Friday, March 31, 2006

Headline of the Year

My friend Pär found the headline of the year in today's issue of free newspaper Metro.
"Inebriated Psychopath
Masturbates in Sauna"

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Salto sobrius is on a carnival roll again, currently featured on no less than four, all of which are highly recommended. Blog carnivals are thematic collections of select new blog entries.
Tangled Bank: science, mainly biology, medicine and natural history.

Skeptics' Circle: skepticism.

Carnival of the Liberals: the Religion Issue.

Carnival of the Godless: bloggers braving the cold realities of the Universe without the support of an Imaginary Friend.

Rocking the Boat

Dear Reader, I am angry.

I've blogged before about the abysmal labour market for archaeologists in Sweden, both at the graduate and the doctoral level. Judging from the unemployment rates, Sweden currently has no need for archaeology instruction at any level. The subject should be seen as strictly for transient students who harbour no hopes of making a living out of it. I've also discussed these issues in a trade union newsletter and recently on national TV.

The last couple of days I've received letters from two archaeology professors at a Scandinavian university, I'll call it Dingledongle. They're not happy. They really don't like me saying publicly what I've said. It's making things difficult for them. One said explicitly that it would hamper my career. (My career! Haha, that's a good one!)

The other one really disappointed me, because I like and respect him a lot. His take on the situation is that whereas it's true that in Scandinavia generally archaeology PhDs are a dime a dozen, in Dingledongle these people aren't unemployed.

My only response to that is that if the apparently plentiful post-doctoral archaeology jobs in Dingledongle were ever actually open for application from outside, then some of them might be taken by more qualified people from other parts of Scandinavia, and the unemployment would be more evenly distributed.

This guy also complained that his doctoral seminar is slowly becoming extinct as no new doctoral student's salaries have been forthcoming lately from the money people at the University of Dingledongle.

Well, my friend, a doctoral seminar isn't an end unto itself. It's a public utility whose function is to produce scholars to fill society's needs. And the unemployment rate for archaeology PhDs shows pretty plainly that Scandinavian society does not currently feel a need for more archaeology PhDs.

I don't understand these people. They're sitting in their little incubator, all warm and cozy. Then somebody outside in the cold suggests, through chattering teeth, that the incubator might not be of much use to society outside Dingledongle. And they get all worked up, expecting this person to shut his mouth because otherwise they might get chucked out into the cold too.

All I can say is, that's a mighty fine incubator you've got there. What's my loyalty worth to you guys?

Update 30 March: My friendly professor in Dingledongle has made an entertaining clarification. When he wrote that archaeology PhDs in his area aren't unemployed, he didn't mean that they have post-doc academic jobs. He meant that they have all returned to their pre-doc jobs in contract archaeology! Oh, goodie, they're working on highway digs for SEK 22000 a month! That's €2300, £1590, $2770 of which taxes take about 30%. Dear Reader, I rest my case.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Samla Mammas Manna

A friend of mine once sent me a tape anonymously with really weird music on it. Sort of free-form fusiony zappaesque stuff with tittering vocals. Turned out to be Swedish 70s rock outfit Samla Mammas Manna, pranksters in an age of serious politically motivated folk music. They've been compared to Gong. The name is as trippy as the music: it means "Collect mum's manna".

The other day I received a manuscript file from my colleague Astrid Wexell who is writing up her old digs from the 1970s. And who do I find, doing grunt work at Astrid's excavations in Danmark parish outside Uppsala in 1970? The members of Samla Mammas Manna!
"Investigations at Slinkbacken began in the autumn of 1969 (8 September to 31 October), when the cemetery was de-turfed. Work continued in 1970 (9 May to 31 October), when the actual excavations took place. [...]

This report's author [Wexell] was the site manager. Gunnar Hedlund was deputy manager. Interns were Ingela Brising, Cecilia Carlheim-Gyllenskiöld, Inga Hägg, Bengt-Åke Johansson, Birgitta Jonsson and Britta Åkesson. Toward the end of the spring term in 1970, a group of students at the Department of Archaeology, University of Uppsala, participated (two features) with Mats Lundgren as their supervisor. An exotic component of the team was the members of musical group 'Samla Mammas Manna' with their colourful headbands."
According to Bonniers Rocklexikon (1993), the band was formed in 1969 in Uppsala. They played their first gig in 1970 and released their first album in 1971. So, while they're rehearsing and writing the first album, playing gigs in the weekends, they support themselves with manual labour at an archaeological dig! That's what I call a rare nugget of rock history.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Spring Here -- Crocus Spotted

Oh joy! Spring is here! After dropping my daughter off at daycare a few hours ago, I spotted the first crocus of 2006 at the base of a south-facing wall. Snow is still all around in great big drifts, but they're dwindling. Oh yes, they're dwindling.

By the way, I had an epiphany a few years back. You know, when the snow banks along roads melt, they become covered with sand? This is not because the sand creeps up to the surface. It's because sand is evenly distributed throughout the banks, and when they melt, from the top down, the sand that was suspended in the top snow collects on the surface of the shrinking bank.

I just thought you should know.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Regulars Roundup

OK, so Salto sobrius has at least 40 regular Dear Readers of whom I've previously managed to identify twelve.

