August Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • Reading Matt Ruff’s new novel about black Americans in the 50s. Annoyed to find that nothing in the dialogue would sound out of place if spoken by a white American sci-fi fan in 2017.
  • Feared 45 would be the sort who gets the trains running on time and starts wars. Actually can’t get trains running at all, wars with TV hosts.
  • Etymological misunderstanding in this novel. Ruff parses the name Braithwaite as Braith-white, when it is actually Brae-thwaite.
  • There’s this book about edible wild plants in Sweden named “Can you eat these things?” A more important question is “What population density could Sweden support if we reverted to hunting-fishing-gathering?”.
  • I saw a seal between Bullandö and Djurönäset.
  • Apron is furkle in Stockholm Swedish.
  • Wonder how old our current run of seven-day weeks is. It’s survived several calendar reforms and at least one re-naming of the days.
  • I’ve worked a lot with gender symbolism and gender transgression during the Late Iron Age. I’m an LGBTQ friendly scholar. But I’m sad to see the Swedish History Museum spread erroneous statements and wishful speculations on this theme in the country’s biggest newspaper because of Stockholm Pride.
  • In theory of science, you usually reckon with two possible states of debate over a given issue. Either the scientific community is undecided, or it has reached a (provisional) consensus. In poorly funded and staffed subjects such as mine, there’s a common third state: apathy. This is when the scientific community doesn’t care enough about the issue to comment on it. Someone voices an opinion, and then it’s 40 years before someone else replies, and nobody pays any attention to either of the scholars.
  • The post-apocalyptic pictures of the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol sticking up out of water / ice / desert sand reveal a poor understanding of how deserted buildings collapse.
  • The head of a humanities think tank in Sweden has published an argument that strikes me as remarkably silly: “When simple jobs are lost to automation, the market value of humanities skills will rise.” So as the taxi drivers become jobless, a PhD in modern Latvian poetry will grow more valuable. Huh.
  • Too often these standard 350-pp books barely keep me reading along, while part of me just wants them to end. Now I’m reading a feckin’ 1000-page P.F. Hamilton novel and the pages simply keep on turning.
  • According to the POTUS, relations with Russia are “at an all-time and very dangerous low.” Cuban missile crisis, anyone?
  • I gotta say, it’s pretty amazing that I can read daily tweets from William cranial-jacking Gibson himself. Respect!
  • The 20th century: the time of smoking cigarettes while driving combustion-engine cars.
  • Much of English Wikipedia’s article about soy sauce has been written by someone who doesn’t quite know when to use the word “the”, and prefers to skip it. This suggests to me that the information in the article is probably quite accurate.
  • Decryption and decoding are the same. Doesn’t matter if it’s encrypted English or plaintext Swahili. I won’t understand either.
  • Had a strange taste of retirement this past weekend: teenage kids off doing stuff, just me and my wife at my mom’s summer house. Though my wife looks about 40 years from retirement.
  • Holy fuck. Junior has been teaching himself Japanese for the past year and a half. Today I learned that he has picked up 500 kanji characters along the way and reads Chinese food packaging quite easily. :-0
  • A friendly soul at this publishing house apparently knows my daughter’s name. Their envelope of otherwise generic advertising material contained an old tea spoon with “Signe” engraved on it.
  • This Picasso “Pigeons” print hung in our house when I grew up, and I’ve been wondering for decades what the spotted triangular thing in the lower left-hand corner is. A lamp shade? Took me 5 mins on WWW to find that it’s a stylised building that is seen outside the window in early treatments of the motif.

