Help Me Proofread My Book

Screenshot from 2015-02-05 15:49:44Bitte Granlund of Happy Book has sent me PDF proofs for my forthcoming Bronze Age book, looking bee-you-tiful!

If you’d like to help me proofread it, please email me. Everyone who finds ten errors gets a dedicated copy sent by mail.

To my delight, the response to my plea has been strong. At the moment I believe I have enough volunteer proof readers.


Best Reads of 2014

Jon Peterson: Playing at the World. Highly recommended to gamers!

Jon Peterson: Playing at the World. Highly recommended to gamers!

Here are my best reads in English during 2014. My total was 49 books and 14 of them were e-books. Find me at Goodreads!

  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. Arika Okrent 2009.
  • Redshirts. John Scalzi 2012. Space opera from the viewpoint of the nameless extras.
  • The Bone People. Keri Hulme 1984. This novel has great strengths in the language and characterisation. And a major weakness in the almost nonexistent plotting. Very little happens in these 450 pages, and what happens is not well motivated either from the characters’ point of view or from a technical narrative perspective.
  • Little Brother. Cory Doctorow 2008. A rousing, somewhat preachy story of young people fighting for civil liberties. Similar enough to the author’s Pirate Cinema that you needn’t read both. If you’re more into privacy issues, read LB. If intellectual property issues, read PC. Both make very good gifts for bright teenagers.
  • The Crow Road. Iain Banks 1992. This novel is full of cunningly constructed motif parallelism involving glass and eyes. Reader, stay alert!
  • The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong. William Somerset Maugham 1930.
  • Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventure from Chess to Role-Playing Games. Jon Peterson 2012. As a late-80s teen, my main interests were role-playing games, choose-your-own-adventure books, boardgames, fantasy miniatures, text adventure software and fantasy fiction. I still have a love of all these things, and of history, and so it would be difficult to envision a subject matter for a book that would be better-tailored to my taste. And the execution — the scholarship in this book and the writing and the illustrations — are absolutely top-notch. Amazing stuff!
  • Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. Olivia Judson 2002. An evolutionary view of how sex and procreation works in various species of animal.
  • Johannes Cabal: the Necromancer. Jonathan L. Howard 2009. Humorous and otherworldly about a humourless wizard out to reclaim his sold soul from the Devil.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Jared Diamond 2005. World-spanning investigation into why and how some societies collapse and others don’t.

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

Here’s my list for 2013.

New Popular Book On The Viking Period

Anders Winroth (born in 1965) is a Swedish historian who received his PhD from Columbia in 1996 and now holds an endowed professorship in history at Yale. He has written several books on the Viking Period for lay readers, the latest one of which I’ve been given to review.

The main contents of The Age of the Vikings is organised into eight chapters on:

  • Raiding and warfare
  • Emigration and overseas settlement
  • Ships in reality and mythology
  • Trade
  • The development of political leadership
  • Home life in Scandinavia and the roles of women
  • Religion
  • Arts and letters

All eight are well written and interesting (though the final arts chapter consists of brief poorly linked essays, repeats points already made and gives the impression of padding). Throughout, Winborg stresses the importance to period society of the military retinue and the redistribution of plunder. If a person wants to approach the Viking Period for the first time or get a refresher on where scholarship is standing right now, then I am happy to recommend this fine book.

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.

Then again, the Viking Period is far more of an archaeological period than a historical one if you look at the shelf metres occupied by the source material. And historian Winroth slips a lot when he uses the archaeological record. He thanks three eminent historians for commenting on the manuscript (p. 253). I think he should have included an archaeologist or two. Though I have written three academic books that deal largely with the Viking Period, I would never attempt a general synthesis of the period without involving historians. I will end this brief review with an errata list that I hope will be useful if a second edition appears one day.

Winroth, A. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton University Press. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14985-1.


3. Gold foil figures belong to the Vendel Period, not the subsequent Viking Period.

7. “9.5 square meters” : this would be a pretty cramped mead hall.