Here's a roundup of further identified regulars, not all of whom appear to read the blog daily.
  • YuSie C-R. Journalist, singer, artist and the best wife in the world. Her blog is s3krit.
  • Vladimir A. A Romanian colleague with a blog whose name seems to mean Diogenes's Barrel.
  • Tor S. My friend who is a Dr Phil. in philosophy, an amateur violinist and single at the moment, ladies, so I'll give his e-mail address to the first three who ask, OK?
  • This one guy at the faculty of the humanities in Gothenburg who apparently reads the Swedish archaeology mailing list on his department web mail account.
  • Roger W. My colleague who calls me when he finds cool stuff and who likes to dig Mesolithic seal hunting stations that are now on fookin' mountaintops.
  • Magnus H. My friend who used to be a rock star, then became a modern historian and who is currently a civil servant.
  • Johan J. Fantasist lord of a blog!
  • Isapisa. Jenny M's sister, an amateur archaeologist.
  • EoR. An Australian skeptic with a blog!
  • Ansa M. Teacher, singer, artist and the best ex-wife in the world. With a blog!
All in all, 22 known regulars.

Very few Dear Readers responded to my call for introductions. This may partly be because there are regulars who didn't read that entry. A number of people on the Skeptic Society's on-line forum and the Swedish archaeology mailing list appear to read only the entries I advertise about there, being the ones about natural science and archaeology, respectively. General waffling like this gets no advertising.

But anyway, you skulking anonymous regulars, please identify yourselves! If you do, and if you're lucky, I'll let you have sex with Tor.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Medicinal Rubber Mallet

Here's my mother-in-law's Chinese medicinal rubber mallet. It works, to the extent that it really does anything at all, on the same principle as acupressure. You're supposed to whack certain spots under your feet with the mallet to achieve sundry health benefits.

This is a pretty far-out artefact in itself. But look at the inscription. According to my wife, it says Zu chang le guo yitang, "Foot long happy realm art-hall". This makes no sense whatsoever to me: not the Chinese characters, not the pinyin transcription, not the English translation.

But fear not, Dear Reader: my wife can explain it all.

The mallet has been issued by an art hall, that is, a salon. This salon is named Realm of Feet that are Happy for a Long Time, which is of course more economically written Foot Long Happy Realm.

This reminds me of the Wan Tu Su Li franchise in China. I think it's a fast food or photo processing chain. The name means Ten-thousand Rabbit Quick Beautiful, which can be understood as "Ten thousand rabbits quickly become beautiful". What kind of acid freak name is that? Well, their logo features the figures 1-2-3. One -- two -- three. Wan -- tu -- suli.

Yoda help me, but I'm beginning to understand why Engrish looks the way it does.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Migration Period House Terrace

I've spent the day at a really good seminar about the recent excavations along the projected Norrortsleden highway outside of Stockholm.

In 2002 I worked for a few months at contract archaeology unit Arkeologikonsult, writing about some nice Migration Period grave finds from Åby in Västerhaninge parish in the spring and heading pre-investigations for Norrortsleden at Sylta in Fresta parish during the summer. It was just me with two colleagues, an excavator operator cum pub musician and two or three young guys employed mainly to clear away impenetrable sloe bushes from spots we needed to see. After the close of the dig I got a grant, quit my job at the unit and went back to full-time research. Which is where I still am, 3½ years down the road.

My involvement in the road project was enjoyable and very well paid. But there was one detail that bugged me afterwards.

Before I got on board, a colleague of mine had started to look at the site and written a bit about it. There was a lone rectangular structure of huge stone blocks visible through the turf near the edge of a hilltop, and she suggested that it was the foundation of a 19th century barn. During the summer, me and the others cleaned it a bit and found that the tops of the blocks weren't on a level, so I decided it couldn't be a house foundation. I guessed it might be a mid-1st millennium BC grave superstructure, and that's what I put in my report manuscript before submitting it and leaving the unit.

But the report was edited for publication by my colleague, and she turned my Early Iron Age grave back into her barn foundation! Aaaarrr! I could just hear the sniggers once somebody excavated the thing, thinking "silly Rundkvist, all he knows is finds, can't tell a grave from a barn foundation". The shame!

The shame. Well, as it turns out, we were both wrong. It was something much cooler.

The full excavations for the road project took place in 2003 and 2004. I followed them at a distance, visiting the site a number of times with my baby daughter when I was on paternal leave. Almost all of the prehistoric remains were from the Migration and Vendel Periods (one of my favourite bits of the time line): great big house foundations and lots of graves, including a few chambered ones. John Hamilton directed the excavation of the bit with the stone block thingy.

And John's team showed it to be the end of a house terrace. They're sort of the diagnostic visible-monument type to find high status settlements of the mid- to late 1st millennium AD in the Lake Mälaren area. The reason that we didn't recognise it was that most of the house had been built on flat ground, with only one end extending a bit onto the slope where terracing was needed. So the proportions of the thing weren't long-housy at all.

This aerial photo, taken after de-turfing, is copied from the recently completed site report (UV Mitt Daff 2005:6). The stone block thingy is at the lower edge, with the outline of a 5th century long house extending upward from it. The two smaller outlines shown on the spot represent buildings erected in the 8th century.

Here's a ground plan of the house on the terrace. John and his co-authors cautiously suggest that as it had a dominant placement at the top of the slope it may have been the farmstead's feasting hall, although no high-status small finds were made in it.

I guess what this all shows is really that you gotta dig it to really grok it.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bad Cucumber and Pheasant Tards

My friend Jan Peder just dropped by for some computer maintenance. He told us a story from the war years in the 1940s, when his sister was a little girl. A banana boat had managed to reach Stockholm, and the Red Cross bought a load of fruit for a fund-raising event. People would buy an uncommonly expensive banana and take it home to their kids.

When JP's parents came home with their banana, they woke his sister to let her have her first taste of the exotic delicacy. She wasn't impressed. "Bad cucumber" was her verdict.

JP is full of stories. He told us another one about his father, who was once invited to a Cheney-style pheasant tard hunt. Domesticated pheasants would be released in a copse shortly before the hunt, and then the so-called hunters would go after the bewildered cultivars with shotguns. JP's dad would have none of that. He responded to the invitation with a counter-invitation to come to his stately home at Näsby and do some shooting in the chicken coop.

