The Changing Fortunes of a Labour Monument

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

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

1899. The Swedish Cooperative Union is founded.

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

1932. Sweden’s first Labour government is elected.

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

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

1976. Labour loses its first election since 1932.

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

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

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

The sculpture's original plinth

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All My Readers are Descendants of Slaves

I was thinking about African American culture and how it still shows signs of these people descending from slaves, US slavery having been abolished less than 150 years ago. And I asked myself, what is that subculture going to be like a few hundred years in the future? Then it hit me. That’s where my subculture is now.

I’ve made the point before that all my readers are descendants of royalty. But a far greater percentage of our pedigrees lies with the slaves. All currently living members of the various European ethnic groups have ample slave ancestry.

Slavery was common in Iron Age Scandinavia and is particularly well documented for the era’s final part, the Viking Period. It survived into the High Middle Ages, though apparently at a far smaller scale. This was probably due largely to the 11th century introduction of Christianity. Sweden kept issuing Viking-style raiding fleets into the 13th century, but these operated within a Crusade framework against pagans on the eastern shores of the Baltic, and slave-taking does not seem to have been on the agenda. A 1337 law code finally made it illegal to enslave the child of Christian parents, and since no other religion than Christianity was tolerated, this effectively meant abolition within the ensuing generation. Meanwhile, internal colonisation on marginal land meant that by 1400 the grand-children of the last slaves, though nominally free, were tenant crofters on poor dependent farmsteads and worked for the grand-children of the last slave owners.

A difference from the US situation is that phenotypically, European slaves were not very different from their owners. Written Scandinavian sources do occasionally describe slaves as swarthy, but they dwell more on them being ugly, stooped, unwashed and uncouth. To recognise a Viking Period slave, you couldn’t look at his facial features, skin or hair. What gave him away was his bearing, his manner and his clothes. And Viking Period Scandies made no attempt to keep a tenuous colour line. Sons sired by aristocrats on their slave women could unproblematically be raised as lordlings.

Love and desire are largely colour blind among humans absent strong conditioning. African Americans of today don’t look like Western Africans (and not just because of slave-era rape). And as the centuries pass, I guess the difference between “white” and “black” Americans will blur even more, until racial profiling no longer works if a policeman wants to avoid giving the mayor’s son a speeding ticket too many. And so new subcultures will form.

Weekend Fun

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  • Played Eclipse for the first time with my new Muscovite friends Anton & Maria and frequent guest Swedepat. This Finnish 2011 boardgame has become a runaway international hit and is currently ranked #7 on Boardgame Geek. It’s about interstellar colonialism: good fun, very neatly designed, and has a lot of inherent replayability. I look forward to future games. Guess which player ended up way ahead of the cluster of three stubble-chinned losers at the end…
  • Cycled in brisk & sunny weather for a second attempt at two recalcitrant geocaches. Found nada. How the great have fallen.
  • Had dinner at friends’ place and made the acquaintance of their recently adopted 2-y-o. Lovely, bright & cute!
  • As head of the Carthaginian forces, managed to lose the unloseable 217 BC Battle of Lake Trasimene in Commands & Colours: Ancients. One fatal mistake I made was to not leave any room for my front units to flee when their morale broke. Interestingly, I learned that my opponent for the evening, Max, descends from inhabitants of Gammalsvenskby, dislocated Estonian Swedish-speakers who mass-migrated from Crimea to Sweden in the 1920s.

What where the highlights of your weekend, Dear Reader?

17th Century Pastoral Novel

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As a schoolboy I read the first original play performed publically written in Swedish, Urban Hiärne‘s Rosimunda (1665). Me and my friend Tor loved the absurd spelling, the odd changes that had occurred in the sense of many words and some of the comical one-liners. Recently I learned that about the same time Hiärne also wrote the first novel in Swedish, Stratonice (1666-68). Rosimunda deals with bloody intrigue at the Italian court of the conquering 6th century Lombard king Alboin. Stratonice is instead a pastoral romance set in the age of Alexander the Great. It is strongly derivative of the era’s pastoral fiction on the Continent.

Both of Hiärne’s works apparently conceal a subtext about his attempts to woo a certain young lady of high birth, which strikes modern readers as a liiittle iffy when we consider that Rosimunda premiered in Uppsala when Hiärne was 24 and the girl in question 12. (She in fact ended up marrying someone else.) Students at the time cultivated a courtly pastoral fandom based on the output of German pastoral literary societies, which encouraged lyrical devotion to unavailable females. Celadon, a main character in Stratonice, was also Hiärne’s alias in those circles.

Here’s a translation into modern English of Stratonice’s first two paragraphs (complete text here) just to give you a feel for what it’s about. I’ve deconvoluted the syntax and chopped up some of Hiärne’s longest sentences.


