Danish Castle Road Trip

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

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

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

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

London Vacation

Got back last night from a six-day stay in London with wife & daughter. YuSie had rented a flat in Southwark for us via Air BnB, so we had a good base of operations. I fell ill with a bad cold halfway through our stay, which explains the complete lack of museum visits and rock gigs, but I still managed to do some fun stuff. (Left to their own devices, it turns out, the ladies will sleep late, eat big meals, shop for clothes and ride buses for fun.)

  • Outsiders in London portrait photo exhibition in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields. Lovely work, interesting subjects, and I had a long interesting chat with the photographer Milan Svanderlik. The church is denominationally vanilla CoE but has apparently long had quite a radical social agenda. Homeless people were napping in the pews.
  • Browsed in used-book stores, didn’t find anything I wanted.
  • Bought a blue woolen engineer’s cap at Laird.
  • Harrods: amazed by Egyptian escalator, flabberghasted by art department where you could buy enormous tacky statues and original Matisses. The place looks and feels like it caters mainly to the families of Arabic oil princes. Western humanities graduates will find the department store vulgar in the extreme and Harrods will not care because we are not where the money is.
  • Sunshine boat ride from Westminster bridge to Greenwich, highly recommended.
  • Guided walking tour of Spitalfields street art. Apparently the area has become a graffiti Meccah quite independently of the fact that it’s long been a famous curry Meccah known as Banglatown. I wonder what the inhabitants think of the street art imposed on them by elements of the majority population.
  • Musical: Matilda. I’m not a big fan of the form and I wasn’t happy with the production’s class-society subtext. But Tim Minchin’s tunes are catchy and everyone put in a fine performance. Craige Els absolutely killed as the horrific school headmistress Trunchbull.
  • Chinatown: I told Jrette, “This is why your Mum teaches you Chinese. There are Chinatowns all around this planet. You can walk into any one of them and be recognised on sight as someone who belongs there. Then all you have to say is ‘Dumplings please'”.
  • London Eye ferris wheel: a pleasant half-hour’s bird’s eye perspective on Westminster and Southwark. I just wish it was downstream in the Roman City.
  • Parks: Paddington St. Gardens, St. James’, Green Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens
  • Meals: noodle soup, dumplings, dim sum, Bangladeshi curries, pub lunches, fried chicken & chips, full English breakfast

Three Days In Estonia

Spent Wednesday through Friday in Estonia at the kind invitation of Marge Konsa and the Institute of History and Archaeology in Tartu. Gave a lecture on computer-aided statistics for burial studies (here’s my presentation), then went to Tallinn, where Jüri Peets and Raili Allmäe showed me the finds and horrifically battle-damaged bones from the two 8th century Swedish mass burials in ships at Salme on Saaremaa. Also had time to meet with my grad school buddy Marika Mägi and do a lot of sight-seeing. Pics on Flickr!

The vibe in Estonia is optimistic and self-confident. Plaques about EU funding are everywhere. Much fewer run-down buildings than last time I was there, in January of 2002. But there is still a lot of squalor. The post-Soviet world has a particular kind of patchy microsqualor. I found a juicy bit just a stone’s throw from the seat of government and the country’s most expensive apartments. This comes not of poverty, but of uncertainty about ownership after property was nationalised and then de-nationalised. Decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people still don’t quite know who owns certain property, and before they do, nobody will renovate it.

Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.
Graffiti in the Tartu University student jail, c. 1900.

Tartu is very much like Uppsala and Lund, down to the details of academic culture. Though mensur ritual fencing was never as big at the Swedish universities as in Tartu. I was interested to learn that among the student fraternities / nations there before WW2, there was a Jewish one with a proud Star of David on their velvet cap where other fraternities had similar symbols. Today only the more conservative and nationalistic students join fraternities, and they tend to be organised by academic subject rather that the origins of the members.

I visited the students’ jail in the attic of Tartu university, full of graffiti in German and Latin from c. 1900. There were five of these detention rooms, but four perished in a fire in the 1960s. Apparently the walls were frequently whitewashed, so with the right methods you could probably image many older layers of graffiti there.

On my way home I flew in an Air Baltic Bombardier DASH 8 from Tallinn to Riga. It’s a Canadian 1984 model.

Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.
Bombardier DASH 8 at Tallinn airport.

Jules Verne at Disneyland

Though I really enjoyed my late 70s childhood visits to Disneyland and Disneyworld, I am no friend of disnification, and I’ve always seen the Paris Disneyland as a bit of a joke. But my mom wanted to treat my kids to a visit last week, and so I came along too.

The Paris Disneyland has five sections. The US small-town nostalgia section full of Disney memorabilia shops, the faux-16th century fairytale section, the adventure movie section and the wild west section didn’t do very much for me – though the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is admittedly hugely atmospheric, and the Small World ride provided a strongly hallucinogenic (though not altogether pleasurable) experience.

The Nautilus and the moon cannon
The Nautilus and the moon cannon

The best part of Paris Disneyland is instead the retro-futuristic section, because it’s the least disnified one, and because its design largely builds upon the characteristic settings and illustrations of sometime Parisian Jules Verne’s novels. We went on board the Nautilus and we got shot out of the moon cannon onto the Space Mountain 2 roller coaster – where the security seat couldn’t quite accommodate me, so I hurt my shoulders pretty badly in addition to being scared witless.

The kids though, 15 and 10, were very happy with it all.

See also Jules Verne’s awesome grave monument.

Parked Vernian dirigible
Parked Vernian dirigible

Urban Decay in Istanbul

Last winter I was amazed by the poor upkeep afforded to buildings in central Marrakech. I spent part of last week in fascinating Istanbul, and there it was again: plentiful ruins of recent buildings in the middle of busy shopping and hotel districts. Istanbul is in even worse shape than Marrakech. Many older houses are only maintained on the ground floor. There may be eight ruinous floors on top, eroding steadily and falling piecemeal into the street.

Many property owners in Istanbul fit their buildings with horizontal metal-grille shelves sticking out from the facade above the first floor. This keeps bits of a building from falling onto the tourists frequenting the street-level shops that pay the rent. The grilles and their installation must cost a pretty penny. Still owners prefer them to putting the money into renovation.

Again, I wonder about the economics of this. Is the dilapidation a result of some poorly worded rule intended to protect historic buildings? Are the property owners waiting for the old buildings to collapse so they can legitimately tear the remains down and build higher and more profitable structures?

Or is there insufficient demand for housing and office space in central Istanbul, so that the only parts of the buildings that actually pay for themselves are the ones catering to tourists?

Then I thought maybe the problem with getting property owners to pay for upkeep isn’t insufficient carrot, but insufficient whip. Perhaps the reason no Stockholm property owner behaves like this is that if she does, she will get her ass kicked by the authorities. So I asked the city planning office of Stockholm municipality, stadsbyggnadskontoret. And they kindly explained that there are two levels of whip on these issues in Stockholm. The Planning Code demands that you keep your property in good shape: if you don’t, the city planning office will tell you to either get the problem fixed or pay a fine. And if, as is common in Istanbul, your building becomes so decrepit that it’s dangerous to people in or near it, you will no longer be allowed to use your building, for instance by letting out shop space in it.

Or maybe it’s neither carrot nor whip, but a culturally established readiness to see buildings in severe disrepair, combined with a unwillingness or inability to invest now for long-term profit.

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.