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Toppermost of the Poppermost

Salto sobrius is on Technorati’s Top 10 list of archaeology blogs! Go me!

If anyone tells you that there are only 81 archaeology blogs on Technorati, then this person is a Nazi. Besides, all truth is culturally constructed and the important thing isn’t facts but meaning. It’s the truth! Er... Well, kind of.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Thou Shalt Not Love Thy Neighbour In Icky Ways

A while back, I discussed the old superstition that epidemics are divine punishment for the misdeeds of humanity. I ended this piece with some musings as to what the deity is trying to tell us with bird flu. Perhaps something about not keeping ducks in our back yards?

As it turns out, bird flu is actually not a message to worldwide humanity (or fowl): it's addressed specifically to the people of Israel. And the message is "Thou Shalt Not Consider Condoning Gay Marriage".

The joker behind this pronouncement is gay-bashing Kabbalist rabbi David Basri. Basri is no peripheral nutcase, but a prominent person who for some reason commands a lot of respect in some circles.

Well, he don't over here at my place.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Field-Archaeological Paradox

I gave a short interview this afternoon to national TV. They'll air it on Friday evening as part of a programme on SVT2 called Kulturnyheterna. The topic is skilled yet un-paid labour in culture-related projects, in my case archaeological fieldwork staffed with students.

In that context, I of course had to explain the field-archaeological paradox. As I will do in more detail in the following.

Here's the paradox: in most Western countries, a lot of money is spent on field archaeology every year, yet most of it goes into excavating poorly preserved and uninformative sites.

Why is this?
  1. Almost all excavation money comes from land developers who pay because they're obliged to by law.
  2. Given the choice between a well-preserved site and a ploughed-over one, land developers try to place their project on the ploughed-over site, because the archaeological fieldwork will be much cheaper and quicker there.
  3. The county archaeologist's job is to preserve good sites. She will encourage land developers even further to avoid well-preserved sites, and may in some cases even forbid the development of a particularly nice or unusual one.
  4. To further the twin ends of preservation and economy, archaeologists will be employed to identify an area's archaeological hotspots long before the plans of a highway or railway or housing project are finalised. This gives the engineers the opportunity to slalom around the hotspots.
  5. If contract archaeologists find something really interesting, then this is a sign either that the evaluation has failed, or that the developer has some priority that overrides cost concerns, e.g. that the topography permits only one placement of a highway.
So excavation money (much of it public) is not giving optimal scientific returns. Now, there are two ways to look at this.
  1. Our primary objective is to get interesting new data for research. We should use the money to dig cool sites instead, to hell with the ploughed-over ones!
  2. Our primary objective is to minimise the damage we do to the archaeological record. If we preserve the cool sites then our great-great-grandchildren will be able to excavate them with much better methods than those available today.
I tend to oscillate between these positions, myself. It is incredibly frustrating that all the information we have about many really cool sites dates from back when labour was cheap and documentation standards far below those of today. But on the other hand, the information from the contract digs, seen in aggregate, is telling us lots of interesting things we didn't know before. Even if some individual digs are, in all honesty, tragically boring.

But this discussion is of course academic. There is no way we could persuade land developers that they should pay us to dig where we want to, just because they're building something somewhere else entirely. We should look at land developer money as not quite real. There is in fact hardly any real money in the world for archaeological fieldwork.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Grown-Up, Ski Sleigh, Wherefore Forsaken?

Dear Reader, wherefore hast thou forsaken me? At the hit rate so far today, it looks like we're back at the average readership when the blog was two weeks old. Sunday, bloody Sunday.

Look at me. I've been out skiing twice today and vacuumed 80 square meters, and still you don't see me shirking my blog responsibilities! Hell-ooo, this is an attention-based economy, right?

Here's me and my daughter around noon today. She's in my dad's Saami ski sleigh that I used to ride in back in the mid-70s. Actually, he'd take me skiing right on the same golf course where we went today. I'm a stationary kind of guy.

It occurred to me that our skiing jaunt today was probably the most grown-up thing I've ever done so far. Get this: me and my spouse and our two kids took the family car to the snow-covered golf course and went skiing together before going home for lunch.

I take it to mean that this is as close as I'll ever get to the eternal cosmic secrets known to grown-ups.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Followed by Feet

Dear Reader, let me tell you about one of the most surreal experiences of my life so far. It occurred in the autumn of 1993.

I was working at a rural Neolithic site near Västerås. My colleagues would pick me up in Stockholm early in the mornings, drive me to the dig and take me back in the evenings. (I didn't have a driver's licence yet). One morning on my way to our rendez-vous, I got off the subway at Karlaplan station and stood on the deserted platform, staring groggily.

Something small was leaning against the wall, as if waiting for the subway. I went closer as the train trundled off behind me.

Propped against the tiles was the cloven foot of an elk. It had been severed neatly at the heel. Dark hoof, very wide, to give the animal good footing in marshes, grey fur for camouflage, the whiteness of the sawn-off bone.

I blinked, grabbed the foot and went up to street level. At the dig I gave my find to one of the osteologists, to clean the bones and use them for reference purposes. That summer they'd de-fleshed a young hedgehog they found at the roadside, stunk to high heaven. De-fleshing by insect action in a perforated plastic box.

But what was the elk's foot doing there?

A few years later I was in the same neighbourhood, as I often am, walking from the subway to the museum at whose archives and library I'm a regular. And there it was again, lying on a parking ticket machine. The foot. No, an identical severed elk's foot.

This time I left it alone.

