“Don’t Call Us, Call National Property”

Yesterday we had a guest entry from Lars Amréus, the Director General of the National Heritage Board about the signage with fringe theories at a much-visited archaeological site in southern Sweden. As I read it, the main take-away message is ”Sorry, I know this used to be our job but it isn’t any more”. So if you want to be charitable, you might say that N. Heritage has not strictly speaking abdicated from its responsibility. It was dethroned and had to hand the crown to N. Property. I haven’t heard that N. Heritage fought the decision, but I don’t know everything. Maybe they did. Or maybe they invited it.

This however raises the question of what Qaisar Mahmood was doing, answering questions about the site in the local newspaper. He’s a section head at N. Heritage, immediately subordinate to Amréus. As late as a few days ago, he spoke about the signage at Ales stenar as something N. Heritage owned. His boss now tells us that what Mahmood should have replied was “Don’t call us, call N. Property”. Did Mahmood even know when the journalist called that the site was not his responsibility? In fact, N. Property has been in charge of Ales stenar since 1 January 2015. And they still haven’t gotten around to putting their logo on the official sign.

Amréus invokes freedom of speech. He has misunderstood it. Freedom of speech does not mean that you have the right to express yourself in media owned by other people. I don’t have the right to write whatever I want in official pamphlets from N. Heritage. I don’t have the right to put up permanent signs on public property. And nor does Bob.

The Director General’s reaction to my words about a hypothetical sign is nothing short of bizarre in its prim formalism. Look at this exchange:

MR: “You should get rid of Bob’s crazy sign. I mean, it’s not like you would let extreme-right Odin cultists put up a sign. So you should take down Bob’s too even though it’s not political.”

Director General: “I strongly resent Dr. Rundkvist’s implication that we would take down a sign put up by extreme-right Odin cultists!”

I’ve spent most of the past quarter century doing archaeological research. Over this period I’ve seen the National Heritage Board grow less relevant to what I do. Three of its units are still extremely important to me: the world-class Sites and Monuments Register, the ATA archives, and the library in Stockholm, though that is run in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Letters. I also greatly appreciate the Runes Project (staff: 2 PhD runologists), though if I’m not misinformed it is at least partly funded by the Royal Academy. What N. Heritage increasingly offers is answers about heritage ideology. This is not useful to me. But then, I am not the Ministry of Culture and N. Heritage makes no claim to cater primarily to my needs.

So. Who should we talk to at the National Property Board to get the Ales stenar situation rectified? Anybody know?

National Heritage Board Abdicates Again At Ales Stenar

Bob Lind has yet again managed to get the National Heritage Board to abdicate its responsibility at Ales Stenar, a beautiful 7th century AD burial monument near Ystad in southern Sweden. Bob has self-published odd interpretations of the site that have found no traction among professional archaeologists. He has kept vigil at Ales stenar for decades, lecturing to visitors, ranting at the municipal guides and occasionally attacking them. He has a very large sign on site, next to the National Heritage Board’s, with permission from the County Archaeologist. My colleague Björn Wallebom has criticised this, and the local paper ran a critical article yesterday, quoting myself and others.

In 2007 the National Heritage Board’s representative Ewa Bergdahl said on this subject,

There isn’t just one single truth. This place is so incredibly more complex than previously believed, … You have no privileged position with us just because you do research at a university

And this tiresome old post-modernist anti-science relativism persists at the Board. This time it’s Qaisar Mahmood, my buddy from Leftie and refugee volunteering circles, who says stupid things to the press without the benefit of any archaeological training.

Our responsibility is to present the image we think is right. It would be wrong if we took measures to exclude other images. … We have seen no reason to file a complaint against the County Archaeologist’s decision. We take responsibility for what is ours. Just because we don’t file a complaint it doesn’t mean that we support or open the door to other versions.


Vårt ansvar ligger i att ge den bild vi tycker är rätt. Det är fel om vi skulle gå in och utesluta andra bilder. … Vi har inte sett något behov att överklaga länsstyrelsens beslut. Vi tar ansvar för det som är vårt. Bara för att vi inte överklagar betyder det inte att vi står bakom eller släpper fram andra versioner.

