my son. The reason that I’d rather not get too friendly with Swanson’s character is that she’s nuts, certainly not that there’s anything wrong with her looks!
  • Movie: The Parallax View (1974). Journalist uncovers the trail of an enormous murderous conspiracy that kills US senators and witnesses to the murders plus truckloads of unrelated bystanders. Would have been interesting to know even vaguely why. Grade: OK.
  • There’s a chimp playing the 1972 video game Pong in The Parallax View.
  • Sigh. There’s a new paper about “A non-normative Roman imperial cremation”, and I’m like yay, have they identified the grave of a member of the Imperial family!? But it turns out it’s just some anonymous everyday townsperson who died during the imperial period.
  • My great grandfather’s parents had some unusual ideas about names. He was named Sven Isidor. His brother was named Otto Villehad.
  • Saw reporting on a sexological study aiming to identify the sex position that was most likely to give the woman an orgasm. It had a really odd basic design, because what they studied was penetration without any use of hands, the woman’s own or the man’s. I’m trying to find a simile. This is like a football tournament where all the players have one leg tied up behind their asses. Sure, one team or another will win the tournament. But what does this really tell you about football?

Dragged An Ugly Concrete Rubble Lump

Decades ago people put a boom barrier across a path near our house. They dug a pit, stuck a length of thick iron pipe with a spike at one end into the pit, and backfilled it with concrete. The pipe acted as a short gate post around which the boom pivoted.

The barrier was removed long ago, leaving a big chunk of concrete and iron pipe. Someone lifted it out of the hole with a mechanical excavator and left it next to the path, a clearly visible piece of ugly demolition rubble.

It was an eyesore. It annoyed me for years, and I couldn’t lift or roll that heavy thing. But at the moment the path is covered with icy compacted snow. Last night I tied a rope to the rubble lump and dragged it along the path, then let it roll downhill to a less visible spot under an elevated walkway were builders and landscapers keep handy boulders, concrete barriers etc. I stretched my back a bit, but it was worth it!

February Pieces Of My Mind #2

Fivelstad church, Östergötland. The tower is 12th century, the nave and chancel 19th century.

  • Movie: Tangled (2010). Fun and spirited Disney update of the Grimm brothers’ story about Rapunzel. Grade: good!
  • Aren’t spy balloons kind of retro?
  • This week I’m giving talks in Stockholm, Örebro and Hagebyhöga. I haven’t had a busy week in a long time, much needed! There was this study a few years ago that concluded that, much like the popular conception, people in the arts do indeed have worse mental health than others. Novelists are the worst of the bunch. The study couldn’t say if writing novels drives you insane or if you take up writing because you’re already nuts. I’ve lead a mostly solitary life of writing for decades, and I can testify that it’s not always great.
  • Movie: Passagers de la nuit (2022). A woman rebuilds her life after a divorce and we follow her relationships with teenage children, elderly dad, lovers and a young street waif who comes and goes. Grade: OK.
  • There used to be a time when the only actress I found really attractive was Catherine Zeta Jones. She will no doubt be devastated to learn that Keeley Hawes has now taken her place in my affections.
  • A memory. We had a non-portable tabletop display lighter for cigarettes in my childhood home. Has anyone else seen such a thing?
  • I much prefer reading to watching video clips and will ignore most non-fic video recommendations. The main exceptions to this rule are that I like boardgame tutorials and I need YouTube to do my tie.
  • When the images in the PDF files I use for screen presentations turned up corrupt at a conference in Germany last year, I thought I had run into a new bug in LibreOffice Impress or in some image conversion infrastructure in Ubuntu Linux. I assumed that since the images looked fine on my Linux machine but not on other people’s Windows machines, it had to be a conversion error. Today I discovered the actual root of the problem: bit rot in the cheap USB stick I was using to move the file between machines.
  • About ChatGPT as web search: my most common Google search is “searchterm wiki”. I use Google as a front end to the various language versions of Wikipedia. I have no use for any wordy paraphrase.
  • Movie: Boiling Point (2021). Single-shot journey through the busiest night of the year backstage at a high-end restaurant. Grade: great!
  • I ask the small town kebab man for bulgur and ayran. He hasn’t got any, but he appreciatively asks me if I’m Turkish.

