Vestfold Barrows and Mead-Halls

The Midgardsenteret visitors’ centre at Borre invited me to give a talk about my Östergötland elite settlement project. This went well, with a sizeable and appreciative audience last night. One gentleman explained that they had all learned Swedish from watching kids’ TV when they were little. Today I went on a royal Late Iron Age binge.

This is Vestfold, home of the Norwegian branch of the Ynglingar dynasty, with sites like Oseberg, Gokstad, Kaupang, Huseby, Gulli – and Borre. The ancient cemetery starts right outside the main entrance to Midgardsenteret with some low mounds of respectable diameter. And then, as you walk down the slow slope towards the shore of Viken, the place goes absolutely nuts with absurdly huge barrows.

One of the largest ones was quarried away for road-building in the 19th century, yielding the first known but poorly preserved major ship burial, dating to the early 10th century. There’s been debate over whether Borre is really the dynastic burial site of the Ynglingar whom Snorri Sturluson tells of in the Heimskringla. I’ll just say this. If that line of Viking Period kings was an historical reality – which no historian seems to question seriously – then there is no way in Hel that they would have allowed anybody else to accumulate a uniquely huge barrow cemetery anywhere west of the Scandinavian mountain range – let alone at Borre, smack bang in the middle of Vestfold. The minute another family tried to build their barrow number two, or a slightly too large barrow number one, their mead hall would be burning merrily and surrounded by the Ynglingar retinue on a cleanup mission, swords in hands. Also, each barrow at Borre presupposes control over huge labour, which equals political power.

I scaled all the major barrows and cairns including the isolated Fiddler’s Barrow to the south, saw the sunken traces of Bjørn Myhre’s 1980s/90s test trenches (no archive report, no publication), saw the tricorn, saw the site of the great hall foundations revealed by GP radar, and looked unhappily at the huge robber trenches in the barrows. I really hope they’re 13th century (and thus evidence for behaviour among people I study) and not 18th century (and thus modern vandalism). Then I checked out the unusually early and unusually oriented church nearby. That’s what the Borre family built after they quit erecting barrows. And finally I was shown the new mead hall reconstruction near Borre, huge and ornately carved in the Oseberg style, with a twelve metre roof and narrative relief panels on the four central roof posts. The tale of Beowulf is illustrated by the same Vendel helmet warrior images as grace Fornvännen’s cover!

After lunch the Midgardsentret’s master blacksmith Hans Johnny Hansen drove me to the Oseberg ship barrow, sitting next to a little stream at the bottom of a wide valley, the least monumental location possible. On past the Traveller’s Barrow to Tønsberg where H.J. showed me the new replica of the Oseberg ship – blew my mind! Also lovely replicas of the smaller Gokstad rowboats and a replica of another mid-size ship. The master smith, who personally made all the thousands of clench nails for the Oseberg replica, pointed at the brass screws holding this latter ship together and made skeptical noises.

I spent my last two hours in Tønsberg at the museum, checking out the Klåstad wreck of a 10th century trading ship, the collection of whale skeletons, finds from the two 12th century battlefields at Re and an exhibition about the resistance against the German occupation in the 40s. I was chilled to read an account by their regional leader of how two young local women were found through phone wire tapping to have taken lovers in the Gestapo. The resistance immediately kidnapped and jailed both women. “We were debating whether to terminate or deport them. But finally we sent them by boat to Sweden, largely because they had made themselves useful in jail, cleaning the place up and cooking for the guards. They later sent Christmas cards from Sweden to their lovers, which we intercepted, but they didn’t seem to abuse their situation over there. So I’m glad we decided to let them live.” After the war, the children born to such women during the occupation were infamously poorly treated.


Urban Decay and Renewal in Marrakech

I saw something odd in Marrakech recently. Along the main avenues there was a considerable amount of construction going on. But also properties right next door that had clearly been vacated years ago without receiving new buildings. And newish buildings and shop space that were boarded up. Freshly painted fronts of closed restaurants that looked like they’d opened and failed within the past year, right on downtown main street.

Moving out a few blocks from the main drags, there were entire abandoned buildings. And in the Medina / Old Town, buildings that had been abandoned so long ago that they were in ruins, roofless. Right in the middle of extremely densely developed urban quarters. Add to this the townspeople’s timeless habit of using abandoned properties as no-fee garbage dumps, and you can imagine the squalor.

What are the economics of this? Our recently published guide book described an ongoing demographic takeover of the Medina where foreigners are buying up the old riad houses and renovating them as holiday homes. In the face of this demand, the locals are selling out and moving to the suburbs. So there is some demand for properties in Marrakech. But it seems weak or inefficiently mediated. Very alien to me, coming from a country where we only occasionally see severely dilapidated buildings way out in the countryside.