1. The National Heritage Board’s responsibility is to present the image that scientific consensus thinks is right. Nobody else’s. Certainly not its non-archaeological office staff’s.

2. The Board owns this property. Its staff are not taking responsibility for what is theirs.

3. The fact that the Board doesn’t file a complaint does mean that it supports and opens the door to other versions.

4. If someone wanted to post an equally pseudo-scientific sign about Odin that contained hints of extreme-right propaganda, then the Board would not allow it.

5. When the National Heritage Board allows a sign with a discredited interpretation at a high-profile archaeological site that it owns, then it is equivalent to public hospitals allowing faith healers to roam the corridors, tending to patients.

Qaisar, archaeology is a science. I do not get to speak for medicine, Latvian studies or meteorology. You do not get to speak for archaeology. Scholarly consensus is the arbiter of truth in these matters.

Update same day: Qaisar Mahmood and the Board’s Custodian Lars Amreus have responded briefly on Facebook and Twitter to my criticism. If I understand them correctly, their line is that the Board of National Antiquities does not in fact own Ales stenar, they recently handed it over to the National Property Board. This organisation has never made any claim to archaeological authority. And it creates the question, why then does Qaisar Mahmood of National Heritage talk to the press about Ales stenar? As I said, this is an abdication of responsibility.

And another update: Qaisar has given me a long public reply on Fb, and I’ll try to summarise it fairly here. He’s saying that my expectations of what role the National Heritage Board is supposed to play in Swedish archaeology are no longer supported by its directives from the Ministry of Culture. The Board has in fact not abdicated from any position of archaeological authority in the case of Ales stenar. It can’t abdicate, because it no longer makes any claim to such a position. Those are not its orders from our elected officials. I’m sure Qaisar knows what he’s talking about. I just shake my head and wonder, will the real Board of National Antiquities please stand up?

Signage at Ales stenar. Left: two copies of a sign from Ystad municipality and the National Heritage Board. Right: Bob Lind’s signs.

My blogging about Bob’s antics has grown voluminous over the years. Read it all here with a new category tag.

Autumn Speaking Schedule

mr550pxFor the first time since 2011 I haven’t got any teaching this autumn semester, which is really bad both for my finances and for my troop morale. (I feel like my colleagues would celebrate or not even notice if I got eaten by a grue tomorrow.) To boost both I’m instead seeking paid extramural speaking gigs. Here’s what I’ve got scheduled at the moment.

  • 27 Sept. On early local history, in Sickla.
  • 6 Oct. On the Skällvik castle excavation, in Söderköping.
  • 19 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Jönköping.
  • 20 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Visby.
  • 27 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Karlstad.
  • 2 Nov. On the local Iron Age and Middle Ages, in Vadstena.
  • 3 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Linköping.
  • 6 Nov. On early local history, at Skogsö.
  • 7 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Södertälje.
  • 9 Nov. On early local history, in Sickla.
  • 15 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Malmö: Sir Toby’s, Davidshallsgatan 21.

Dear Reader, would you like to hire me as a speaker?

Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.
Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.

Fornvännen 2015:4 is now on-line on Open Access.

Toby Martin: The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (part 2)

Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England
Toby Martin 2015, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

Back around Christmas I reviewed the first three chapters of Toby Martin’s big book about Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches. Those are the technical chapters dealing with typology and chronology, and I loved them. They are rock solid. Now I’ve read the remaining four chapters that deal with the societal interpretation of the brooches. In the following I am going to use the author’s given name because Martin is me.

I think Toby’s investigations and interpretations here are excellent. I particularly like his painstaking study of how the cruciform brooches relate to osteological age and sex, and to the cremation versus inhumation rites. Also how he emphasises that his three typological periods for the brooches aren’t just a convenient dating instrument, charting some kind of blind typological drift. Toby insists quite rightly that the phasing is evidence that people’s ideas about these brooches changed rather dramatically. A phase A brooch from AD 450 meant something completely different to its owner and observers than a phase C brooch would in AD 550.