Same surreal thing twice. I realised that elk's feet being left lying around was no fluke. It must be part of a recurring tradition in the area. It's an affluent, conservative part of Stockholm. Old money, not much intellectual edge or hunger, kids going cheerlessly to business school, elderly couples slowly declining in huge echoing apartments. And dogs. Hunting dogs to some extent, or at least dog owners who participate in hunting, which is an upper-class thing in Stockholm. (In northern Sweden, everybody and his retarded cousin has a hunting rifle and a snowmobile.)

So here's our elderly upper-class dog owner, coming home from a hunt, with an elk's foot for the dog. There's hardly any meat on it, but it equals hours of fun for the old pooch. Our dog owner is tired after a day in the woods, he needs to shift his bags around after getting off the subway, or she has to free a hand to get a parking ticket, and when they get home they realise that Fido's treat has somehow escaped them.

That must be the explanation. I hope it is, because otherwise I'd have to find a clinical label for people who believe they're being stalked by severed elk feet.

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Friday, March 17, 2006


The blog turned three months old yesterday and I'm pushing 100 entries. According to the stats, there are about 40 regular Dear Readers who visit the site daily, while the average total count lately has been about 100 unique hits a day.

Maybe I should re-phrase that. Every day, about 40 regulars visit the site. If each of them only actually comes here once a week, it means I have 280 regulars. Tricky.

Guys, I'd like to know more about you! Please gimme a comment and introduce yourself -- and tell me what you want more of here.

Here are the regulars I know of from comments.
  • Akhôrahil, Johan L. My old pal from the Stockholm Tolkien Society.
  • Åsa L. Me mum.
  • Jenny M. My wife's old pal from journalism school. With a blog!
  • Johan A. Gamer and sf fan. With a blog!
  • Katarina W. Colleague and Knitmeisterin. With a blog!
  • Linnea B. Mistress of the Arkeologen blog!
  • Martha. Mistress of the Mad Mutter blog!
  • Matti N. Colleague and bear phalange fetischist.
  • Milka Z. My old on-line pal from SKOM.
  • Molle K-S. Friend of myself and my wife, as is her hubby Roger. With a blog!
  • Monica S. Wife of my old Tolkien Society pal Olle. With a blog!
  • Vitnir. From the Swedish Skeptic Society's on-line forum.
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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Migration Period Chamber Graves

I've received an enjoyable commission, to write a pop-sci piece on the Danmarksby cemetery with my colleague Annika Westerholm. The cemetery was located just over ten kilometers from the great barrows of Old Uppsala, and was rescue-excavated in the 1970s. The E4 highway now runs straight over the spot.

Danmarksby is a funny name, meaning "Denmark's village". The place-name people have suggested that either it really has something to do with Danes or it means marshland. The latter idea seems to hold more weight at the moment. Hard to understand why a large village right next to the royal cult centre of the ancient Swedes would be named after the Danes. Permanent embassies were most likely unknown to the tribal societies of the late 1st millennium AD.

The cemetery hasn't received final write-up and so has been sort of a Flying Dutchman of Swedish Migration Period studies. This has less to do with the artefact finds, which are nice but not all that many, and more to do with the grave ritual. Out of a hundred excavated burials almost half were inhumations, which is extremely rare in 5th and early 6th century Sweden. A number of them were chamber burials, which adds to the excitement. Like all the other Migration Period chamber graves of the lake Mälaren area, these had been looted (or messily exhumed) shortly after burial, but there were a few nice bits and pieces left. Bone, however, was very poorly preserved.

This morning me and Annika went to the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm to photograph a selection of finds from Danmarksby. The excellent Kent Andersson welcomed us and made the stuff available to us in the study room. Good to see the place again, felt as if a shadow had lifted from it. The museum is getting back in gear after a few years of politically very correct and scientifically very weak direction. Great to see them hiring archaeology PhDs with lots of fieldwork experience! Hope the new boss doesn't mess it up again, whoever it turns out to be.

Grave 124 was an untouched non-chamber inhumation, no human bone preserved. The pix above show most of the beads -- amber and glass paste -- and two copper alloy brooches. The larger one is of a cruciform type common in southwestern Scandinavia. The smaller broken brooch is partly encased in organic remains but looks unique to me. The closest parallels I've seen are from Scania. Grave 124 also had a poorly preserved iron brooch and a belt knife.

Grave 17 was a chamber grave, 300 by 175 by 40 cm with corner posts. It had been looted and the contents messed up. Above is a pair of gilded silver clasp buttons with chip-carved spiral decoration and bits of a stamp-decorated pottery beaker. Migration Period pottery in the area is ugly as all hell, but this pot looks like it may have been imported from Gotland were good pottery is common. There's also a set of tweezers and resin caulking from a bark box.

This beautiful little silver Bügelknopf brooch was found in grave 141, an unassuming tiny concentration of burnt bone and charcoal. Other finds were just a copper alloy wire fragment and a few ugly potsherds. This is the oldest datable grave at the cemetery, a 4th century burial, and its general tinyness makes me wonder if it may have been a child's burial. The bones don't tell.

Great job, this. Pick out the best finds and most interesting structures from a site everyone's curious about and present it all to the interested public in an appealing way. I should try to find a way of getting paid to do this more often.

  • Nockert, M. 1991. The Högom find and other Migration Period textiles and costumes in Scandinavia. Archaeology and environment 9. University of Umeå.
  • Sigvallius, B. 1993. Danmarksby. Osteologisk undersökning av gravmaterialet från fornlämning 100, Danmarksby, Danmarks socken, Uppland. Dnr 4283/72. Rapportserie från Osteologiska enheten, Statens historiska museum 1993:11. Stockholm.
  • [Wexell] Sjöberg, A. 1975. Två gravfält i Danmarks sn. Uppland 1975. Uppsala.
  • Wexell, A. 1993. Danmarksby – en by redan under folkvandringstid? Långhundraleden. En seglats i tid och rum. Knivsta.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tim Knows What Hit Him

Last Sunday my friend Tim had a car accident that scores extremely high marks for originality. He was overtaking a truck at 110 km/h when suddenly, WHAM, something big hit the windscreen. The glass cracked from top to bottom but didn't shatter.