Gothic Greetings From Velvet-Season Crimea

My dynamic friend and colleague Frans-Arne Stylegar has managed to liberate a respectable sum of Norwegian oil money to fund a collaboration with Ukrainian archaeologists under the direction of professor Igor Khrapunov. The first results of this collaboration have been two international conferences on the theme “Between Two Seas. Northern Barbarians From Scandinavia To The Black Sea”. I was kindly invited to take part in the second one, at the beach resort of Gaspra near Yalta on Crimea’s Black Sea coast, from which I now report to you, Dear Reader.

The reason that scholars in Ukraine and Norway might have something to talk about at all can be summarised in one word: Goths. Written sources allow us to follow this mobile and successful East Germanic-speaking ethnic group backward through time and across Europe from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century to the mouth of the River Vistula in the 1st century. Each step in this migration has a reasonable counterpart in an archaeological culture.

Prior to that, we don’t know if the Goths moved and, if so, whence. In the 6th century they believed that they had come from southern Sweden across the Baltic Sea. This idea of an early migration is not supported by the archaeology, and it should be noted that in the 6th century, all Germanic-speaking groups cultivated tribal mythology that placed their origins in Scandinavia. It is however uncontroversial that there have always been some level of contact between Sweden and the Vistula estuary throughout the millennia, particularly among the elite.

A more specific description of the conference’s theme might be “Evidence for contacts between the Baltic and the Black Sea shores in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries”. I don’t have much to add to this discussion, but I have been involved with Swedish cemeteries that have recently yielded finds of exclusive Black Sea glassware which aren’t widely known. So in addition to presenting a survey of this new evidence, I decided to summarise recent Scandinavian debate on the conference’s theme that Eastern colleagues may not be aware of.

The thinking habits of North-western and Eastern European archaeologists are very different. It’s probably fair to say that the most Westerners see the Easterners as theoretically backward, and most Easterners see the Westerners as quite extraterrestrial. At the conference I have been continually dismayed at the Easterners’ habit of making unproblematic equations between archaeological entities and historically documented ethnic labels. And perhaps worse: if the written sources name three ethnic groups, then my Eastern colleagues will look for three archaeological entities – not two, not four. Several presenters even believe that they can recognise ethnic groups from the shapes of people’s skulls, even though we are dealing with a period of extreme ethnic mobility, mixing and upheaval. And ethnicity is after all in a person’s mind, not in her bones. (Americans, please quit using that word as a euphemism for race!)

The great strength of the Easterners, in my opinion, is the value they place on an intimate knowledge of the source material. Few Scandinavian academics can compete with them on that arena. It is thus no surprise that the Scandinavians at the conference are mainly museum and excavation unit employees, with a few retired academics. Myself, I’m seen as a conservative and naïvely empirical scholar in some Scandinavian academic circles. Yet in this company I’m a radical theoretician.

Nevertheless, I wish to thank Frans Arne, Prof. Khrapunov and the Kingdom of Norway warmly for supporting my participation here. It is by far the most generous conference invitation I have ever received: “If you can show up at Simferopol airport on Wednesday 3 October with a prepared presentation, then we will take care of everything for you while you’re here.”

Yesterday we rode a bus and jeeps to the last place on the planet where Gothic is known to have been spoken natively (by an Asian-eyed 18th century fellow who looked like a Tartar): the mountaintop fastness of Mangup. It has at various times been the home of Goths, Orthodox monks, Muslim Tartars and, most exotically to me, Karaites, a group of tartarised Jews who follow the Torah but not the Talmud. Breathtaking view, beautiful High Medieval fortifications and church ruins, intriguing subterranean rooms that are difficult to date because all the culture layers have been cleaned out from them. Walking down the long path through the leafy woods past the Early Modern Karaite cemetery to the valley floor, my legs eventually began to tremble in a familiar post-coital manner.

My sumptuous hotel room has a balcony fronting on the Black Sea, in which I swim daily. We enjoy three great buffet meals a day. Post-Soviet recovery is apparent everywhere. The scent of evergreens is always on the wind. In the evenings my Russian colleagues sing beautifully in a moonlit bower with a bottle of local wine. Early autumn is known as the Velvet Season here in Crimea – between the oppressive summer heat and the rains of early winter. No wonder this is Eastern Europe’s Côte Azur.

London Weekend With Both The Young Dudes

Spent Friday though Sunday in London with Junior and his buddy, both 14. My original plan had been to find a gaming convention with both a video game track and a boardgame track. But failing that, I got tickets for the Eurogamer Expo at the Earls Court Convention Centre in London, which is all video games. My once substantial interest in such has long evaporated, but I kept the Saturday free for other activities.