24. “OnämNsdotter” → Onämsdotter

26. The modern English word “Hell” comes down from Old Norse Hel, the name of both the Norse land of the dead and it’s ruling goddess. It has nothing to do with being Christian.

29, caption. All Viking Period spears had “sharpened points”, so the ones used at the Battle of Maldon were not unusual in this respect.

33, caption. Swords have grips, not handles.

39. The problem of whether berserks and wulfheodenas existed cannot be approached exclusively from the textual sources, as Winroth does. We also have to look at period imagery such as the embossed-foil scenes on Vendel Period helmets and the Lewis chessmen, biting their shields.

44. Styrstad is east of Norrköping, not west.

46. Of course the two Röriks in Holland and Russia had never heard of Rörik in Styrstad. He wasn’t born yet, but would live in the 11th century as shown by the date of his rune stone.

51. Winroth thinks Jordanes made up the Scandinavian origin myth of the Goths. This is a controversial opinion, since almost all the many Germanic gentes had similar origin myths. I don’t think the myths are true, but I think they are authentic 6th century beliefs.

89. “Many runestones also have images of ships, but only one * also mentions the ship in its text.” Insert “of these” at asterisk. Several runestones mention ships but have no ship imagery.

111. Birka and Sorte Muld are irrelevant in the context of 11th century rune stones.

113. The claws of furry animals decompose as easily as their hair and skin, and therefore rarely survive in the archaeological record. Their phalange bones, however, are common, and these are what Winroth seems to be referring to here.

114. “glass pearls” → glass beads (Swedicism)

135. Archaeologists have hardly found any gold or silver arm rings in graves. They were apparently recast or disposed of in hoards.

140. This Roman Period tableware is irrelevant to the Viking Period.

149. Cremation produces shrunken and cracked white bones, not ashes.

150. “trelleborgs also contained cemeteries” : The cemeteries of the trelleborgs were outside the fortifications.

168. Whatever the perforated pottery was used for, it certainly wasn’t to “sieve the milk”. Viking Period milkmaids didn’t drop more straw into their buckets than modern ones.

171. The longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

171. An Iron Age longhouse has three aisles, not “three naves”.

173. Again: the longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

173. The development of the great hall building preceded the Viking Period by several centuries: it happened in the Migration Period.

173. Pole barns are common, not unusual.

175. Single non-village farms occur in populous farming districts too, not just in isolated locations.

Plate 4. The stone ship in the image dates from the Late Bronze Age, as can be seen from the fact that its constituent standing stones touch instead of being spaced out like the ribs of a Viking ship.

Plate 10. The animal-head posts from Oseberg are depicted on the tapestry in the same burial and have something to do with sledges, not furniture.

193. The Uppåkra drinking cup with the embossed foil decoration is not a “pitcher”.

193. Like the development of the hall building, the move of sacrifices away from lakes and indoors happened in the Migration Period, not the Viking Period.

215. “Runes were used for two millennia” : From AD 150 to 1900, that is, 1.75 millennia.

217. “Proto-Germanic” (three times) : the earliest runic inscription are in Proto-Norse, a language that is attested in writing unlike its theoretical parent language Proto-Germanic.

217. Another major reason why inscriptions in the Younger Futhark are so much easier to read than those in the Elder Futkark is that the later inscriptions use word-spacing characters.

220. Dróttkvætt: the name of this verse metre means “metre of lords”, not “meter suitable for a lord’s band of retainers”.

236, caption. The tale of Sigurd Fafnir’s bane is not a “myth” in the cosmographical sense that scholars of religion ascribe to the word.

289. Telling the reader that the spears thrown at Maldon had “sharpened points” is redundant: it’s comparable to saying that the warriors involved used “swords with blades”.

Rocky Horror References John Carter

“He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs 1917, A Princess of Mars


Frank N. Furter: “How forceful you are, Brad. Such a perfect specimen of manhood. So… dominant. You must be awfully proud of him, Janet. Do you have any tattoos, Brad?”