Guess what hit him.

An owl. A tawny owl, Strix aluco! In Swedish it's kattuggla, "cat owl". The bird of course went straight to raptor Valhalla, but neither Tim nor his wife and son were hurt. Phew. Female tawnies can weigh up to 800 grams. Still, Tim's got a good story to tell.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Fox Up a Tree

Yesterday the Dharma Bums, hippie retiree photo bloggers extraordinaires, had a great entry on a fence-climbing tail-less raccoon in their garden. It just so happens that I got a pretty cool photograph of a tree-climbing fox from my mother Åsa Leander the other day.

Åsa's partner Anders lives in the countryside just outside Stockholm, and his garden is always full of wildlife. To help the birds survive the cold he's hung a great big slab of pork rind from a tree. Irresistable to a fox as well. Writes Åsa,
"It kept tearing at the rind, fell down, jumped up again, nearly got its neck stuck in the tree-fork, almost strangling itself, got a piece loose, hopped down and started gnawing at it, back up again etc. Finally it gave up and slowly ambled away. What a show!"
The birds to the left are blue tits, Parus caeruleus. They're often seen in the company of great tits (boy am I gonna get Google hits now), Parus major. That species is called talgoxe in Swedish, meaning "tallow ox", because they really like pork rind too.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Ex-Rolling Stone with Moss

One weekend last May I took a long bike ride with my GPS navigator, geocaching. Having logged a cache on Telegraph Mountain in Tyresö, I climbed down the mountainside and came upon this funny rock at N 59 13.311, E 18 21.373.

Can you see what it is? It's not an artefact. It's half an upside-down giant's kettle. (Anyone know what the real English term used by quaternary geologists is? I'm just translating the Swedish word.)

Giant's kettles are common along escarpments in areas once covered by the inland ice, such as Sweden. When the ice melted away, water would stream with great force across cliff faces for absurdly long periods of time. This would frequently set boulders spinning in depressions in the rock, and with time, they would drill down into the rock provided the boulder was made of a harder mineral than the surface it was sitting on.

Giant's kettles vary greatly in size from baking bowls to swimming pools. If you manage to find one that hasn't been emptied, there's often a stone ball at its bottom, the remains of the spinning boulder. Such a stone is without doubt among the dizziest members of the mineral kingdom.

The rock shown in the photo has been part of a kettle somewhere up the mountainside. Half of it has broken off and tumbled down to the foot of the mountain, landing upside-down. I'm thinking it should be possible to find the other half as well.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Value of Biodiversity

As comments to a recent entry, I've had an interesting discussion about environmentalism with my friend Molle. We both agree that biodiversity and ecological systems should be preserved. But we disagree as to the reason for this.

If I understand Molle correctly, her opinion is that we should preserve biodiversity because it is precious (or even holy?) without reference to the needs and wishes of humans. Let's say she feels biodiversity is an abstract good.

My opinion is that that there is no such thing as abstract good. My reason for thinking we should preserve biodiversity is that it would be dangerous and aesthetically dissatisfying for humans if we lost it. I believe that the concept of value is only at all applicable from the perspective of an intelligent observer.

Consider the planet Octavia, far, far away. It sported a radiant ecosystem with innumerable species of exquisite beauty -- until yesterday. A nearby star and the local black hole bumped uglies, producing an extended shower of hard radiation, killing every living thing on Octavia as the planet rotated. The planet now has innumerable fossils of exquisite beauty. And in a few years, Octavia's entire star system will be swallowed by the black hole, obliterating it.

Now, is this a tragedy? No. It's a non-event. Let me add two crucial pieces of information.

1) The smartest being that ever evolved on vibrant Octavia was a blue armadillo-like creature with the brains of a fish. And it didn't suffer one bit when the radiation hit it.

2) No intelligent being from another star system ever came close enough to Octavia to even notice that it had life.

Or consider a species of yellow toad restricted to a single valley in Papua New Guinea. Its habitat is severely threatened by logging, and chances are it'll be extinct in a few years. The passing of this rare toad species is of no practical concern to humans, and the locals won't miss it. But people in the West, like me, will mourn the toad. Not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was a fun animal to study.

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Web Search for Enlightenment

Dear Reader, the excellent web site traffic meter Extreme Tracking collects an astonishing amount of information about you unless you shield yourself in some arcane techie way. The information I look at the most is referrer data: where people were when they clicked on a link to come to Salto sobrius. That's how I found out about the anti-Scientologists, the Danish nationalists and just how popular certain blog carnivals and web forums are.

Another interesting and often entertaining kind of information is what search keywords people have entered into Google or Technorati to come here. A lot of them are related to porn: simply mentioning Doppelpenetration, Ginny Noack (both in a non-pornographic entry about porn), thongs and big fat mamas has garnered me a lot of single-second visits by people who are disappointed to find no actual porn here.

Apart from the names of the blog and myself, the most sought-after keywords that bring readers here are Suliman Cassimjee, Svante Fischer and wattle-and-daub. Mr Cassimjee has a lot of fans among anti-Scientologists, wattle-and-daub is a concern for people who build ecological houses, but the internet public's interest in Dr Fischer is kind of surprising. He doesn't have very many Google hits, but there's clearly a lot of people out there who want to know more about him. The searches are far too many and too persistent to be Svante himself doing egoboost searches. I mean, everyone does them, but you don't keep checking out the same old sites once you've learned what they are.