Thank You Lillemor

On the passing of Lillemor Tottie, 1934-2023.

As the decades pass you forget about your old teachers from school. The ones you remember the longest are the really bad ones and the really good ones. Lillemor was really good.

I was her pupil in the mid-80s, from ages 12 to 15, a time in many people’s lives when they are a pain both to themselves and to people around them. Lillemor was around 50 then and had already taught history and Swedish for a quarter century. She had an unquestionable friendly authority about her. There was nothing coercive about it, but there was order in her classroom. She took us seriously, and she expected us to take her class seriously.

When my old friend the philosophy lecturer heard about her passing, he commented that she had a pleasantly aristocratic air. I think he meant a bookish breeding, not a feudal one. There were other teachers who clearly just went to work because they had to pay their bills. Not Lillemor. She could have done all kinds of other things, but she taught school because that was what she really liked to do.

I’ve walked in Lillemor’s footsteps. I didn’t become an historian, but I do study the past through archaeology, and I teach, and I write. For years she and I would meet on the commuter train and talk for 25 minutes on our way to town. We never lacked for subjects of interest.

Teachers have enormous influence over a society’s future. Lillemor exerted a particularly strong influence for the good during her long career. I’m grateful that Swedish society gave me her for a teacher at a formative age. Thank you, Lillemor!

February Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • Heard a talk by a senior policeman involved in the big drug gang take-down after the French military cracked Encrochat encryption in 2020. And it seems to me that not only was this technological breakthrough necessary for the police’s success. Technology is in fact necessary for the intricate day to day operations of a successful crime gang. In other words, it’s not that the police were lucky that the gang chose to use mobile phones. The gang could not have chosen to operate without them.
  • Bought a set of pyjamas, and months later an ancient memory surfaces: I used to keep my jammies under my pillow.
  • There should be a wizard named Glyph Rychard.
  • We all know that you can’t pray away the gay. But more importantly: can you gay away the pray?
  • The study of Italian 60s and 70s horror-crime cinema is known as giallogy.
  • Was I the only one who thought that the excellent phrase “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” was original with P.J. Harvey in 1992?
  • Pope Francis did something good: proclaimed that anti-gay legislation is sinful. There are definitely jurisdictions where a) the Pope’s opinion, b) the concept of “sin” are important.
  • I was a young dad (26). I’m not young anymore. But something struck me: I’m still young in relation to my kids’ age. A lot of dads retire around the time their youngest kid moves out. Jrette is ready to move out when I still have 20 years left of my working life.
  • Dammit, I need to start buying gig tickets farther in advance. Missed out on both Goat and King Gizzard. /-:
  • Movie: The Apartment (1960). Underling in a big office lends his apartment several nights a week to company executives so they can see their mistresses there. Until he gets involved himself with one of the young women. Grade: great!
  • I have never displayed a poster at a conference. From my first international conference at age 24, I have always been speaking.
  • I’m endowing a big research institute to focus on the detailed study and classification of crashed computers. Exactly what are they doing?
  • Let’s all agree that March is a month of spring. In that case, there’s only four weeks left of this winter. OK? Please?
  • A reenactor very kindly called me generous with my time as a scholar. I don’t think he realises that I’m generous in the same way that Jehovah’s Witnesses are generous with Watchtower Magazine. 999 out of a 1000 passersby would much prefer not to talk about either Jesus OR the Vendel Period.
  • Failed to spot the comet with hiking binoculars, but had a nice look at the Orion nebula and the Pleiades.
  • I am a dwarf and I’m digging a hole / Diggy, diggy hole
  • There’s a pork futures warehouse in Pratchett’s Discworld. It is used to store potential future pork until it instantiates.