Richard O’Brien 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Shades of Dr. Jones

Lives_in_Ruins_Cover_low-res_2-210I’ve read Marilyn Johnson’s forthcoming book Lives in Ruins. Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. It’s a collection of lively and enthusiastic portraits of contemporary archaeologists in their professional environment. Some may find the tone a bit too enthusiastic, pantingly so in parts, but that’s a matter of taste. Archaeologists should arguably be thankful to have a friend like Marilyn Johnson.

Still, she’s an outside observer of our tribe, and she approaches us from a very particular direction. Take her introductory statement that “Field school … usually takes place in a desert or jungle … charging tuition, quite a lot of it, usually thousands of dollars” (p. 15). This certainly isn’t true in Europe, and to my knowledge not in the US either. Most professional archaeologists worldwide have never paid to attend extramural field school and have never worked in jungles or deserts. In fact, field school is usually simply a module on undergraduate courses and is organised locally by lecturers at an archaeology department.

This misrepresentation is characteristic of Johnson’s overall approach to archaeology. It wouldn’t be fair to say that she romanticises the discipline. She’s very open about the dirty and strenuous nature of fieldwork, and about the abysmal career prospects. But she definitely makes archaeology out to be far more exciting and adventurous than most of it really is. The rubble we study generally offers very little in the way of the subtitle’s “seductive lure”. But Johnson will have the reader believe that archaeology is “the exotic, gutsy, authentic alternative to the tamed and packaged life” (p. 130).

I should pause here to note that my own strange career in archaeology does kind of fit the Marilyn Johnson model. Living with very little financial security, I do lead expeditions to exciting sites that will never be touched by land development. The words of maritime archaeologist Kathy Abbass quoted on p. 117-118 mirror my own life choices: “So who is in worse shape – the one who mostly followed passion and knows how to live on a shoestring, or the one who continued in a drudge job for elusive economic security and is probably deep in debt, too?” But my point is that you would learn very little about what the Swedish archaeological profession is like by studying my modus operandi. I am an oddity. And so are most of Johnson’s interviewees.

She keeps coming back to those jungles and deserts. Johnson tells us she looked for “a place with an exotic background to learn the basics of fieldwork” (p. 20) as if this demands no explanation. Most of her selected interviewees excavate in far-off corners of the world, but Johnson never tells the reader that this is a minority behaviour within the profession. In fact, the typical archaeologist is found working on a humdrum site threatened by a highway project within 25 km of a major Western city. To the extent that she ever sees jungles or deserts, it’s on her vacation, and she goes there to take time off from archaeology.

Johnson covers such full-time contract archaeologists only briefly and they show up two thirds through the book. Contract archaeology is where all the jobs are, but this book describes it as the last resort of the desperate! “When she was twenty years old, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr … Moran had been so determined to work as an archaeologist that she took a job on a field crew for a [Cultural Resource Management] firm” (p. 183).

I received a pre-print copy of the book for review, apparently because Aard is either a “Men’s Interest Site” (!) or a “Book Blog” according to the illuminating and surprising back-cover box about the marketing campaign. My copy has the unfortunate front cover shown above that I hope the publisher will change in the final print edition. But it’s actually kind of apt for the book.

It’s a photo montage of three objects, all to different scales, and none of which is used or found by archaeologists. There’s an odd slender hammer that looks like it might belong to a shoemaker. This probably refers obliquely to a geologist’s hammer, which is of no concern to archaeologists. There’s a cleanly defleshed undamaged rodent cranium with its lower jaw in place: clearly a specimen from a modern zoological collection which has never been underground. Finally there’s a plumb bob, rarely used these days thanks to digital measuring gear.