So I have no complaint about the meat of this study. But I am rather unhappy with its packaging. Chapters 4-7 suffer considerably from theoretical bloat. Toby is rehashing a lot of theoretical arguments that have very little bearing on the matter at hand and are largely quite old. One might call it decorative theory. It looks like Toby is signalling to a certain type of reader who is more interested in theory than in Anglo-Saxon England. His book is a worse read for it.

See for instance the intro to chapter 4 on page 129. It is completely divorced from the concrete reality of Anglo-Saxon England. Everything on this page would apply equally well to Bronze Age China. Or see p. 205-208, where Toby recounts 25-year-old fringe arguments from someone who thought that biological sex (as distinct from social and symbolic gender) is not a natural dichotomy. And then he shrugs the whole thing off and says that for the present intents and purposes, it’s all about osteological sexing anyway so the distinction is moot! My opinion about the 1990 paper that Toby references is that true, there are a few hermaphrodites out there, but they are far less common than people with only one leg, and we nevertheless assume that people in the past generally had two legs. It’s not something he needed to cover.

Then there’s Ian Hodder’s old 80s chestnut “material culture is active”. I have always felt that this tenet of post-modern archaeology is rather vacuous. People repeat it endlessly but it doesn’t actually change the way they argue about the past. The symbolic potential of material culture was after all not discovered in 1982. Toby however is ambivalent. A few times he repeats the tenet for decorative purposes, but then on p. 231 he suddenly says “The objects were capable of nothing by themselves.” And he’s so right! People make objects which transmit messages and other people are later influenced by these messages. Mental culture is not divorced from its material correlates. This however does not mean that material culture is active, any more than the words I address to my kids are active. I am an agent. “Please empty the dishwasher” is not. And nor is the dishwasher.

Enough complaints about the paint job. Here’s some further points about the machine.

I really like Toby’s discussion (p. 146) about phase B brooches (AD 475-550). They combine discrete types of head, bow, foot etc. rather freely. And the finds of lead master models not for entire brooches, but for these separate anatomical parts of brooches, indicate that the artisans actually constructed their repertoire of brooch designs much the same way that Toby has himself constructed their typology.

Toby repeatedly states that he doesn’t think cruciform brooches were recycled for metal very often (e.g. p. 133, 142). His main argument for this position is that a considerable proportion of the brooches we find in graves and in the ploughsoil show evidence of wear and repair. This argument holds no water. Recycled brooches are invisible to us. We can never know what proportion was recycled, nor how common in was for old, worn, repaired brooches to get recycled. He shouldn’t have taken a position on this issue IMO.

Toby demonstrates neatly and painstakingly that during phase A (AD 420-475) the brooches were worn by girls and women of every age, on their dresses. Then during phase B they were worn mainly by women aged over 25, on their cloaks. In this society, women usually died between age 26 and 40: clearly phase B cruciform brooches were part of a matronly role. Now, I may have missed Toby saying this, and I will change this review if it turns out that he has, but I don’t remember him commenting on the situational difference between a dress and a cloak. Your dress is only visible indoors, in privacy. You wear your cloak over it, outdoors, in the public space. So with the start of phase B, the cruciform brooch not only becomes restricted to older women with a certain amount of power, but also to their public personas away from home.

Two points about language.

I really, really don’t like the use of the word “traditional” (e.g. p. 228) to describe the established consensus view on a scientific issue. It suggests that the consensus view is old, unexamined, uncritically accepted, poorly founded. And that the author knows much better than his “traditional” forebears. In fact consensus views in science are only achieved through a lot of hard work and discussion among very smart people. The next time Toby is tempted to call a viewpoint traditional, I suggest that instead he refer to the works of scholars who have sided recently with that view in the literature.

Toby mostly uses the word “elites” in contexts where it is ambiguous whether he means several groups or several people. But occasionally (e.g. p. 189) he slips and shows that he thinks that me and my buddies can be “elites” (if we weren’t actually bolshy proles, that is). This is like calling a football player “a team”. Very ugly error.

Final words, repeated from the first review: it is my firm belief that future work on English cruciform brooches will strictly be footnotes to Toby Martin. He should be a model for us all in how he deals with small finds!