My favourite search keywords are the absurd ones. Take "castum cars". Yes, I have mentioned cars, and yes, certain early translators of Tacitus thought he was talking about a place called Castum when he actually meant something else completely, and I've quoted that passage. So, here come these custom-car fans. Who can't spell very well. And they keep ending up here, to their utter bewilderment, I imagine.

Or the Yemenite person who came here after searching, in caps, for "EXAMPLE OF SEX".

Or, very recently, people searching for "crew cut Malmö" and "Mesolithic comets". I ask you, what are they on? That's really absurdist poetry in its most compact form.

Search keywords are great. I wish I'd saved the best ones as they zipped past in the list.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Glorious Winter Saturday

Here's a pic from today's visit to the golf course. Beautiful day for skiing. Before that, I took my son to his mum by bike, so I've had my exercise. While skiing, I listened to Escape Pod, BBC Go Digital and a few songs by celestial choirboy pop band The Delays, all very enjoyable. The ladies of my family are laid low with a gut bug, so it's basically me against the elements today.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Retroactive Parenthood

I was intrigued by the Evans vs Johnston case regarding frozen human embryos. A woman learns that she needs cancer treatment that will destroy her ovaries but not her womb. Before this treatment, she undergoes half an in vitro fertilisation treatment: eggs are harvested and fertilised with semen from the woman's partner, but the resulting embryos are frozen, not implanted immediately. Then the woman receives cancer treatment and becomes barren, and the couple splits up.

She now wants to de-frost the embryos and bear a child. Her ex-partner says thanks, but no thanks. The European Court of Human Rights supports him in this. The guy's position is that he consented to make those embryos in order to give himself the option of having kids even though his partner became barren. Which is no longer a problem for him since they went separate ways.

At first one may feel that he's not being very generous. But then again, few people would like to have babies with their exes. Particularly if they have a new partner. "Honey, my first wife called and asked if I could please knock her up. That OK with you? I can use a turkey baster if you want."

The cancer survivor can still have a baby from a donated embryo that won't have her DNA. I guess the lesson to be drawn from this case is that not all of the IVF embryos should have been cooked up with semen from the woman's partner at the time. Dear Reader, if you have the misfortune to end up in this situation, have a few embryos made with donor semen as well, just to be on the safe side.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Viking Period Boat Grave

This morning, after dropping off the kids at school, I went to the post terminal and collected the small iron finds from the 9th century boat grave at Skamby, Östergötland. They'd been sent down from the conservators of Stiftelsen Föremålsvård ("The Object Care Foundation") in Kiruna, extreme northern Sweden.

Kiruna is an interesting place. The town grew up alongside a huge iron mine. Now they've realised that the town is also sitting on a big mutha of an ore lode, so they're moving. Yes. They're moving the town to get at the ore.

Anyway, I've spent most of the day listening to the excellent smart web radio site Pandora and classifying the iron bits. There were few surprises. Many of the bits are just spongy lumps of rust and sand or even reddish pebbles that I could discard immediately. Not sure the lumps are artefactual either. Most of the certain artefacts are the sorry remains of clench nails from the boat. The best new finds are four more hoof spikes, recognisable but not as well preserved as the one I showed you earlier.

So now the artefacts list for the boat grave is final (until someone in 2030 takes a look at the rust lumps with new methods and finds something fun in them too). Here's an excerpt from the report draft.
The boat burial

The central depression had clearly come into being when a perishable roof over the grave cut containing the boat had collapsed. The grave cut was filled with stones from the superstructure, slumped inward. They showed no sign of any disturbance since the collapse.

Preservation conditions in the grave cut were very poor as the underlying moraine is clayey and nearly impermeable to water. Rain water had alternately accumulated here and evaporated as the seasons went by. No unburnt bone and little iron was preserved in the grave. Judging from rust stains, preserved clench nails and the section drawings, however, the boat had been c. 5 m long and c. 1.7 m wide. Preservation conditions did not allow us to discern any detailed pattern to the rust stains and preserved clench nails. The upper part of the grave fill was indistinguishable from the surrounding culture layer, meaning that we could not document the upper edge of the grave cut, only its edge where it cut into the natural.

Just SW of the mid-ship was a cluster of 23 well-preserved amber gaming pieces, some located on top of collapsed stones. The gaming set had thus probably originally been placed on top of the grave’s roof. Beneath the gaming piece cluster, a group of iron rivets and nails was found on the bottom of the cut. They may represent a box or a game board, although they formed no observable pattern and there was no sign of the L-shaped mounts typical for Viking Period game boards. Small curved fragments of iron rods here may be from rivets, nails or a simple strap buckle. A little spherical stone was also found here.

Other artefact finds attributable to the burial are few and modest, belonging to two functional spheres.

Personal items are a red glass paste bead and a small slate pendant whetstone, both found beneath the gaming piece cluster. There is also part of a small iron knife, found in a superficial part of the grave fill mid-ship. This is possibly a residual piece re-deposited from the culture layer.

A highly incomplete set of horse gear was found in the SW half of the grave cut, resting on its floor. There is a very finely wrought hook from one of the shafts of a sleigh or small wagon, five hoof spikes to keep the horse from slipping when you ride or drive a sleigh in wintertime, and two iron rings of identical and rather small size, one of them with a straight iron bar looped onto it. The rings look a bit like pieces of a bridle bit, but the rings are far smaller than normal bridle rings of the time.