This cover imagery, no doubt put together by a non-archaeologist in HarperCollins’s publicity department, inadvertently shows quite well what the book is about: enthusiastically reproducing popular misconceptions about what archaeology is like. Like the Indiana Jones movies that Johnson salutes, Lives in Ruins is fun, engaging and not particularly realistic.

Marilyn Johnson. 2014. Lives in Ruins. Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. New York: HarperCollins. 257 pp. ISBN 978-0-06-212718.

Stockholm Archaeology Library Opens Up Further

The library of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters is (one of?) Scandinavia’s biggest research library (ies) for archaeology, the history of art and allied disciplines. Since it’s co-located with the archives of the National Heritage Board in the East Stable next to the Swedish History Museum, it’s an amazing place to do research. And it just got even better.

Librarian Annika Eriksson tells me they have been working on this for quite some time, and now they’ve got it up and running. The library’s assortment of commercial digital resources – notably hundreds of paywalled research journals – is now available over the internet to holders of a library card. And it’s linked on an individual-paper basis to the two main bibliographical databases relevant to Swedish archaeologists, VITALIS and LIBRIS. This means that those two databases just got even more useful to us who use the library.

All you need to do to get access is visit the East Stable and sign up for a free library card — if you haven’t already got one. No need to be a professional or even a Swedish national.

Sigfrid Steinberg: “Only Teach Such People To Read Who Will Like Good Books”

I’ve been reading a 1974 edition of Sigfrid Steinberg’s 1955 classic Five Hundred Years Of Printing. Overall I’ve found it interesting and instructive, with a fine touch of sarcastic humour. But I came across a few paragraphs on the value of universal literacy that are so alien to me that I almost had to rub my eyes.

Compulsory and free education on the elementary-school level was achieved, at least on paper, in most civilized countries in the course of the nineteenth century … At the same time … there is the basic question of the purpose of educating the masses. What use is the knowledge of reading if it is applied to worthless or even debasing trash? (Ch. III:6, pp. 324-325)

In the society where me and my kids grew up, literacy is seen as an inalienable human right. The question is never “Should we let these people learn how to read”, but “How can we help people who are being denied this basic right”. To me, an aesthetic relativist, it’s breath-takingly naïve of Steinberg to complain that people use this literacy to read stuff he doesn’t approve of. They didn’t ask for your opinion, man, and somebody did teach you to read despite not knowing what your taste would be like.

He goes on with doom and gloom that is incomprehensible 60 years later:

The utilitarians were confident that improved education would result in greater fitness for coping with the economic and technical advances of the time: liberal politicians predicted from it a better preparation for good citizenship and a growth of international understanding. We know the results. ‘The penalty of universal literacy’, as a writer in The Times Literary Supplement put it (30 October 1953), may well be our ‘moving into an age when everyone will know how to read but none will turn his knowledge to good purpose’. (Ch. III:6, pp. 325)

What was the problem to these people’s minds in the early 50s!?

Beyond the rights of the individual, universal literacy is of course a requisite for a functioning democracy. Just as we don’t let people drive without a licence, we can’t give everybody among ourselves the parliamentary vote unless we also ensure that we’ll all make a reasonably informed choice. (Political TV advertising should of course be illegal. For shame, USA.)

But the man is aware of this point and, inconsistently, seems to support it – unless he assumes an anti-democratic reader. Having told us that only people who share his taste should be allowed to learn to read, on the same page he goes on:

The transformation of the newspaper into an instrument of mass-information and mass-education, into the voice … of democracy, is the major contribution of the United States of America to the history of the printed word. (Ch. III:6, pp. 325-326)

I guess there’s a reason why Sigfrid Steinberg is remembered as an historian of the book business and not as a political thinker.

Viga-Glum’s Fits Of Murderous Laughter

Sweden doesn’t have much of a written record for the Viking Period. We have most of the rune stones but hardly any of the sagas. And thus among Swedish Viking scholars it is not uncommon to be rather poorly read, like I am, in the eddas, the sagas and the other written sources of the period. The Viking Period is pretty much prehistoric archaeology to us.