Martin, Toby F. 2015. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 25. Boydell Press. Woodbridge. 338 pp. plus plates. ISBN 978-1-84383-993-4.

January Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • 2015 was an amazing year for scifi movies. The Martian, Fury Road, Force Awakens. And I hear Ex Machina is good too?
  • Tess Parks’s “Life Is But A Dream” sounds exactly like Mazzy Star.
  • Tolkien Society flea market / fundraiser, late 80s. I’m in my larper tunic and baggy-sleeved shirt. An old lady loudly asks her friend, “Was that a boy in a dress?”
  • Jack the Ripper was into one night stabs.
  • Signed off on Jr’s first ID. “You are the bows from which your children / as living arrows are sent forth.”
  • Deezer took a look at my druggy favourites, then played me “White Rabbit” and “Eight Miles High”.
  • Love this! My old department, the one where you could get your model T Ford any colour you liked as long as it was post-modernist, is advertising four PhD studentships. And they’re all in nat-sci collaborations…
  • Omg omg omg — huge international celebrity reviews my latest book, and opens with the words “This exquisite little book is an enticing and delightful presentation of investigations into the findspots of Bronze Age artefacts around Stockholm in eastern Sweden”!
  • Snooki: “Tonight is the night of the party. Get it all out, frickin’ do everything that you can, you know. Have sex with an old man, steal a plant, and then get arrested, and then do whatever.”
  • Bought a box of mixed cuts of high-end happy-cow veal, found an Eye of Round, Lat. semitendinosus, Sw. nötrulle. After reading up on it I soaked it in brine for three days, then boiled it for three hours. Lovely beefy sandwich meat.
  • Just carried two very small snoring refugees from my car into an overnight shelter.
  • Research into fusion reactors since the 50s hasn’t produced a machine that puts out more energy than goes in. But it’s advanced science’s understanding of plasma and how to contain it with magnetic fields enormously. A leaky plasma container is a thoroughly understood technology now, though pretty useless in a reactor. But in space, a leaky plasma container is basically a rocket engine for which you hardly need to bring any fuel. You just need electric power from solar panels or a small fission reactor to heat the plasma.
  • They’ve discovered twelve new elements since I was in high school. And they’ve named unnilhexium Seaborgium.
  • Jrette: “Moan boo, drunken dwarfs have turned my chair facing the wrong way!”
  • Unlike scientific results, academic fashions are socially constructed.
  • Danes! I salute you! Causa Sui is a bloody amazing band!
  • Getting drunk and sex-harassing women is sadly a common type of misbehaviour among men worldwide. But is there a custom in certain countries where you do this traditionally to celebrate New Year’s Eve?