In the fill of the grave cut were also a few small pieces of residual material from the underlying settlement deposit: burnt daub, pottery, burnt bone, herbivore teeth, vitrified clay, knapped quartz, a single piece of burnt flint, and rust-stained sandy lumps.
For more details about the excavations, see preliminary reports here and here.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Career Advice

Dear Reader, I've previously advised you not to do a doctorate in any obscure subject of the humanities. It may be fun, but careerwise it's the road to ruin.

Today, I can add another suggestion. If you study Scandinavian archaeology, do not expect to ever work as an archaeologist. Treat it like a hobby. I repeat: if you study Scandinavian archaeology, do not expect to ever work as an archaeologist.

The reason that I say this is the following piece of information from the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.
"The National Board of Culture has allocated 21 jobs to the Museum of National Antiquities through the so-called Access initiative. Over 1900 applications have, all in all, reached the museum."
Pretty good, huh? More than 90 applications for each job. Incidentally, the museum is now also looking for an extra personnel officer...

Update: Very timely, the Ministry of Higher Education just released a study of whether the Swedish education system produces a reasonable number of qualified people in various fields for the needs of the following couple of decades. Turns out only about a fourth of the fields studied are adequately provided (among them engineers): the others show either overproduction (e.g. primary school teachers) or underproduction (e.g. daycare staff).

The study lumps archaeologists into the catch-all category Humanities Graduates, that hides a lot of diversity. Archaeologists are swamped by much larger groups such as university teachers, archivists, librarians and journalists. It is well-known that we have a massive overproduction of journalists. Collectively, though, Humanities Graduates are currently at about the right production level. But the study's authors reckon it will soon become overproductive if the current rates are kept up.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tech Note: Warwalking with WiFiFoFum

To connect to the Internet with a handheld computer like mine, you have two basic options when you're on the road.

1. Connecting via your cell phone operator, using GPRS. This connection is available almost everywhere in urban areas, but it's not very fast and it costs money per transmitted megabyte.

2. Connecting over short-range wireless computer networks, wifi. This is fast, often free but not available everywhere.

Wifi access points have such short transmission range that you may find no connection at all on one side of your house, but several ones on the other side. Access points are often open for anyone to use, particularly the ones people set up in their homes. Apparently, they can't conceive that radio waves might actually penetrate their wallpaper. This means that in a city, you generally only have to walk a few blocks to find an open connection. Such use of other people's bandwidth is ethically iffy, but many feel that as long as you make no attempt to break into the owner's computer, but only use their Internet connection temporarily, this is acceptable behaviour and doesn't hurt anyone.

Searching for wifi access points by car is called wardriving. But when all you want to do is check your e-mail and read a few blogs on the road, warwalking is what you have to do. Residential areas and back streets are good: railway stations and hotels are generally swamped with wifi you have to pay for.

To warwalk, you need good software. The wifi scanner built into Windows Mobile 5.0 on the Qtek 9100 handheld is primitive and buried way down in the menu hierarchy. It's no good for warwalking. Neither Netstumbler not Ministumbler will currently run on the Qtek. But WiFiFoFum from Aspecto Software does, it runs well, and it's freeware. With WiFiFoFum, you can warwalk without even looking at your handheld. It'll go MEEP when it finds an access point. Version 2.0 has just been released. For the next version, I'd like to be able to set conditions for the alert, for instance "go MEEP only when you find an open access point with good reception".

But the Qtek 9100 has a glitch in its core software that isn't Aspecto's fault. It has no trouble finding wifi access points, but it's unable to forget about them when they drop out of range. This morning I warcycled a bit in a housing area, and pretty soon the WiFiFoFum display was cluttered to illegibility with ghost networks. To get rid of them I had to periodically re-start the machine. So I can't do real warwalking with this machine: I'll have to stop at a likely spot, run WiFiFoFum, walk a few blocks, re-start the machine, run WiFiFoFum, and repeat this until I get connected.

Ten years from now, this will be cause for nostalgia.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Divine Epidemiology

Sweden has just discovered its first documented case of mad cow disease. The cow in question was 13 years old and had probably caught the prion long ago. Not much to worry about.

But it reminds me of some of the reactions back when BSE was headline news all over Europe. People would say, "No wonder this is happening, this is what you get when you Go Against Nature. Forcing cattle to become cannibal carnivores! We had it coming."

This is a deeply superstitious, or should I say, religious idea. It assumes that there is meaning and direction in the world. In fact, almost nothing in the world happens by design. Only intelligent beings plan anything, and even their plans rarely come out exactly right.

The fact is that cows happily eat the unsavoury meat-and-bone meal and grow well on it. The presence of the BSE prion in the stuff wasn't divine retribution (from Jehovah or Mother Earth or what-have-you), it was simply bad luck.

Which brings us, of course, to the subject of HIV/AIDS. Homophobes have been frothing about the mouth and yelling "Divine Retribution!" ever since the first gay men started dying of AIDS. Even sympathetic commentators have gone this way. Take for instance, Nicholas Shakespeare, author of a fascinating 1999 biography of Bruce Chatwin. Here's the opening quotation of the chapter on Chatwin's participation in New York's hardcore gay scene in the late 1970s. I found this passage really jarring in an otherwise highly recommended book.
"The Greeks have the idea that there were limits to the range of human behaviour and, if anyone had the hubris to go beyond those limits, he was struck down by fate. Well, one would agree."

Bruce Chatwin to Michael Ignatieff
No, Mr Shakespeare. Whatever Chatwin may have believed, the fact that AIDS killed off a lot of promiscuous gay men was not a fated comment on their behaviour from a disgruntled deity. It was simply bad luck. If the virus hadn't appeared, they would still be banging away happily at each other in ways you and I might not find to our tastes.