In order to be sure to get the boys into the fair I had to buy a ticket for myself as well, and I checked out the place without finding anything that caught my interest. It was all in all a fine setup and well worth visiting for the aficionado. But three things were positively repellent: the dominance for first-person military simulations, the poor wifi, and the (admittedly few) booth babes in scanty clothing. A small but considerable proportion of the attendees were girls and young women. I find it really embarrassing that they should have to confront skinny bottle-bleached models in orange hot pants. And as a male I’m insulted by exhibitors who think I’ll be more interested in their products if their representatives show cleavage. By all means, more women in the booths and as attendees! But as knowledgeable and interested people, not as walking Barbie dolls.

Friday while the boys were revelling in the digital, I went to the British Music Experience, a pop music museum housed in an annexe to the O2 event arena. Saw a lot of pop memorabilia and video clips and had a good time on my own. Then I picked up the young gentlemen, had a proper curry dinner and played two games of Munchkin at the hotel.

Saturday we went to the Science Museum, spending most of our hours there checking out the Alan Turing Centennial Exhibition and rocketry history in detail and participating in Google’s Chrome exhibition with interactive music, robots drawing in sand and more. The boys didn’t want to leave. The music thing was particularly cool, with a large room full of acoustic instruments jacked up to computers and all controlled by a sequencer. Some instruments were programmed by people on the net and others by us who visited the exhibition. Fun! I was also thrilled to see a V2 and learn that those rockets were the first spacecraft — though only in order to reach England fast. Then we walked along the Embankment from Westminster to the Millennium Bridge and spent an hour mudlarking at sunset on the riverbed as it was successively revealed by the ebbing tide. It’s one big culture layer: mostly brick, roof slates and bone, but also pottery, clay pipes, glass, flint and more. Judging from the darkened but otherwise pristine state of the bones, an 18th century culture layer has recently been washed out here. Then fish & chips at a Lebanese place and reading until bedtime.

Sunday the boys went back to the fair and I had lunch with Ed, one of the finest students who dug at Skamby in ’05, and his charming wife Olivia. Good people, good times! Then I shepherded the young masters back home (subway, train, plane, bus, subway, commuter train), our only mishap being that airport security confiscated the bullet-shaped caps of the freebie memory sticks they had scored at the fair.

Sixth World Skeptics Conference

I’m at the Sixth World Skeptics Conference in Berlin, co-organised by the German GWUP and the US CSI. These conferences have been going on biannually since the mid-90s with a recent hiatus. It’s the first time I’m at a skeptical event in Continental Europe. With only 300 seats it’s not quite as planet-spanning as its name suggests, but it’s a good crowd anyway. Some impressions:

  • I prefer to be a speaker at conferences.
  • I’m doing some intensive networking for the Swedish Skeptics who sent me here.
  • Also talent scouting for the European meeting we’re organising next year.
  • It’s good to hear speakers who are not on the Anglophone circuit I’ve been following live and on podcasts in recent years.
  • Good venue, good food, lovely greenery in the courtyard.
  • Good schedule with ample opportunity to talk to people.
  • Open day for the public is a good idea when you’ve paid speakers to fly in.
  • Best talks so far: Eugenie Scott and Johan Braeckman, both on creationism.
  • Looking forward to: Rebecca Watson and Chris French.

Rare Plane


Rode a pretty rare/air plane Bromma – Kallinge on Friday morning. It was a Saab 2000, a 1992 Swedish turboprop model of which only 63 where ever built. (Apparently they saw daylight in the mistaken hope that customers would want a turboprop this size, rather than the ubiquitous jets, and lost Saab a lot of money.) This one belongs to Golden Air. On the way back I rode one of those paunchy ATR 72-500s. Both models have their cargo bays right behind the cockpit.

Bronze Age Mortuary Cult In Viborg


Yesterday I went to Jutish Viborg by train, plane and bus. This took a bit less than eight hours. Exiting Aalborg airport into the icy sleet I managed to walk straight into the glass wind breaker outside the turnstile, banging my forehead and knee. Everybody around studiously avoided noticing my antics. On arriving in Viborg I found the museum, met some colleagues and received a key for the visiting scholars’ building at Asmild that I’m staying in. Then to the city library where there is warmth and (flaky) wifi, and where I am now sitting again. Wednesday ended in good company with colleagues at the Chinese buffet place The Great Wall. (I complimented the cook in bad Mandarin and asked about the mantou.)

Sadly I have a Danish language problem. I read it all the time and I can usually follow a public talk in Danish unless the speaker is from rural Funen. But I find it really hard to pick up more than about every third word of an informal multilateral conversation in a noisy environment. And people here don’t understand my Swedish very well either. So I’ve been speaking slow Swedish with many pauses and as many Danish words as I can remember, or falling back on English.