Still, even in Sweden you can’t study the period without picking up a few fragments of the written lore. And in my reading, one of the best passages I’ve come across is this description of Viga-Glum’s reaction to trespassing neighbours from the saga that bears his name. Glum is the son of Eyolf and Astrida and lives with his mother after the father’s death. He is introduced thus:

Glum took very little trouble about household matters, and seemed to be somewhat slow in coming to his full faculties. He was for the most part silent and undemonstrative, tall, of a dark complexion, with straight white hair; a powerful man, who seemed rather awkward and shy, and never went to the places where men met together.

The up-and-coming young chieftain Sigmund and his father Thorkel are grabbing bits of Glum’s family property.

One morning Astrida woke Glum up and told him that many of Sigmund’s cattle had got into their home field and wanted to break in among the hay which was laid in heaps.

“I am not strong enough to drive them out, and the men are all at work.”

He replied, “Well, you have not often asked me to work, and there shall be no offence in your doing so now.”

So he jumped up, took his horse, and a large stick in his hand, drove the cattle briskly off the farm, thrashing them well until they came to the homestead of Thorkel and Sigmund, and then he let them do whatever mischief they might please. Thorkel was looking after the hay and the fences that morning, and Sigmund was with the labourers.

The former called out to Glum, “You may be sure people will not stand this at your hands – that you should damage their beasts in this way, though you may have got some credit while you were abroad.”

Glum answered, “The beasts are not injured yet, but if they come again and trespass upon us some of them will be lamed, and you will have to make the best of it; it is all you will get; we are not going to suffer damage by your cattle any longer.”

Sigmund cried out, “You talk big, Glum, but in our eyes you are now just as great a simpleton as when you went away, and we shall not order our affairs according to your nonsense.”

Glum went home, and then a fit of laughter came upon him, and affected him in such a manner that he turned quite pale, and tears burst from his eyes, like large hailstones. He was often afterwards taken in this way when the appetite for killing someone came upon him.

(Ch. 7, last paragraph, Edmund Head’s 1866 translation with a few 21st century tweaks of mine.)

Thanks to Anne Monikander for helping me find the passage, which I had misattributed first to Gretti Asmundarson and then to Gisli Sursson.

Alboin and Cunimund in Hell

Back in 2012 we had a look at the first novel written in Swedish, 1666/68’s Stratonice by Urban Hiärne (1641-1724). He went on to become a high-ranking doctor, founded a hydrotherapeutic spa resort, was instrumental in putting an end to the Swedish witch hunts and fathered 26 children by his three wives. But before all this, at the suggestion of professor Olof Rudbeckius Sr., he also found time to write the first original play performed in Swedish: Rosimunda. This was student theatre, with a cast of young noblemen, put on to entertain the 11-y-o future king Carolus XI at Uppsala Castle on 15 August in 1665.

Hiärne took the material for his play from Paul the Deacon’s narrative about the 6th century hero king of the Lombards, Alboin. (I don’t know if Hiärne read Rucellai’s 1525 play in Italian on the same theme.) Alboin defeated the Gepids in AD 567, killed their last king Cunimund and forced the Gepid princess Rosamund to marry him. After Alboin served his wife wine out of her own father’s skull, she conspired with her husband’s foster-brother Helmichis and the Byzantines and had Alboin assassinated in 572.