In the sixth year of Alexander’s reign, the great son of Philip, king of Macedonia, Thyrsis came from Corinth to Ephesus for the sake of the fair Castizane, whom he had long loved with all his heart. This Thyrsis was a servant of Parmenion and could not stay long in Corinth. But he had travelled a long way and was not far from where his brother Celadon, a shepherd whom he had not seen in a long time, was watering his sheep at a certain stream. And as Thyrsis did not have time to go to Athens, he wrote to his brother and asked him to come quickly to Corinth. Although Celadon had good reason to stay in Athens, brotherly love nevertheless caused him to start upon the trip. It was a cold and dry spring and there was little grazing for the sheep. Celadon, bringing ugly and starved livestock, endured hardship on the road. But his complaints were assuaged by the presence of his dearest brother before Phoebus had driven his tired horses into the Western Sea. And as Thyrsis greeted Celadon with true brotherly love, he would not let him go either before his brother had promised to accompany him to Ephesus – particularly as Parmenion employed three of Celadon’s brothers at his court and had ordered him to come. After three days with favourable wind they arrived at Ephesus in good health, but did not find Parmenion there. When Thyrsis learned that he had gone to his country manor about eleven kilometres from the city, he immediately went there across an inlet of the sea. Celadon, meanwhile, went to see his younger brothers, who greeted him with great joy. They had not seen him since a cruel plague had hit northern Nathaly, frightening these brothers and innumerable others away from the region. And so Celadon stayed at Parmenion’s court, seeing the sights of that famous city, particularly the widely celebrated Temple of Diana. After two days his brother Thyrsis came from Pelignum, where Parmenion stayed at the time, and asked Celadon to come with him there and kiss Parmenion’s hands. And so they went, bringing along Cobalus, Parmenion’s steward, who managed his court and servants. As this Cobalus was acquainted with Celadon and knew that he was not unskilled at drawing and painting, particularly portraits, he would not leave him alone before speaking to him of this.

When Celadon reached Pelignum along with his brother, he had to wait for about an hour in the hall before the august Parmenion was awake and dressed. Meanwhile he greeted Parmenion’s mother-in-law Selenista when she came in. She appeared to be a pious and meek person. Not long thereafter a veritable idol entered, who was beautiful beyond all description. Seeing her, Celadon was as if struck by lightning and felt an unexpected fire in his breast. But it died down considerably when his brother pointed out, as was shown also by the woman’s clothes, that she was of very high birth. She was the daughter of Pausanias, a powerful man, who was held above many other mighty men in the esteem of King Philip of Macedonia. He was the brother of Selenista and had joined Charon’s great army three years previously. Twelve months later his wife joined him, and so this Stratonice and her sister Sophonisbe were placed in the care of Selenista and Parmenion. And just as unexpectedly as Celadon fell in love, he fell out of it again, as when a handful of tow is set on fire and just as swiftly burns out. But he did not realise that a small spark of hope remained, telling him I know not what and encouraging him. Then he was called before Parmenion, who greeted him quite favourably and declared his wish to remain Celadon’s benevolent lord.

Iarlabanki Had This Stone Made While He Still Lived

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If we look only at contemporaneous written evidence and disregard kings, Iarlabanki Ingefastson is probably the most copiously documented Scandinavian of the Viking Period. But his name does not occur even once on vellum. His memory lives entirely in the many rune stones he commissioned.

Iarlabanki (Jarlabanke in modern Swedish) was a major landowner in Uppland north of Stockholm, and his lifetime happened to coincide with the great mid-to-late-11th century rune stone craze in that province. Iarlabanki was a Christian, probably only of the third generation, and like other monuments of the time, his testify to this faith. The inscriptions also commemorate projects like the building of roads, causeways and an assembly site, and state that Iarlabanki administered a territory corresponding to several Medieval parishes. This suggests that he was a royal bailiff and/or military officer.

Famed runologist and Custodian of Ancient Monuments Sven B.F. Jansson (Run-Janne, “Johnny Runes”) lived to see the rediscovery of several of Iarlabanki’s rune stones. Regarding the one that reports the man’s death, Jansson quipped, “After studying Iarlabanki’s rune stones for so long, we were all very sad to learn that he has passed away!”

Herbert Jankuhn Reads Selections From Mao

i-288f5b0670846ce7e63df46d92aff990-jankhe90.JPGGerman archaeologist Herbert Jankuhn (1905-90) is a contentious figure. A passionate Nazi soldier and SS archaeologist up until 1945, he became one of the country’s most influential post-war archaeologists from the late 50s onward. Fornvännen 2011:3 has just come out containing a contribution on the younger Jankuhn’s heartfelt Nazi enthusiasm, as documented by recent archive finds.

I’m reading Wolf-Dieter Tempel’s charming professional memoir, Am Rande der Archaäologie. Here’s a wonderful snippet from his recollections regarding Jankuhn, who was his teacher (and I translate).

