Ridiculous School Funding Drives

A perennial annoyance for me as a parent is the many odd ways in which schools force parents to organise the funding for trips and stays at camp collectively. The general idea is sound: it would not be fair to make the parents pay up front, because then the poorer families might not be able to send their kids. But our specific cases are ridiculous, because my kids’ schools cater to some of the most affluent communities in the history of the world. I’m by far the poorest of the parents involved, and I can easily afford to pay for my kids’ trips and camp stays.

What’s particularly silly is that a lot of the accepted ways to collect the shared funding are so damned inefficient. Imagine one of these moms who’s a district attorney or a neurosurgeon or head of marketing at a tech company. She may spend six hours baking cakes and selling them at a fundraiser in order to donate the meagre proceeds to the class. But she has a huge salary! She would be able to donate twenty times that sum if she just stayed at work for those six hours instead! And when I point this out at meetings I get these looks like I had suggested that we sell one of the kids into slavery.

And then there are the “jobs” intended for the kids. “Buy a bunch of candles / a box of olive oil bottles / a clutch of ‘easily sold’ salami sausages, and send your kid out to sell them to family and neighbours”. Of course all of these families end up “buying” most of the shit from their kid instead.

My suggestion is that we should quietly agree to buy 25 jars of blueberry jam, one per kid, and then pay $600 per jar to the class treasury. So far no takers, because there’s this perception that it is important for the kids to “deserve” their trip. As if our kids weren’t one big bunch of hugely over-privileged gits to begin with.

But this year I have finally managed to steer clear. After conferring with my ex, I just wrote the organiser of this year’s olive oil campaign:

Dear Mrs. So-and-so,

Junior’s mother and I are not willing to distribute any olive oil. But we will be happy to pay for our share. Please just tell me the amount and the account number.

Best wishes,



Swedish Landscape Surprises

Taking a hint from George Hrab’s stage show, I asked my landscape history students to write me a question each anonymously on a small note. Or rather, I asked them to ”Tell me something that surprises you about the Swedish landscape you’ve seen so far”. This turned out to be a good teaching tool. I went through the stack of notes and discussed them with the students.

The Finnish and Canadian students aren’t surprised by anything at all. Their countries look like Sweden, because they have the same history of Ice Ages and a sparse population and are on the same latitude as Sweden. But 1/3 of the group are from the US, 1/4 are from East Asia, and 1/5 are from Germany. Here’s what surprises them – and remember, they’re mainly commenting on the Växjö region, a small town in a wooded province.

The most common surprise was how lush, green, pristine and “natural” Sweden is. Several respondents said the place feels so alive. To this I replied that yes, in August on a university campus where everybody’s 22 you would get that impression. But of course it also has to do with one of the two great Swedish landscape determinants: a low population pressure.

Many also wondered at the great many lakes, the flatness of the topography and the many boulders and visible rock outcrops. All of these things are due to the other great landscape determinant here: the Ice Age.

Swedish buildings are surprisingly low and widely spaced. Population pressure again.

A surprising number of houses are red. This is because brick was once fashionable and expensive, while wood and red paint was cheap and abundant. The classic red pigment used to emulate brick comes from the iron-rich tailings of the Falun copper mine.

Municipal planning is also a source of surprise. There are wide bike tracks everywhere, lots of benches in the parks, and the university campus is a separate area outside of town.

On Friday I’m taking the whole bunch on a field trip to Öland to see some archaeology.

Proposed New Swedish Metal Detecting Law Misses Mark

As I’ve written before in a number of venues (e.g. Fornvännen and Antiquity), the current Swedish metal detector legislation needs to be changed. It is too restrictive in relation to honest amateur detectorists. It is keeping them from a) making valuable contributions to archaeological research, b) saving finds for scholarship that are slowly turning to a green verdigris powder in the country’s ploughsoil, c) engaging constructively with their cultural heritage. We are decades behind the Danes on this. Metal detectors should be dealt with like hunting rifles: if a citizen passes a knowledge test on how to report finds etc., give him a licence to use the detector on ploughsoil provided the land owner and tenant give their permission, and then revoke the licence if he misbehaves.

Everybody despises nighthawk looters. Heritage management should encourage a strict division between honest daylight detectorists who report their finds on the one hand, and nighthawks on the other hand. Honest amateur detectorist associations like the detectorist section within the Gothenburg Historical Society and Rygene Detektorklubb should receive encouragement from all sectors of professional archaeology. They cultivate social norms among detectorists and teach newcomers to the hobby how to behave. Colleagues, invite them on your fieldwork projects! I could not have written my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats without them.