Pablo Picasso, Pigeons, 1957, detail


Pablo Picasso, Pigeons, 1957, detail

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July Pieces Of My Mind #3

  • “Ways of knowing” = alternative facts.
  • I am on a WorldCon panel about the Medieval mind and fantasy literature. I just had the (unoriginal) idea to say that the High and Late Medieval aristocracy lived largely in an Arthurian fantasy world of their own creation.
  • Last night a skinny cat came miaowing at our door. Turned out to have left his home 200 m from us a week ago. With no sense of direction. And no hunting skills. He’s back with his kind owners now.
  • I’ve bought a lot of ebooks from Google. I would happily continue to do so even though now I’ve got a Kindle, because Google has much better prices. But I can’t get them onto the machine. This is not because Amazon locks them out. It’s because Google has DRM in their files. And so they lose a customer.
  • Was going to write about weaponry from Ringstadaholm. But found that I needed to check in the museum inventory if one object on the list is a weapon frag. But found a reference there for an imported glass shard that I need to comment on. But found that the reference is doubled in the library catalogue, so I had to write to the librarians and ask them to correct it. Now, where was I?
  • Listened to “Girl From The North Country”, was astonished to learn that Bob Dylan can hit actual notes!!!
  • French has an absurd word for grapefruit that should not be allowed: pamplemousse. Turns out it’s a Dutch loan word incorporating a Portuguese loan word: pompel + limões, “swollen lemon”. Shame on you, French people!
  • Geezer Butler finished with his woman ’cause she couldn’t help him with his mind. I think that’s kind of harsh. In over 18 years together my wife hasn’t made the least attempt to help me with mine, but I’m OK with that. I think it would be an unrealistic demand.
  • Rediscovered the joy of shooting peas.
  • LinkedIn is amazing. It just suggested that I apply for a job teaching textile crafts to ten-year-olds.
  • Tried re-watching Breakfast Club after 32 years. Lost interest fast.
  • Stockholm has a Chinese vegetable underground where people grow unusual crops on suburban allotments and deliver produce to restaurants. Yum!
  • Vacation reading: P.F. Hamilton, Pandora’s Star. U.K. LeGuin, Words Are My Matter. M. Ruff, Lovecraft Country (thank you, Birger!).
  • My kids have turned 19 and 14!
  • Here’s a pretty neat cover. The lyrics to the Cocteau Twins’ song “Blue Bell Knoll” from 1988 are just a string of meaningless syllables. The woman in the cover duo is not simply singing lyrics she doesn’t understand. She’s singing lyrics that nobody understands.
  • NASA is sending a ground-penetrating radar rig to Mars.
  • Jack Palance’s 80s work is pretty varied. He has big roles both in Hawk the Slayer and Out of Rosenheim / Bagdad Café.

July Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • Los Alamos means “the poplars”.
  • A friend lent me J.P. Hogan’s 1980 novel Thrice Upon A Time. It’s set in 2010 but has pre-PC “mini” computers the size of fridges, with text terminals and command-line interfaces. Four years before Neuromancer
  • 1970s computer designers: “What? You folks run your screens in graphics mode all the time? But why? It’s so inefficient compared to text mode! Must be unbearably slow!”
  • Had some skin moles lasered. The smell of burning hair is strong immediately inside the clinic’s front door. The lasering makes a noise like quietly frying bacon.
  • Pluto’s orbit is outside Neptune’s. But the planet that Pluto gets closest to is Uranus. Because it is locked in orbital resonance with Neptune which means it is not overtaken by that planet at the point where their orbits are closest.
  • I don’t understand the business model of running / walking / cycling for charity. I donate regularly to several charities, but I am not influenced in this by anyone running.
  • Chinese snacks and gift items are horrendously over-packaged. More packaging than content.
  • Wife puts stones in the bird bath as life-saving platforms for bugs. But OCD magpies find them incredibly annoying and keep throwing them out.
  • Kindle gets my advertising demographic wrong: “Are you looking for a clean saga that will capture your heart?” Nope nope nope. Maybe you should ask the folks browsing in the Christian Romance section. You know, over there at the opposite end of the enormous book store from where you found me.
  • Just signed a contract to temp for two months at Gothenburg Uni. It means I’ll have temped at most of Sweden’s seven archaeology depts. Uppsala, Lund and Södertörn remain.
  • Funny how red become the Republican Party’s colour. In the 80s its voters used to say “Better dead than red”.
  • You read sometimes about scholars whose careers were cut short because they didn’t have the informal support necessary to secure a steady job. It’s been the other way around with me. I would never have been able to write all these books and papers if I’d had steady teaching duties. People who don’t like my kind of archaeology have certainly made sure that my income’s been slight. But thereby they’ve also made me an exceptionally loud and prolific participant in various fields of research. Historians of scholarship may one day wonder how the hell Rundkvist managed to put out all this stuff. An important part of the answer is that he didn’t have the informal support necessary to secure a steady job.
  • I want to see a major scientific inquiry into what frozen-up computers are doing.
  • Removing the ads from your Kindle takes only a minute on the customer service chat line.
  • I watched Hawk the Slayer at my first con in 1986. All I remember is the cheesy cut & repeat effect when the elf shoots his bow super fast.

Hiking In Abisko

Abisko national park is in the mountains of extreme northern Sweden, Sámi country, reindeer country, where half of the year is lit by constant sun and the other half is frigid darkness and aurorae.

Getting there takes 17½ hours by train from Stockholm Central. There’s a sleeper train with no changes, so if you only count time when you’re conscious, the trip takes 10 hours. You can fly to Arlanda airport and get right onto this train without making the detour into Stockholm. And the trail head is next to the platform when you get off.