The Göttingen archaeology seminar shared a beautiful Rococo building, the university’s erstwhile women’s clinic, with the musicologists and art historians. In February of every year the art historians would organise a carnival party to which the other two seminars were also invited. In 1969 the art historians could not organise the party. So we had the idea that we might do it. Preliminary plans were made. But everyone thought that Professor Jankuhn would not allow such an event in his seminar. Nobody dared ask. Time running short, I took a deep breath and spoke to Jankuhn as we left the building at lunch time one day. I told him that everyone thought he would not give his permission. His answer was, “Now, that was a fine way of presenting it. I heard about your plans from Mrs. Nolte (the secretary) long ago and was waiting for you to ask.” He told me he had never so far been against partying, and would give his permission as a matter of course. That first statement was of course not true. Because all my older colleagues said that there had never been any social gatherings among the co-workers at the seminar, nor previously at the museum or during the excavations at Haithabu. Be that as it may: we arranged a carnival party, and it turned out to be the only one in the history of the Institute, as I learned later.

I designed the invitation to the “Paleo-carnival”, which purposely suggested prehistoric fancy dress. But any costume would do. After I sent the invitations, Mrs. Jankuhn called me. The mandatory costume rule could not possible apply to her husband, who had never so far in his life dressed up. I told her that everyone would understand it if the Head of Department did not dress up. We would however appreciate it greatly if he were willing to greet the guests. As Mrs. Jankuhn told us later, the professor did indeed not make any preparations to adapt to the otherwise entirely costumed gathering. Mrs. Jankuhn sewed herself a Chinese costume. On the day before the party, he told his wife that if she would give him her Chinese outfit, he would go dressed up as Mao. His wife could easily improvise something for herself. And so Professor Jankuhn arrived wearing the coat-like Chinese wrapping and carrying Mao’s Little Red Book under his arm. He then read selections from it during his welcoming speech and at intervals throughout the evening, which absolutely did not please Mao’s many admirers among the students at the time.

Jane Austen LARP

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Though I played a lot of tabletop role playing games in the 80s and 90s, I’ve never been much of a live action role-player (LARPer). Just seems to be way too much preparation for such short events. So the only real LARP I ever took part in was in May of 1992 (it was called Saturday Night Live, ha-ha-ha) – until this past Sunday, when I tried again. And it was fun!

Boardgaming buddies head-hunted me for this extremely well organised LARP because they had a male deficit. The event was titled Kärlek och fördel, “Love and Advantage”. The idea was basically to collect all the main characters from Jane Austen’s 1810s novels at the same ball, “a social mine field” as one participant described it. The venue was the picturesque 1750s country house of Skärholmen.

Preparations weren’t too heavy. Most importantly, I read and enjoyed Austen’s 1814 novel Persuasion. I also grew sideburns, brushed up on the almost entirely forgotten country dances I picked up at Tolkien Society banquets 20 years ago, learned to play whist, borrowed a Regency outfit from another participant, and selected some Wordsworth and Coleridge poetry to perform. The organisers gave me a few pages of background info including my main “intrigues”, tasks or quests, for the evening. Then I was set.

I played a pretty unsavoury character, Mr. William Elliot, who ignores the son-less uncle whose baronetcy he is scheduled to inherit, who marries a woman of humble family for her money, and who upon his wife’s death decides to curry favour with his uncle again just to make sure he gets the title in due course. The main point-of-view character in Persuasion describes the man as a bit of an opportunistic psychopath, but we don’t really learn much about him except that he stares fondly at women in the street.

My tasks for the ball revolved around three women.

  • Cousin Anne. Try to charm her into marrying me.
  • The widow Mrs. Clay. Keep her from marrying my uncle, because such a union might produce a son who would rob me of the baronetcy.
  • The widow of a deceased friend of mine, Mrs. Smith. Keep her from telling cousin Anne how poorly I took care of her after my friend’s death, despite all he’d done for me.

About 85 participants spent the nine hours of the event talking (in character), dancing to live music, playing whist, performing & listening to music and poetry, and eating. Most people wore gorgeous outfits. Almost every unmarried character’s main motivation had to do with marriage. Time went fast.

As it turned out, I failed to win the heart of cousin Anne, much like in the novel. I almost managed to buy Mrs. Smith’s silence, but that player decided (quite correctly) that it would be more fun to cause a scandal, and so came into the parlour toward the end of the evening and threw a petticoat at me while yelling about my betrayal. Mrs. Clay did not charm her way into Uncle Walter’s breeches, but that was mainly because he decided to propose to the other widow, Mrs. Smith! As for my acting, such as it was, my William Elliot was of course very much more like Martin Rundkvist than the rather faceless man in the book.

