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As discussed here in a recent entry, there has long been a conflict over Ales stenar, a prehistoric stone ship monument in Scania, southern Sweden. Scholarship has argued that like all other large stone ships in southern Scandinavia with ample space between the standing stones, Ales stenar was built as a grave marker (or perhaps assembly site) in the late 1st Millennium AD. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed the date. On the other hand, amateur archaeo-astronomer Bob Lind has led a vociferous campaign asserting that the ship is several thousand years older than that and originally built as a calendarical observatory. It’s been one of Sweden’s most publicised battles between skeptics and woo-mongers. But not one academic archaeologist believes in Lind’s interpretations. His model has been taken apart in great detail and shown to be baseless.

Recently the National Heritage Board replaced the visitor’s signs at Ales stenar with four new ones, all measuring about a square meter. Few archaeologists have seen them yet as the site is in a remote location. My dad, however, is vacationing in the area. He just called me and read the signs out over the phone (and he took the above pic: click for higher resolution). Bob Lind’s interpretations are described in a noncommittal manner, on the template of “archaeological scholars have deduced that blah blah blah, while the amateur Bob Lind believes that bleh bleh bleh”. Mention is made of the fact that the stone ship’s length axis is orientated roughly toward sunset on the summer solstice and sunrise on the winter solstice. This, alone, is not enough to make the thing work as a calendar, a fact which is not mentioned.

Actually, on these new signs, the Heritage Board takes no stand as to the monument’s interpretation. It simply reports both sides — “teaching the controversy”, as it were. But Bob Lind feels that he has been personally vindicated. And two major newspapers, Dagens Nyheter and Sydsvenska Dagbladet (here and here), misrepresent the Heritage Board’s message, stating falsely that the Board’s signs officially endorse the sun calendar interpretation. The story angle in both papers is that of the single private man battling for years with unfeeling authorities until finally they give in and accept that he’s been right all along. This is not what has happened. But the current sorry mess was entirely foreseeable.

In my opinion, the Heritage Board has screwed up badly, and it’s gotten its just deserts from the media. The Board’s signs are a medium for science popularisation. This means that it’s the Board’s duty to report the best available science, making clear what the consensus among professional researchers is. If they were in the business of healthcare outreach, nobody would accept their reporting wildly divergent ideas from evidence-based and alternative medicine without taking a stand. Kajsa Althén of the National Heritage Board has abdicated her responsibility at Ales stenar, opting for non-scientific multivocality. Her headline is “Ales stenar — en pågående tolkning”, meaning “Ales stenar — an ongoing interpretation”. This misleads the public about the site’s scientific status. As regards Bob Lind’s interpretations, nothing is ongoing. That case was closed years ago as far as serious scholarship is concerned.

Meanwhile, Lind is sitting happily in his deck chair on site, giving an interview to a TV crew. I hope the people higher up at the Board learn from this sad farce. [Oh no, they're not learning, on the contrary.]

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Update 24 July: My buddies Lars and Johan at the Heritage Board suggested that I add photographs of the three other signs as well to provide context for the Bob Lind one. The reason that I didn’t include them originally was that I have no major complaints about them. Anyway, their content does not mitigate the effect of the above sign.

Two minor complaints. Unwodr is a male name although found written on a woman’s brooch: the first sign calls Unwodr “a girl”. And the fourth sign is entirely about Bronze Age ship symbolism, which is irrelevant at Ales stenar unless you buy Bob Lind’s dating.


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Comments

  1. #1 Magnus Reuterdahl
    July 23, 2007

    Hear Hear (as in; hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker (Martin) has to say!”, good roaring (Bra rutet!)!

    Besides your comments I belive that it is important to emphasize that RAÄ is the editor responsible. Which in this case becomes intresting as the sign could be compared with or be seen as a offical document by a government authority. This makes it evan more importantant that the data and information is correct, as it in a way becomes the offical truth.

    Reuterdahl

  2. #2 Bengt O.
    July 23, 2007

    As an interested lay-person, I have followed this discussion closely. I am afraid that you are too optimistic in your views that similar things could not happen in, for instance, “health outreach.” The Swedish Government actually subsidises a clinic where cancer is treated with mistletoe extracts. The universities of Lund and G�teborg have professors in parapsychology. Karolinska Institutet has an institute for “alternative” medicine. The Parliament building has built in aggregates for “whirling” the water (realeases good ‘energies’). In Kiruna, Chinese “Feng-shui” experts are busy working out where the new city center should be built and are admiringly portrayed in state television.

    The truth, it seems to me, is that superstition and, as you so aptly put it, “non-scientific multivocality” is on the rise and gets more and more attention and acceptance. And the “astronomical calendar” hypothesis is certain to attract more visitors than a boring old grave.

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 23, 2007

    Bengt: Yes, those tendencies are very real. But so is the counterreaction: the Swedish Skeptics Society (of which I am a board member) has 2000 members and gains a new one every day.

  4. #4 mary e. starr
    July 23, 2007

    Well, yeah, it’s a dirty shame, but like Bengt says, this stuff is on the rise everywhere I’ve been or heard of. From a scientific standpoint, we (archaeologists) would do best to ignore it as much as possible, concentrate on real research AND getting our point across in a clear and crisp way. I think we loose out because (here at any rate) we drone on in unclear jargon full of caveats, when the public needs it in baby steps. Archaeology isn’t inherently boring, but we seem to go out of our way to make it so, when folk really are very interested…what tribe were they? (won’t ever be able to say, and why), how old is it?(can say, and why), found any gold yet? (not allowed to say/of course not), how’d y’all know to dig here? (because…). They have not been educated as to what the right questions to ask are! Maybe we need more training in dealing with the public from undergrad on, e.g. bedside manners, because so many of us are plain awful at getting the exciting parts across in a nontechnical way.