The play consists mainly of long verse monologues, but in Act 4, Scene 4 we get some pretty funny dialogue. My favourite line is the smug yet resigned Det ähr förseent att gaalnas, “It’s too late now to get all worked up.” Cunimund is in the Land of the Dead and has just watched Rosamund and Helmichis kill Alboin. (And I translate:)

Cunimund’s ghost:

Yes! That was right! The inhuman dog
Has now received fair payment
For manslaughter, for the abominable wine cup
For enmity and blood-thirst
For mockery, for scorn, for the dismembered body
For cutting off my head.
I had to die thus, in order for you, Rosamund
Truly my child and my daughter
To prove definitively
That you take after your lord father.
I praise your laudable hands
And your nature that shows no degeneration.
But you, vile Alboin, have learned
To your great cost
What comes of angering my beloved daughter
Wronging her
And serving her such an awful drink
Which she would avenge.
Oh, did you not know, deluded one
And have you not learned
That the mighty heavenly avengers will not
Leave such vices unpunished?
Righteous revenge followed you
Though it travelled slowly.
But do not think that I am satisfied
By what happened to you just now.
There are no pains hellish enough
For what you truly deserve.
Yes, the thirst and unbearable hunger of Tantalus
Even such punishment would be too good for you.
But beware, you appalling blood-hound:
What you have suffered so far
Is but the vengeance and duty of my passionate daughter.
There is more to come:
To a grimmer court and harsher judgement
Will I soon sue you.

Alboin’s ghost enters at full sprint, delirious.

But look, there he comes, poor wretch.
That fellow is not in his right mind
Fear-struck, as if mad and demented
He shakes, gargles, makes threats.
What a troll! Oh dear, look at him
Like horned Hecate!
He reveals his uncontrolled mind
With a hundred crazy antics
Stares at the sky and the ground with awful eyes
Bitter, dizzy and burning.

A: Oh gods in heaven! And you, Rosamund!

C: He has evil intentions.

A: Oh you Rosamund, you Rosamund!

C: What’s wrong with you, madman?

A: You’ll get what you deserve, and soon!

C: It’s too late now to get all worked up.

Alboin runs up to Cunimund and slaps him in the face.

A: Who are you, weird-looking goat beard?
Oh it’s you, who have fathered
Such a vile and dreadful daughter!

C: A righteous daughter.

A: Yes, she, who has done this to her husband – – –
Oh, I can’t stand talking about it!

Alboin begins to rave again.

I want to come after you now, right away, right away!
Just look at that bent old heartless man!
You should watch out for me.
Who will give me his torch, so I can
Hit the old cod across the neck?
Where is the sword flecked with my blood?
I hate this disgraceful delay
In having myself avenged.
Oh, you ungrateful dog, Helmichis!
Oh, how dear you were to me, Rosamund
And how did you repay me?

A great blue flame rises, as if Phlegeton wishes to reclaim the ghosts.

Let’s see — where am I? What am I doing here?
Oh, wait just a little, Pluto! I’ll be with you shortly.
My path leads downward after all.
I will be there in good time.
But first let me get my hands on them.
Guardsmen! Run, run, run, good men!
Be swift and kill them both!
But spare my Alswinda, my lovely daughter in waiting.
Hurry, hurry, seize them, hang them, burn them!

Alboin exits, running.


Who knows where he runs in his madness?
I know the company he keeps.
He is plotting against my Rosamund
But I shall travel away with him
To the pit of Styx, where the two of us
Shall settle our differences decisively.

The earth splits and the ghost of Cunimund swiftly climbs inside; then the crack closes.

The Muddler’s Button Collection And Multivariate Statistics

I put Tove Jansson’s Moomin character the Muddler, Sw. Rådd-djuret, into a presentation. It’s about multivariate statistics for archaeologists, and I accompany the picture with the following quotation.

How could you forget about the Muddler when you launched the ship, Sniff said accusingly. Did he ever get his button collection back into order?

Oh yes, many times, said Moominpappa. He came up with new button systems all the time. Sorted them according to colour or size or shape or material, or according to how much he liked them.

Amazing, Sniff said dreamily.

— Tove Jansson 1968, The Exploits Of Moominpappa, Ch. 3

The reason, for any Dear Reader who makes do in their daily life without correspondence analysis, is that archaeologists have a constant need to look at many different traits in our source material at the same time without going cross-eyed. We need to sort stuff — objects, closed finds, entire sites — according to colour, size, shape, material AND according to how much we like them, simultaneously.