Now, the Eriksson heritage commission (spoken of before) has made a number of suggestions on how Swedish metal detector legislation should change. This is because frustrated amateurs have complained to the EU about the Swedish rules being a trade obstacle, and the EU has reprimanded Sweden. (Just like when Al Capone was sent to jail for tax fraud instead of organised crime.) And, as I’ve said, change is needed. Sadly, not the kind of change the commission advocates. Here’s what they’re suggesting.

The Eriksson commission wants to make it easier to get a permit for a piece of land if you intend to use the metal detector to search for anything but objects older than 1750. No permits will be issued in cases where there is reason to believe that the detector will be used to locate objects older than 1750, such as when the area in question has known archaeological sites or there is reason to believe that such may be found.

This supports the rare detectorist who haunts beaches and parks searching for modern coins and wrist watches. It still treats the majority of detectorists, who are explicitly interested in archaeology, the ones who are of any use to society, as crooks. All detectorists are in it for the fun. But the guy who trawls beaches doesn’t perform any kind of public service or engage meaningfully with the cultural heritage. The people who discover, characterise and report archaeological sites do. In Denmark, that is.

If I understand the proposed legislation correctly, it would mean a drastic or complete curtailment of the slight opportunities the current rules give serious amateur archaeologists to use metal detectors on interesting land in Sweden. It would open beaches and parks to semi-casual metal detector use and thus remove the pesky EU trade obstacle. And it would in no way change the legal environment in which nighthawk looters currently operate.

New Legal Definition of Protected Archaeological Sites in Sweden

In March of 2011, the Swedish government launched a state commission under County Governor Eva Eriksson to evaluate our legislation and national goals regarding the cultural environment. Yesterday the commission delivered its report, in which a number of interesting suggestions are made for changes to the body of law that governs Swedish archaeology.

The current law contains a definition of the protected archaeological site that has never been enforced to the letter. First it says that any remains that bear witness to how people lived in the past and are permanently abandoned enjoy protection. Then it redundantly lists a bunch of categories of such remains. According to the letter of this law, if I abandon my car it immediately becomes a protected archaeological site. Of course, this is not how the law has been used. There has been a wide temporal grey zone between abandoned cars, which everybody agrees should not enjoy this protection (though there is that one famous 60s junk yard in the Småland woods…) and Medieval ruins, which everybody agrees should be protected. Whether for instance a given 19th century crofter’s holding site has been bulldozed or painstakingly excavated at the expense of the land developer has been a matter of local negotiation. Shipwrecks though have been protected from the day they turned 100 years old, which has led to a flurry of salvage diving every time one got to about age 97. Stray small finds have also been under a 100 year limit after which finders are obliged to hand them in.

The Eriksson commission now suggests a simpler wording: everything up to AD 1750 will enjoy protection. After that date, only cemeteries will be protected. Likewise with stray small finds: protected if made before 1750. And ships sunk before 1900 will be protected. Absolute dates, not relative offsets: of course, this law will no longer be appropriate 100 or even 50 years from now. But in the past the law has changed much more frequently than that. The proposed legislation is not designed for any long use life. And anyway, the wording submitted by the commission provides an ability for the County Administration to give selected post-1750 sites and post-1900 shipwrecks legal protection, instead of the current non-enforced blanket protection.

I think these suggestions are good. We shouldn’t have laws we aren’t willing to uphold, making it difficult for citizens, companies and government agencies to determine the legal situation around land development. The 1750 limit for sites and stray finds will codify the way Swedish heritage management has operated de facto for decades. And I know of no archaeologist whose research will be impaired. On urban digs, the top strata are often bulldozed away to levels far below 1750. If I want to know about 19th century buildings, I will look at the innumerable standing ones, not at grassed-over sites where only the foundations remain.

But the commission also makes some suggestions regarding metal detectors that I am much less happy with. More on them another day.

Church of Sweden Church Sold As Housing


In England and other countries, churches have long been deconsecrated and used as shops and for housing. In Sweden, this has previously only happened to nonconformist chapels – quite frequently, actually. But now, the first Church of Sweden church with a churchyard has been sold.

֖rja church near Landskrona in Scania is a neo-Gothic yellow brick structure built in 1868 after its Medieval predecessor on the site was torn down. It was closed in 2003 due to insufficient interest from congregants, and in 2005 it was deconsecrated. But unlike the nearby 1909 new church of Maglarp, ֖rja isn’t being torn down, possibly because of its greater age and venerability. It has been sold for 1 krona to a family who intends to make it their home.

Two Museums in Minneapolis


Touching down at Minneapolis airport shortly before 19:00 last night, my wife and I were met by the charming Heather Flowers and Erin Emmerich from the Anthro Dept. They got us installed at our hotel and joined us for dinner at the food court of the monstrous Mall of America. (There’s a theme park inside it.) Then to bed.