The AIDS epidemic is in fact just a demonstration of how a virus blindly exploits available vectors. HIV was lucky enough to find a group of animals that exchange white blood cells with each other to an uncommon extent: promiscuous gay men, haemophiliacs and intravenous drug addicts. And as we all know, hetero intercourse and childbirth also work as vectors. Look at Africa. The story of BSE is much the same, only there it's a prion, not a virus.

I wonder what moral lesson may be drawn from bird flu. Perhaps, "Thou Shalt Not Keep Ducks". It is Against Nature!

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Ecological Boomtown

Many know that Scandinavia has a very short cultural history because of the inland ice. No Lower Palaeolithic here: our archaeology starts with the ice melt, only about 10 000 years ago where I live. Any traces of earlier human occupation were scraped off by the ice (but just you wait until I tell you what Jens Heimdahl is saying in the April issue of Fornvännen!).

But I just had an insight. This also means that our natural history is extremely short. The ecosystem around me is less than 10 000 years old. Before that, 60 000 years of just ice. None of the species around here have evolved in place. Elk grass and elk, wolvesbane and wolf, all recent immigrants. I've lived all my life in the ecological equivalent of Klondyke: a boomtown habitat.

This is kind of comforting: it means that if we mess upp the ecology really badly, once we stop it'll only take a few hundred years for a new system to establish itself. Provided that we ever stop. And that we don't poison everything with long-lived radioactive isotopes.

So, from a long-term ecological perspective, global warming isn't a problem. Life will go on. Some may argue, though, that for people with a life expectancy of fourscore years, many of whom live at near sea-level, such a perspective isn't particularly relevant.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006


Salto sobrius is currently featured on no less than four blog carnivals, all of which are highly recommended. They're thematic collections of select new blog entries.
Tangled Bank: science, mainly biology, medicine and natural history.

Skeptics' Circle: skepticism.

History Carnival: history and 1970s Star Wars collectibles. No, just history really.

Carnival of the Liberals: mainly liberals in the US sense, i.e. lefty non-fans of Dubya.

Mad as a Potter

The hatter in Alice in Wonderland was mad as a March hare. Hares go nuts in the spring simply out of randiness. But hatters went mad for a less uplifting reason: mercury poisoning. Mercury nitrate was used to cure felt for hats.

Abraham Lincoln would also go nuts with some regularity because of the blue pills he took against depression. Elemental mercury was the secret ingredient.

Ancient metalworkers appear also to have suffered from heavy metal poisoning because of breathing the fumes from molten copper alloys. This is most likely the reason that Vulcanus, god of smiths, was pictured as physically handicapped.

These poor people were adults. But Swedish potter families used to suffer from wholesale lead poisoning, man, woman and child. My Jönköping colleague Claes Pettersson tells me that 18th century potters were infamous for their hot tempers, constantly getting into fights and doing jail time. Potters' children were known to be sickly and prone to simplemindedness. This all had to do with lead-based pigments in the glaze on the pottery of the time. Firing a few months' worth of pottery was a momentuous and festive occasion, perfect for a family gathering. But when fired, the glaze gave off toxic lead fumes. Poor kids.

One last tale of lead poisoning. In 1848, Greenland Inuit witnessed the zonked-out trek of a group of clearly cognitively challenged Europeans across the snow fields. They were the last survivors of John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition: their ship had been frozen into pack-ice and most of them had gone barking mad. This was because of the hi-tech provisions they'd taken aboard: tinned food. Actually, the food was more leaded than tinned, the cans having been soldered shut with liberal amounts of lead.

These days, we know better. No lead in Tupperware. But still, Tupperware happens to have killed its share of northwest Inuit -- through botulin poisoning. Northwest Inuit traditionally make and eat fermented whale blubber, a real treat, I'm told. But if you stick the blubber in a plastic box in the fridge, you create an anaerobic environment where few microbes will survive. Among those that thrive, though, are botulin bacteria. Don't try this at home, kids.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Celtic God Mask

I've spent much of today editing a long interesting paper co-written by historian of religion Marianne Görman (Lund) and archaeologist Mikael Henriksson (Karlskrona). The paper will appear in the summer issue of Fornvännen and brings together themes that have appeared repeatedly here on Salto sobrius: cool finds, metal detecting, and the last few centuries BC.

In 2004 there was a rescue dig at Västra Vång, Hjortsberga parish, Blekinge, southernmost Sweden. Henriksson had the foresight to metal detect his site, and BEEP, there it was: a unique cast bronze mask, an instant classic find. It's 82 mm long and depicts an androgynous person with braided hair and a double chin, wearing an open neck ring: a torque, hallmark of the Celts of Antiquity. The last century BC seems a reasonable date.

This beautiful piece once formed part of a larger object but lacks fastening holes. Traces of birch tar on the back-side indicate that it was glued to a wooden substrate. In a pop-sci paper available on-line in Swedish, Henriksson suggests that this would most likely have been a wooden tub, a building, a wagon like the one at Holmsmalma, or a wooden idol.

There's no evidence that Celtic was ever spoken in Scandinavia, but a few finds (e.g. a display belt with human-figurine pendants and an early Knotenring from Ysane parish) show that Blekinge had good contacts with Continental people of this pursuasion. The Västra Vång mask reinforces this impression.

If you feel that you may not know everything there is to know about Celtic torques and head shops, sorry, head cults, make sure to read Görman & Henriksson's paper when it appears in print in July.

Henriksson, Mikael. 2005. Unik keltisk mask påträffad i Västra Vång, Blekinge. Populär arkeologi 2005:4. Lärbro.

Görman, Marianne & Henriksson, Mikael. In print. Maskbilden från Västra Vång. Ett keltiskt avtryck i Blekinges äldre järnålder? Fornvännen 2006:3. KVHAA. Stockholm.

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