August Pieces Of My Mind #2

Registering the bones from this summer's fieldwork at Landsjö.
Registering the bones from this summer’s fieldwork at Landsjö.
  • Getting rid of excess stuff. Azerbaijani dude with a huge beautiful beard showed up on his wife’s orders and collected both bike baby seats, the rolling baby stool, the dinner table lamp and the microwave oven. *happy*
  • My wife’s workout app is giving her orders. It sounds like a very, very strange satnav.
  • User interface fail: our new microwave oven has not only start/stop buttons, but also on/off buttons that control whether the start/stop buttons are responsive or not.
  • Oh great, LinkedIn. You tried to find a job for me and emailed me the results. Ten jobs in fact. All of which had in common that they are in my home town and have nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m skilled at.
  • It always saddens me to see a librarian with shelf-inflicted wounds.
  • I idly comment in an Facebook thread on the issue of how old the cult of the Aesir is likely to be, reporting what I’ve understood of my reading of current academic literature on the history of religion. Dude tells me I’ve lost the argument because I’m just arguing from authority.
  • Is there a quick rule of thumb to tell a stylist from a stylite?
  • The Swedish Geological Survey has quietly doubled the chronological resolution of their shoreline maps! You can get them for every 500 years now instead of every 1000!
  • Cherry Twister sound exactly like Teenage Fanclub.
  • An anonymous German university wants my Bronze Age book. That’s nice and I would be happy to donate a copy. But instead of writing me, they’ve put in an order with a bookseller, who’s written me. Annoyingly inefficient.
  • When I get turned down for teaching jobs, I console myself with the thought that the scholars who influence their fields strongly, and get studied by historians of science afterwards, aren’t the ones who teach full time for years and years. As an archaeology teacher, you mainly get to influence the thinking of future archivists and bus drivers. So if you want me to STFU, just hire me and keep me busy.
  • Should I put in the fieldwork report that while registering the bone bags I was semi-nude, outdoors and listening to extremely druggy music?
  • Would you like me to Roger your Bacon?
  • The Chinese just outweirded me again. They’ve got something called “the Hundred Surnames”, which are exceptionally common. Among these are several true homophones, I just learned. So there’s the Zhang family and the Zhang family: same pinyin transcription, same tone, different characters.
  • Feta cheese in a vacuum pack keeps way way past its use-by date. Nom nom nom.
  • Looking inland from Kalundborg’s West Castle, you see a big fat Bronze Age barrow. This, the locals explained, was probably hard to avoid given how common these barrows are in the area.
  • Mulberries are amazingly good. And amazingly messy.
  • I often get the voice parsing input started by mistake on my phone. Now when I want to try it out I can’t turn it on.
  • Dear colleague. I am truly grateful to you for giving your paper in English. I sadly don’t know your native language. But frankly you are boring us all to tears by reading a manuscript out instead of improvising.
  • I learned on this trip that you can easily see across the Great Belt and Öresund. Medieval Denmark was pretty integrated.
  • Colleague demonstrates his grasp of Schwiizerdütsch with a series of vaguely Danish-sounding gurgles. Claims they mean “Have you already had your Ovomaltine cocoa this morning?”.
  • “Redemption” is such a strange word and concept. In US English you can barely read a movie review without coming across it. Yet in Swedish we hardly ever use its equivalents outside a religious context. And since few Swedes are religious, we rarely use the concept at all. I feel no need for or possibility of redemption.
  • Apollo is “Apollon” in Swedish, which means “monkey’s bell end”.
  • Eight young women in head scarves and Pakistani clothes are playing soccer in the field next to our house.
  • Incredible contrast between the 17th century’s oil paintings and Scandy sculpture. Like two completely separate traditions, the latter grotesque and abstract, divorced from the Classical heritage.
  • Hey, I’d vote for Jeremy Corbyn!
  • Been handy today: bought a doormat, long screws (no) with plugs, an electric plug and a window holder ajarer; used them to mat a door, fix a Pilaster book shelf to a newly painted wall, reenable my reading lamp after my dad installed earthed sockets, and hold a window ajar.
  • Updating my freshman presentations. Since last year, the oldest known stone tools have moved from 2.6 to 3.4 mya, and from Homo habilis to some Australopithecine. The bulk date of the great clearance-cairn areas of Småland has moved from the Early Iron Age to the High Middle Ages.
  • Reading this paper by a Scandy scholar whose English is shaky. They describe the defenders of a besieged castle using “guns, piles and stones”. Ow, me bum…
  • Hawkwind’s most beloved song, “Master of the Universe”, has huge information redundancy. It’s just one riff played in unison by bass and rhythm guitar all the way through, plus aimless quiet noodling on the lead guitar and swishy noises from the keyboards.
  • Movie: Dheepan. War-traumatised Tamil man-woman-child form a fake family to enter France, settle in ghetto shaken by drug gang fighting. Grade: pass with distinction.
  • Oh sure, LinkedIn. I’m definitely the right man to head a pharma research team working on immuno oncology. Thanks for telling me about the job!

July Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • Jrette wandering around watching TV on the iPad, overturning and breaking things in the kitchen. *sigh*
  • Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.
  • Jrette stole my zombie novel — Carey’s 2014 Girl With All The Gifts — and proclaimed it to be the best book she’s read in ages. Now I am bookless.
  • Mistakenly read two global catastrophe novels in a row. Now everything around looks temporary.
  • Jrette is twelve today! I asked her if she doesn’t find the Vampire Diaries scary. “I would, only with a dad who’s a scientist, I’m not afraid of supernatural things.”
  • Pittentian in Perthshire is a fine place name. Means “Willie No 10” in Swedish.
  • No, Google Music’s randomiser, the fact that I like Queens of the Stone Age and a few tunes by Eagles of Death Metal does not mean that you should play me lots of songs by the various bands that Josh Homme sings in, and little else.
  • The vagueness of Medieval land ownership is infuriating. You could buy a farm, then years later for some reason receive a document from the former owner emphasising again that you did indeed buy the farm, and then his cousin would show up and demand that you hand the farm back because it used to belong to his granddad. Or the Crown. Or a bishop’s see. It had to do with ancient ideas about land belonging to lineages, where one’s relatives could have right of first purchase, or where land could simply be inalienable.
  • Jrette wore my denim jacket to the movies!
  • Check out my guest entries in Swedish on the Östergötland County Museum’s blog about the Stensö and Landsjö digs.
New kitchen finally almost done after over two months of awkwardness!
New kitchen finally almost done after over two months of awkwardness!

Gun Stash Suddenly Unavailable

A colleague of mine has left contract archaeology to work for the police as a civil utredare, that is, someone with a university degree who works on crime cases despite not being a policeperson. He told me a pretty neat story about Gubbligan, the Old Man’s Gang.

The OMG were three professional bank robbers who never settled down. In the 00s they were in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and still they kept committing armed robberies across southern Sweden. The police were onto them and had begun to tap the gang’s cell phones. This way they learned that the OMG had an arms stash out in the woods, where they had buried some pretty heavy weaponry and explosives.

The police now had a little problem. They weren’t quite ready to arrest the gang, and if they dug up the stash they would alert their quarry. On the other hand, it wasn’t very comfortable to let the gang keep their guns and explosives just like that. Then someone had a pretty neat idea.

The next time the OMG popped by to check on their stash out in elk country, they found it buried under half a ton of sugar beets. Across the clearing, just under the eaves of the woods, was a freshly built hunting stand.

The Old Man’s Gang were apprehended in 2010 and are currently serving another one of their usual long jail sentences.

For more about the OMG, see Anders Svensson’s blog.

Sketches of Boz

In the second novel-length third of Stephen Jarvis’s hefty Death and Mr Pickwick, artist and caricaturist Robert Seymour starts in earnest to put ideas together for the Pickwick Papers. Yes, that’s right: here (as maybe in reality) it is the illustrator who comes up with the concept for the book, but being dyslexic and proud he doesn’t want to write it himself. Narrative pictures with brief “letterpress” text added by someone else afterwards is an established form at the time. Charles Dickens finally makes his entrance on the novel’s stage, first as as “Chatham Charlie”, then under his pen name “Boz”, and receives the commission to write the book. He gets the job because a more well-known writer turns it down, and because Boz is believed to be good at keeping to deadlines in a serialised form. Twelve thousand words a month!

The frame story continues to be interesting. Here, fat Mr. Inbelicate continually tries to convince the incredulous narrator that Seymour conceived most of Pickwick, and instructs him to write the novel thus. This of course mirrors the relationship between Seymour and Boz. Mr. Inbelicate has the idea for the book and has collected vast historical materials for it, but for some reason he can’t or won’t write it himself.

As in the first third of the novel, the digressions are many (what on Earth is the gratuitously cruel story of that electro-doctor doing there!?), and so are the minor characters, almost all of whom are male. Reading this fat paper book, which I have serialised for convenience into three volumes using a kitchen knife, I really missed the search function of an e-book. It would have been immensely useful in order to keep track of the many not very memorable participants in the 1830s London publishing scene.

At one point we see Seymour driven almost to suicide after being lampooned in print by a publisher he’s quarrelled with. And we see him moving to a new address with a summer house in the back garden, the very place where we know from real history that he will finally end his life after Pickwick’s initial instalments appear. The first third of the novel has Seymour. This the second third has Seymour + Boz clashing over creative control. The last third will have Boz only, and I expect Seymour’s widow Jane to step to the fore as a more important character (after 540 pp.) to claim her share of the bounty from the best-selling serialised novel. Stay tuned.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the final third on 9 May.