This morning we negotiated the ample, varied and sugar-rich breakfast buffet here at the Fairfield Inn, and then went to the light rail station. We’re in the second-generation periphery of Minneapolis near the airport, outside the old industrial fringe. The roads are 6-lane highways here, the buildings huge hotels and malls, everything thinly spread like in the recently developed fringes of Chinese cities. And of course anything catering to pedestrians and cyclists is an afterthought: the railway station is under a multilevel parking garage and to get there on foot you either have to go through the mall or wander in via the automobile ramps. The train is a little clunky and rickety, but it speeds along fine, it’s not expensive and it does have bike racks. We changed to a bus at Franklin Avenue and found that apparently only poor people ride buses here. But then, this was at 09:45, so I guess anybody who wasn’t at work already was probably unemployed.

We spent 3½ hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer there. They have a bit of everything ancient and modern from around the world, in large numbers and top quality, with free admittance. A very impressive museum. But I was truly appalled to see how much recently looted archaeology they show. The Chinese collection, for instance, appears largely to have been acquired in the past 20 years, and there’s no provenance on anything. “Figurines from an 8th century Imperial burial, probably in the Luoyang region” etc. This is in stark contrast to a temporary exhibition of exquisite 15th century French mortuary sculpture from Dijon, where the context of each piece has been painstakingly documented. It’s the exact same kind of objects: sculpture from royal burials, but under very different circumstances.

The French aren’t looting their heritage, they’re curating it and lending bits of it to US museums. The main reason why the Chinese are looting theirs is demand from unscrupulous art collectors. Why is the art world still allowing this to happen? These are not just “works of art”. At least half of everything in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is archaeological finds. We should demand a detailed excavation report before we even considered touching the stuff, let alone buying it. I don’t want to see objects dug up “probably in the Luoyang region” and donated by an American collector. I want to see pieces excavated by Chinese archaeologists to modern standards of documentation and lent by a Chinese museum. I mean, look at me and my team, pinpointing fucking quartz chips with GPS in a muddy field in Södermanland, while at the same time looters are opening 8th century Imperial tombs in China and carting out T’ang sculpture by the wheel barrow, destroying its archaeological context. It’s sad, so sad.

But as I said, the museum is wonderfully rich, and if you don’t care about provenance or archaeological context you will be able to enjoy it far more than I did. We were intrigued and enlightened by a collection of 16th-17th century classicising bronze statuettes shown to us by a friendly and knowledgeable docent, and those 15th century Dijon Mourners were truly a treat.


We walked to the American Swedish Institute, which is housed in an early 20th century sandstone mansion built by a Swedish immigrant newspaper baron. Program officer Nina Clark welcomed us, fed us cardamom buns, conversed in idiomatic Swedish and showed us around. She remarked that the house is coeval with early modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright etc., yet is anchored firmly and lavishly in later 19th century bourgeois taste. It reminded me of what the Rettig family was doing with their town house in Stockholm at the same time, now home to the Royal Academy of Letters with one floor being a museum. I used to share a small office there with an extremely overdecorated pink, baby blue, gilded, eagle-topped tiled fireplace, and the ones at the American Swedish Institute are very similar. Above, myself and Nina are standing in front of one such fireplace decorated with Viking gnomes (!?), a relief plaque reproducing MÃ¥rten Eskil Winge’s “Thor Battles the Giants” and odd Oscarian variations on late-1st millennium animal art.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ASI is not some sleepy outfit commemorating a dying ethnicity and catering mainly to retirees. Quite the contrary: there’s lots going on at the Institute, to the extent that they’re extending the building substantially and in very good taste. The people of Minnesota may not speak Swedish any more, but they’re interested in Sweden, and not just in what went on there in the 1800s. We met Swedish painter/cartoonist Jesper Löfvenborg who is there as resident artist, and best-selling hated-by-critics crime novelist Camilla Läckberg was visiting just as we were. Also, speaking more generally, all three of Stieg Larsson’s crime novels are on the top-10 US sales list for the first quarter of 2011.

Walking east to the light rail though a somewhat run-down neighbourhood of two-story houses, we went back to the hotel for a nap. The idea was to go a barmeet with skeptics late in the evening. If you go to bed at 17:00 you expect to sleep maybe for an hour and a half, and jet lag made me too sleepy to think clearly. I forgot to set the alarm clock and woke at 23:30. Too late for the barmeet, which really disappointed me. And worse, it undid all the work I’d done on resetting my internal clock, and now I’m likely to be sleepy as hell for the boardgame night tomorrow.

So now it’s 02:15 in the small hours and I’m awake. But I’m also sleepy, so maybe I can get in a few hours more towards the end of the night and get my clock reset after all.