This morning was lovely and sunny. I walked across the isthmus into town and treated myself to a hotel breakfast and speedy wifi. Then a nice walk back clockwise around half of the South Lake to the South Mill where the seminar I’d come for was.

It’s been an interesting day and I’ve talked to about a score of people, several of whom I’ve been corresponding with for years but never met before. Notable among the latter are Skalk’s editor Christian Adamsen, Bronze Age nestor Henrik Thrane and my fellow sacrificial finds scholar Lise Frost. The list of attendees numbers 55 people, mostly Jutish contract archaeologists and museum curators.

The theme was Bronze Age mortuary cult in the local cultural landscape. It is common knowledge that the inhumation barrows of the Early Bronze Age tended to be re-used for urn burial in the Late Bronze Age. But here we got to see how elaborate this re-use could be. Various structures were often built along the foot of such a re-used barrow, including paired post holes suggesting little wooden altars or pulpits to communicate with a given burial, large semicircular ditch features and entire post-borne buildings. Often LBA people actually preferred Neolithic barrows to the more recent EBA ones. Urn burials were not just inserted into a barrow’s fabric, but also often extended onto flat ground around it, particularly in the Early Iron Age.

Our charming host Martin Mikkelsen explained something that made me face-palm. Of course all ancient monuments sustain damage if you plough them. And if you plough over a BA barrow, you will destroy a lot of the LBA urn burials inserted into its upper layers. Keep at it long enough, and in the end you will of course hit the primary EBA burial too. But…

When the Danes realised these threats, they scheduled a lot of their best-preserved barrows, which meant that the farmers couldn’t plough over them. Instead they ploughed around them, since the visible monument was what enjoyed protection. (In bad cases they would plough the barrow square.) This means that a scheduled barrow is usually better-preserved today, but whatever was around it under flat ground is pretty much gone. Whereas an unscheduled barrow in tilled soil is usually hard to even find any more, but the subterranean LBA and EIA features around its foot are well preserved – because the farmer has ploughed out the barrow to form a protective layer of deeper plough soil over the flat ground features!

The landscape archaeological theme that ostensibly binds this series of seminars together (I reviewed previous report here) was almost entirely absent from the proceedings. One guy from Odense did make some comments on such aspects, but since Odense is on Funen I couldn’t quite understand what he said.

In other news, I received the brand new report from last year’s seminar, titled Bebyggelsen I yngre bronzealders lokale kulturlandskab (Eds Sanne Boddum et al., Viborg 2012), and an off-print of a new paper where they have radiocarbon-dated cremated bones from furnished graves to test the absolute chronology of the Danish Bronze Age. No big surprises turned up there, showing that Oscar Montelius got it about right in the 1880s by means of cross-dating with Mediterranean and Near Eastern written dynastic chronology. The main piece of news in Bronze Age chronology since then is that the period starts closer to 1700 than 1800 BC as Montelius thought.

I shall now buy some breakfast for tomorrow, eat some kebab and wend my way back to Asmild for an off-line evening of reading. Tomorrow I’ll hit the museum exhibits (to me, an archaeological museum is otherwise primarily a finds storage facility, where some objects can be unavailable for study because they are in the exhibition) and then take the half-past-five bus back to Aalborg. And I’ll try not to walk into that glass wind breaker again.

Spring Travel & Speaking Schedule

  • 25-26 February. Blankaholm, Swedish East Coast archaeology conference, speaking about picture stones
  • 7-9 March. Danish Viborg, Bronze Age burial conference
  • 15-17 March. Paris, European Archaeological Council, Annual Meeting
  • 21 March. Stockholm, Senioruniversitetet / ABF, speaking about pseudoarchaeology
  • 24 March. Eskilstuna skeptics group, speaking about pseudoarchaeology
  • 16 April. VästerÃ¥s / Westeros, Senioruniversitetet, speaking about regional archaeology
  • 28 April. Gothenburg, Swedish Skeptics’ annual meeting, emcee
  • 5 May. Olofström, speaking about Harry Martinson
  • 18-20 May. Berlin, 6th World Skeptics’ Congress

Anybody want to meet up, gimme a shout!

Rue Poirier de Narcay

When I was 16 in 1988 I spent a couple of days in Paris with a language school. I brought the address for a game store, one that advertised in White Dwarf magazine. It was on Rue Poirier de Narcay, which turned out not to be a central location, and so I never went there. But I’ve wondered off and on through the years about this funny street name, “The street of the pear tree of Narcay”.

And now, of course, the net can cure any idle wonderings in an instant. Turns out, the street is named for a medical doctor, Robert Poirier de Narcay, whose dissertation De l’ascite congénitale was published in 1884. It’s about congenital ascites, “abdominal dropsy”. In 1900 the doctor published the novel La Bossue, “The Hunchbacked Woman”, which was re-issued in 1980.

So, no pear tree outside the game store.