Knowing that my chances with a cousin Anne who had read Persuasion were slim indeed, and having done all I could to warm her up, I reasoned as follows. Since William Elliot had loads of money, what he/I really wanted was just any young woman from the upper gentry. And one such presented herself with alacrity in the person of our host’s oldest daughter, whose biography copied that of Charlotte Lucas Lydia Bennett from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This young lady had once eloped with a man who soon ditched her, and then returned home in shame. So her family saw her as “spent” and unmarriable. But she and I soon came to an understanding. I spoke to the parents, I complimented the mother outrageously, the girl and I went on a starlit walk in the park, arm in arm, with her mother and brother as chaperones, and finally I proposed and she accepted. A union across novels, and a happy ending!

I might do this again as long as I don’t have to sew my own outfit.

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Photographs by My Durén and Susanne Baldefors.

Kalv’s Runestone

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Driving through Hagby parish in Uppland on a tiny road Friday, I was lucky enough to cross the bridge at Focksta right at the moment when the afternoon sun hit this lovely runestone straight on. I didn’t even have to get out of the car to take the photograph.

Dating from the early 11th century, the stone is an unsigned work of Åsmund KÃ¥resson (U 875). It’s unusual in that it has a couple of Bronze Age cupmarks too. The inscription reads, “Tyrvi and Ingegärd and Tjälve had this stone erected after Kalv, Tyrvi’s husband. May God and God’s mother help his spirit.”

Note the cross and the prayer. Did you know that a huge majority of the runic inscriptions date from after the Christianisation of Scandinavia? The neo-Pagans should do their scrying in Roman capitals instead.

No Sign of Cleopatra

i-ae543b86671b97dc989e70baf4088b95-a05b.gifI suddenly have this unaccountable urge to comment on the current issue of National Geographic Magazine. Maybe that isn’t so strange. I mean, after all, I like reading the mag and I’m on record as saying, in the Swedish Skeptics quarterly no less, that my ideal museum exhibition would be a 3D version of a Nat Geo feature story. Though I wonder if that’s the only reason. Well, anyway:

Nat Geo covers quite a bit of archaeology, usually of the same Great Civilisations and Opulently Furnished Tombs of Antiquity kind that we meet with in more specialised international pop-archaeomags such as Current World Archaeology. Thus, in the July issue, we find a feature by Chip Brown on the tomb of Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She was born in 69 BC, ascended to the throne at age 18, ruled successfully for two decades, and committed suicide for political reasons at age 39 in 30 BC. The study of her time is historical archaeology in Egypt, while Sweden where I work wasn’t even mentioned briefly in writing until the century following hers.

Cleopatra is said to have killed herself in a tomb stuffed with riches after Octavian’s successful invasion put an end to Egyptian independence. But nobody knows where the tomb was located. The most energetic of the people involved in the search is one Kathleen Martinez, a non-archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, who comes across as quite obsessive in the feature piece. She thinks the tomb may be somewhere at Taposiris Magna, a not very well-known city of Cleopatra’s time.

Why there? Because it had a cult of Osiris and Isis, which was not uncommon, and because Cleopatra used the imagery of Osiris and Isis in her propaganda, and… Well… Because Martinez has a hunch.

Has any evidence supporting her ideas surfaced in five seasons of fieldwork? No.

I think this is a pretty ridiculous story for Nat Geo to run.

Gobi Desert Romans Are Unfounded Speculation

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I’ve written before (123) about the Kenyan village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Medieval Chinese sailors. Now my buddy Axel Andersson has alerted me to a similar case. But here it’s sort of the other way around: a Chinese village with a poorly supported and recently concocted origin myth involving Roman soldiers.

The village of Zhelaizhai (formerly Liqian) is in Gansu province in northern China, on the border towards Inner Mongolia and on the edge of the Gobi desert. People here tend to have an unusually Europid appearance by Chinese standards, and recent DNA analyses are reported to support such a link. No archaeological support for any Roman contacts have however been reported.

In the 1950s the eminent Oxford sinologist Homer Hasenpflug Dubs suggested that the people of Zhelaizhai might be descendants of a lost Roman legion. This unsupported conjecture from a forgotten Western academic has now entered local folklore in Gansu.

If indeed people in Zhelaizhai have a much closer genetic affinity with Europeans than others in the area, then this is to my mind unlikely to have anything to do with the discreetly undocumented arrival of any Roman legion. More likely, these people are related to the Europid, tartan-wearing Bronze Age mummies of the Tarim basin in neighbouring Xingjiang province, or with their Tocharian-speaking descendants. And the Silk Road runs nearby, offering a steady supply of amorous travellers from distant parts who were more than willing to contribute to the local gene pool.

The Roman legion hypothesis is a typical attempt of an historian to pin a specific well-documented name and date onto something that actually goes way back (frustratingly, to some) into nameless prehistory.