Wikileaks’ Non-Mountainous Non-Bunker


The current issue of Vanity Fair (#606, February 2011) has an interesting piece on the collaboration between Wikileaks, the Guardian and other old media. On page 110 we’re told that Wikileaks is “partly hosted on a server in Sweden that is lodged in a former nuclear bunker drilled deep inside the White Mountains”. This confused me for a moment, since there is no mountain range of that name in Sweden. Then I realised the journalist’s error and laughed.

The server plant alluded to in the article is indeed in an area known as Vita bergen, “the white mountains”. But it’s not a mountain range. It’s a low hill in central Stockholm. And the “former nuclear bunker” is one of the old bomb shelters cum garages excavated into the side of the Vita bergen hill. The place is easy to find, just take the bus to the Church of Sophia. In fact, a photograph of the facility’s entrance on page 58 of the magazine issue tells you its name: “Pionen – White Mountains“. Anybody can rent server space there.

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Gingerbread Cult of Saint Lucy

A re-run from 12 December 2006.

i-d4467813f9bd2b88c28ca0afaeae26be-Lucia 001-small.JPG

Tomorrow’s the feast-day of St Lucy, and my son’s school started off the celebrations a day early. So this afternoon, along with a lot of other parents, I had saffron buns and watched kids in Ku Klux Klan and Santa outfits form a long line and sing Christmas carols. One end of the line was mostly a few bars ahead of the other.

As a pretty recent tradition, the morning of 13 December is celebrated in Sweden with quite a bit of ceremony. It involves white-robed, predominantly young female carolers led by a candle-crowned girl, performing a specialised repertoire of songs in honour of St Lucy (Sw. Lucia) and St Stephen in addition to generic Christmas carols. Considerable amounts of candles, saffron buns, ginger biscuits, coffee and sometimes mulled wine are consumed in the process. It’s a huge deal in kiddie schools and Kindergartens. Flabberghasted Nobel laureates are woken before dawn at their hotels and relentlessly be-carolled.

This very Catholic custom is uniquely Swedish, which may be slightly surprising given the fact that the country has been Protestant since the 16th century. But winter in Sweden is dark and cold, with the weather steadily getting worse through the long autumn months. We really need a Candle Maiden in deep December when we’re still a week on the wrong side of the solstice.

Björn Fromén of the Stockholm Tolkien Society translated a combination of the two most common Lucia hymns beautifully into High Elvish (and I just can’t believe it’s almost ten years since we put it on-line!). Here’s the first verse:

Lumna cormóres nar
peler ar mardor,
or ambar alanar
caitar i mordor,
íre mir lóna már
ninquitar lícumar:
Ela i calmacolinde,

And in Swedish:

Natten går tunga fjät
runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som soln förlät
skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus
stiger med tända ljus
Sankta Lucia.
Sankta Lucia!

The tune is a traditional Neapolitan one, and the original Italian lyrics, coincidentally, are decidedly Tolkienian: Sul mare luccica l’astro d’argento…, “The silver star gleams over the sea…”.


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Recently I wrote about some policies advocated by the Swedish anti-immigration party (SD) regarding public funding of the arts. I remarked that the party’s suggestions show that their members do not have much education regarding the arts or public debates in the field during the past decades. “They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.”

One of the comments to this intrigued me. Said Robert Pearse,

As opposed to the consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, self-satisfied, city-dwelling, rich?
My, I haven’t seen such a display of elitism in years.

To begin with the factual matter, it appears that the typical voter who helped give the SD 20 seats in Swedish Parliament is not in fact consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, (self-)satisfied, city-dwelling or rich. With that out of the way, let me examine the charge of elitism.

This word is not common in Swedish political discourse. I know that it’s used a lot in the US, where it seems generally to go hand in hand with distrust of academics, and is a sort of opposite to “populism”. I was really surprised when I learned that the American Left likes to be called populist. In Europe, populist parties offer anti-immigration dissatisfaction tickets on the brown edge of the right wing. If I have to choose between elitism and populism in European terms, I’m an elitist, thank you very much.

According to Wikipedia,

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight or those who view their own views as so; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

To me, this begins to explain Mr. Pearse’s attitude. Note how he bundles “university-educated” with “rich”, and how Wikipedia enumerates “intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience”. In Sweden, where taxes are high, the public sector is large and a lot of things are free, you don’t have to be rich to get a good university education. You just have to be smart enough to study for your degree. Anybody can get a study loan here. And I certainly think that being smart and well-educated renders a person “especially fit to govern”. Who wants stupid people with no education (these two traits are separate) making important policy decisions? But as to wealth, I prefer my politicians comfortably but not extravagantly provided for.

I can really see why people would be angry with their political class, their “elite”, if the only way to join it was to pay huge term fees at Harvard or Princeton. But in Sweden, that is not the case. “Putting your kids through college” is not an issue here. Nobody has a trust fund. We pay a >30% income tax instead.

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