Some friends and I went up hiking over the Mid-summer weekend 22–27 June, spending three nights in Abisko and two on the train. There are many huts and hostels in the area, so none of us brought a tent or a sleeping bag. Only Mårten brought a portable stove – to make espresso.

You don’t actually even need to bring a water bottle. There’s clean water in every stream. We arrived right at the start of the area’s hectic summer, with meltwater rivulets everywhere, innumerable flowers and a bewildering variety of bird calls. Very few mosquitoes bothered us. The treeline is near, so the landscape varies dramatically as your path lifts and dips. With a GPS or map and compass, of course, you needn’t even follow paths. The King’s Trail suffers from erosion, so the less people use it the better.

Check out the Swedish Tourist Association’s mountain hiking site.

Boardgaming Retreat

This past weekend saw my seventh annual boardgaming retreat: 43 hours in good company at a small hotel (in Nynäshamn for the first time), all meals included. My buddy Oscar organises everything. This year we broke the attendance record, with 28 participants, mainly guys in our 30s and 40s. Before Sunday lunch I left early and went to the release event for Karin Bojs and Peter Sjölund’s interesting new book on X-chromosome haplotypes, Swedish male-line descent and genealogy: Svenskarna och deras fäder, “The Swedes And Their Fathers”.

I played thirteen sessions of ten different games in Nynäshamn. To give you an idea of how popular each individual game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank. For instance, Scythe’s 10 means that right now there are only nine boardgames that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly. And they have rated tens of thousands of games!

  • 4 Gods (2016). Ranked 4059. Players simultaneously lay a kind of jigsaw puzzle together and put little plastic dudes out to claim land areas. Bit stressful!
  • Ave Roma (2016). Ranked 3226. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement ostensibly about the Roman Empire. Interesting worker / initiative mechanic but little to make you care.
  • Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (2014). Ranked 289. Mashup of Werewolf, Resistance and Clue. Good with large groups.
  • Detective & Co. (1984). Ranked 1329. An early design by Wolfgang Kramer, who won the first of his five Spiel des Jahres awards for this game and went on to design El Grande, Tikal, 6 nimmt and many more. In the deceptively simple Detective & Co, you only know the colour of your own playing piece and anyone can move any piece around the board.
  • Glory to Rome (2005). Ranked 117. Intricate card-based logistics game by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
  • Love Letter (2012). Ranked 154. Minimalist card game with few components but a lot of depth.
  • Meeple War (2016). Ranked 3381. Light and varied worker placement / war game.
  • Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (2016). Ranked 639. A re-skin of the 2008 hit Pandemic, with Lovecraftian horror added. Both versions are good and you only need one.
  • Patchwork (2014). Ranked 38. Competitive tile-fitting game for two. Elegant! This is the game I’m most keen to play again of the ones I learned at the retreat.
  • Scythe (2016). Ranked 10. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement / mini war game in the dieselpunk world of amazing Polish military painter Jakub Rozalski. Not enough interaction for my taste.

The Nynäsgården conference hotel has an interesting history that I got wind of when I used the basement service corridor. Its walls are hung with really good 1970s art prints, some of which deal with themes of Labour movement nostalgia. A senior staff member explained that the place was built as an old folks’ home in the 1920s and converted into a study-course facility by the Workers’ Educational Association in 1971. The art was donated to this organisation and was eventually sold to the current private owners along with the whole building. This stuff’s message is not what the current owners want to project (cf. the removal of the statue of the ideal working-class family from in front of Vår Gård in Saltsjöbaden), so they’ve put it in the basement.

I’ve blogged before about the retreats in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. In 2013 I was recovering from pneumonia and teaching my first term in Umeå, which may be why I never wrote that one up here.

September Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • The former school / functions venue in my housing area has been converted into housing for single male asylum seekers. I’m putting a note on their front door, offering to teach them some boardgames.
  • Wonder if the weight-loss advertisers realise that the pics of amply built women they intend to frighten female customers with are actually attractive to a bunch of dudes. They’re basically providing free soft porn to a market segment who will never buy their product.
  • If I had to be a war vet, then I’d prefer to be one whose son wrote Alice in Chains’s “Rooster” about him.
  • When I was a teen in the 80s, the only people I knew who listened to metal were stupid bullies who did poorly in school. I drew the erroneous conclusion that metal must be stupid, unstructured music by and for morons.
  • The white stones placed in our bird bath as lifesavers for bugs annoy the magpies. They keep chucking the smaller one out.
  • Listen to the confused gurgling near the end of Pond’s psychedelic paean to downers, “Xanman”!
  • Daikon radish has no place in kimchi.
  • Oh, screw the violin, Bellman!
  • I’m not very interested in issues of surveillance and privacy. I consider myself so unimportant that I would pretty much be flattered to find the government paying attention to me.
  • The Swedish word for vacuum cleaner is “damn sucker”.
  • Listening to the always interesting Planet Money podcast about drop shipping, where people will sell stuff expensively on e.g. eBay that they then order for the customer more cheaply on Amazon. Surprised that people aren’t using price comparison bots like Pricerunner more.
  • Such a beautiful moon tonight, peeking out through tears in a swiftly moving cloud cover.

My Relativism

Like Romanticism, Post-Modernism is a poorly defined term that means different things in different contexts. But in academe, pomo can pretty much be equated with relativism. This term also means several different things, but all of them apply to pomo.

The relativism that makes me hostile to pomo is knowledge relativism or epistemological relativism. “All statements of fact are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere”. This stance can be applied to itself and immediately yields absurdity.

The other pomo relativism is aesthetic. “All value judgements of art are historically and culturally situated and thus meaningless outside a local contemporary sphere.” In other words, there are no timeless aesthetic pronouncements. Bach and the Beatles (whose work I love right here, right now) are not timeless greats. There are people now, and there will be people in the future, who don’t like them. No canon deserves any respect. There are no classics outside of marketing lingo and university syllabi. High culture and low culture are contingent constructs. No art critic has more authority than another.

I’m an aesthetic relativist who opposes post-modernism. My aesthetic stance isn’t grounded in the humanities. It’s based on a natural sciences perspective and a love of genre literature that rejects the concept of high culture. Aesthetic opinions are not traits of the artworks themselves. They are traits of people. And all people are are historically and culturally situated.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #2 – Hansen

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh's 1885 Norske Oldsager.

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh’s 1885 Norske Oldsager.


Metal detectorist Steffen Hansen has kindly given me permission to show you his tattoo sleeve. He found the strap-end at Øvre Eiker in Buskerud fylke, Norway, and had it tattooed along with other Norwegian examples of the Borre style. I haven’t got a picture of his find, but you can see what they look like in the accompanying picture of a piece from the eponymous find at Borre in nearby Vestfold fylke. The tattoo was done by Mikael “Kula” Jensen of Radich Tattoo in Mjøndalen.

The Borre style is the Viking Period’s second and most long-lived style of relief decoration, c. AD 875-975. Its frontal animal heads, often with Mickey Mouse ears, marks it as animal art and as a descendant of the Gripping Beast style, but the interlace that covers the objects’ surfaces isn’t animals. Instead it’s abstract ring braids with characteristic saw-toothed ridges, mimicking metal filigree or cord passementerie. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson has pointed out in a 2006 paper that the Borre style never occurs on offensive weaponry, but is common on jewellery, belt fittings and mounts for defensive weaponry. Thus she interprets the Borre style as a form of magical protection for the wearer.

Borre itself is a royal site with many major barrows. In all likelihood, the ship burial from c. AD 900 that gave the style its name contained a king of the Vestfold lineage. I was there in 2013, gave a talk and took a lot of pictures.

The previous instalment in our series of metal detectorist tattoos was from Hugo Falck. Us archaeologists love to see people engage with the archaeological heritage, and you don’t really get more personal about it than this. Dear Reader, have you got a tattoo of an artefact that you’ve found? I’d love to show it here!

Hagbard’s Scaffold

Sweden’s bedrock has been entirely abraded by the inland ice. It sanded down the country like a big wood planer, leaving smooth lovely outcrops known as hällar all over the place. This is the main natural prerequisite of Sweden’s rich rock art tradition. Most of it dates from the Bronze Age, 1700–500 BC.

Denmark hardly has any visible bedrock, so they don’t have much rock art over there, and what they do have tends to be on boulders. It is thus hardly surprising that when you do find figurative art on boulders in Sweden, it tends to be in the provinces closest to Denmark.

Near Asige church in Halland we have one of the most monumental examples of this. Two flat stone grave markers and two pairs of big honking menhirs with rock art on them! One pair has become embellished with an antiquarian name: Hagbards galge, “Hagbard’s Scaffold”. This refers to a tale told by Saxo Grammaticus in his History of the Danes and is probably a coinage from about 1800: after us Scandies rediscovered Medieval literature but before we realised that the world is considerably more than 6000 years old. There was a time when intellectuals thought that all Scandinavian antiquities could be explained with reference to the Sagas.

The legendary rock art surveyors Sven-Gunnar Broström and Kenneth Ihrestam have often figured here on the blog. Now they have reexamined and documented Hagbard’s Scaffold, finding lots of previously unseen motifs. (But first the County Archaeologist had someone kill and remove all the lichen on the stones.) This transforms the monument from a group of menhirs with some rock art on them into honest-to-goodness pictorial stelae! Though the mate of the birth-giver stele has only cupmarks and the mate of the shield-bearer stele has no markings at all.

Broström, S-G & Ihrestam, K. 2015. Hagbards galge. Raä 17 i Asige socken, Halland. Rapport över dokumentation av hällristningar 2015. BOTARKrapport 2015-29. Botkyrka.

Stele A, south side. The previously known concentric circles representing the sun and/or a shield have now been found to have two legs and a head, that is, we are looking at a person holding a shield and/or the sun.

Stele A, south side. The previously known concentric circles representing the sun and/or a shield have now been found to have two legs and a head, that is, we are looking at a person holding a shield and/or the sun.

Stele B, north side. Most people in Scandy rock art are just stick figures, so gender is sometimes difficult to judge. An oversized erection identifies men, like the guy bottom left. A ponytail hairdo is a common identifier for women, and there are cases where the ponytail is combined with a cupmark in the crotch. This attribute identifies the two otherwise ungendered top figures on the stele as women. Their unusual, extremely wide-legged stance suggests to me that the artist is emphasising female fertility. The concentric circles represent the sun and/or a shield here too.

Stele B, north side. Most people in Scandy rock art are just stick figures, so gender is sometimes difficult to judge. An oversized erection identifies men, like the guy bottom left. A ponytail hairdo is a common identifier for women, and there are cases where the ponytail is combined with a cupmark in the crotch. This attribute identifies the two otherwise ungendered top figures on the stele as women. Their unusual, extremely wide-legged stance suggests to me that the artist is emphasising female fertility. The concentric circles represent the sun and/or a shield here too.

Stele B, east side. The curved horizontal line and the horizontal ladder are both remains of the era's ubiquitous ships.

Stele B, east side. The curved horizontal line and the horizontal ladder are both remains of the era’s ubiquitous ships.

Danish Castle Road Trip

I spent last week in Denmark at a friendly, informative and rather unusual conference. The thirteenth Castella Maris Baltici conference (“castles of the Baltic Sea”) was a moveable feast. In five days we slept in three different towns on Zealand and Funen and spent a sum of only two days presenting our research indoors. The rest of the time we rode a bus around the area and looked at castle sites and at fortifications, secular buildings, churches and a monastery in four towns. Our Danish hosts had planned all of this so well that the schedule never broke down. Add to this that the food and accommodation were excellent, and the price very humane, and you will understand that I was very happy with the conference.

This was my second CMB. Last year in May I attended the twelfth one in Lodz, Poland. It’s an excellent education for me as I delve into High Medieval castle studies with my ongoing project about castles in Östergötland.

You might think that within such a specialised field there would be lots of debate at the conference, but actually participants present work that is mainly of local or national relevance. Your audience takes a polite interest in what you’re doing, but nobody presents any results or methods that change the game for everybody else. I imagine that this has to do with written history’s specificity. These scholars aren’t dealing with large generalised prehistoric cultural categories. They’re dealing with specific people and events at specific castle sites. If someone has found out new stuff about the architectural phasing of a certain castle in Lithuania, then this will not change the way someone in south Jutland thinks about her subject much. But every specific case presented, and every site visited, offers a wealth of details that add up to help castle scholars contextualise their work at home.

The presentation that I found the most interesting was Christofer Herrmann’s and Felix Biermann’s about recent fieldwork at Barczewko / Alt-Wartenburg in northern Poland. This wooded area, Warmia, saw a planned colonisation effort sponsored by German lords in the 14th century. Written sources document that a settlement was founded at Barczewko in 1326 and razed to the ground by Lithuanian raiders in 1354. Attracted by a long-known but undated defensive bank-and-moat, my colleagues have now mapped the site with geophys and excavated key buildings. The geophys showed a neatly planned mini-town, with a main street, a town square and a town hall. The cellars are still full of the debris from the fires set by the attackers, on top of the goods stored in the cellars, and a few bodies of murdered inhabitants. Almost a little Pompeii, and very painstakingly excavated. The pottery is dominated by Silesian designs (from the south-west part of modern Poland), giving an idea of whence the colonists came.