    Of course, our vulgar materialism is not as exciting to the average tourist/bystander/fieldhand, but it saves our standing, and ignoring the wilder propositions doesn’t actively do anything to promote the loony fringe. I would only object vociferously when what “they” say is totally off the wall. Hell, in yr case here, any two rocks make a line, and that line will point at SOME star, sunrise, moonset, etc. There is no way we can show that a midsummer alignment WASN’T of significance at this site. We can show there is no evidence for such an early date, however. My grad prof always said “Don’t just go looking for patterns because you will find them” as a way of impressing the neccesity of scientific process of theory formulation and hypothesis testing. I reckon what I’m gettin at is you got to start in early gradeschool if you want to make progress on the wider problem.
    I’d say you need to betake yourself to the letters to the editor page of these papers, cause newspapers love controversy and people love archaeology.

  5. #5 Martin R
    July 23, 2007

    I give a lot of talks to laypeople, local historical societies etc. I get the impression that I don’t tend to bore them too badly. Before Q&A, I always ask them if I made any sense and invite them to ask if anything has been hard to understand or seems poorly thought through. They rarely complain.

  6. #6 JG
    July 23, 2007

    I do love the debate here. It is so refreshing as a contrast to the silent national authority, which is responsible for the public information on archaeology in Sweden.

  7. #7 kai
    July 23, 2007

    But have RAÄ really gotten it in the goolies from the media as you imply? It seems to me that the news angle has been that the hard-working amateur archaeologist has amassed enough evidence to convince the professionals, new exciting knowledge, everybody happy, kudos to RAÄ for putting up the new signs. I certainly understand that you professionals scream bloody murder, but I don’t see that the impression received by the public is that RAÄ have done anything wrong by putting up these new signs.

    Did I misunderstand the implication in your posting title?

  8. #8 Savon
    July 23, 2007

    Up to the sixties or so the historians and archaeologists were sure of this and that. During the seventies there was a complete turn, upside down (of course it took some time, and not in all fields). Now that was this, and on the contrary this was that…(especially in the north of Sweden). During this last five or so years, the scientific opinions have gone back to the sixties this and that. So I can understand that now there is a feeling of “why not try this…”

    And I will try to foretell the future, the studies of genetics and osteologi in archaeology will give new perspectives, change the “Svea”line of interpreting all findings, especially in southern part of Sweden, up to middle of the country.
    I will give a small hint, as I see it. Where are Tacitus “Suitoner, sitoner…”? The tribes near “Svionerna”. And who were the “Asties”

  9. #9 Martin R
    July 23, 2007

    Kai: The angle I see in the papers is “There’s been a fight, Bob Lind won, and boy does the Heritage Board look silly now”. And the Board will have to make a public announcement saying “Nonono, we didn’t say he was right!”.

  10. #10 kai
    July 23, 2007

    Perhaps. Though, reading through those three articles you’ve linked to, RA� seems almost tangential to the main news that the stones have astronomical significance, only the DN reporter even bothers to talk to an RA� representative.

    But, who knows how the great unwashed masses will interpret this, we’ll just have to go out and ask them :-)

    Oh, on a related subject–do you have any comments on R�saring in Upplands-Bro? I have acquaintances that are very excited by the astronomical alignments of the procession road and happily will explain how magnets go crazy and horses shy away from the area :-/

  11. #11 JG
    July 23, 2007

    Thank you so much for the clarification of these matters, Martin! But I must say that I would have been much happier if the NHB had been more active in contribution to the clarifications.

  12. #12 Savon
    July 23, 2007

    Oh yes! Thank you for this very interesting blog you have, it´s really interesting matters you bring up mostly.

    This last really amuses me, I think there is more to come.

  13. #13 Christina
    July 23, 2007

    I think this whole thing is very frustrating…”During the Bronze Age, the sun was of very big importance within the cult”…Aaaaaa! No shit Sherlock, what was your first clue? Now name one period of Swedish pre-history when it was NOT “of very big importance”. You’ve got a limited number of lines in which to make an impression about an important prehistorical monument, and THIS is what you’re going to choose to write?? Dear RAÄ, if you’re going to make a political statement with a publicly funded sign, could you at least quit beating around the bush? Now you’ve not said anything useful, and therefore wasted not only money, but also an important teaching opportunity.
    The thinking here reminds me a bit of this cook book that is very popular over here in Canuckland(title escapes me ATM)among historical re-inactors. In it, it is clearly stated that Vikings ate rice porridge. “Well, they had Buddha statues from the east where rice comes from so they must have had rice, and they must therefore have been able to make rice pudding, and if they could do it, that means they did, and according to the sagas, they ate a white porridge at Yule, so it must be rice porridge becasue that’s what Swedes eat at Christmas in 2007. Right?” Bzzzz! Wrong!

    I understand what you’re saying, Mary – I’ve had to read some real doozies of scholarly litterature, written by very famous professors and the like, where the language has been so difficult that each paragraph had to be read at least five times to make sense of things, and then, at the end of it all, they still have not actually said anything new. These texts were used by my prof as a way to teach us, the students, how to NOT write an archaeological thesis. But seriously, are we not doing MOST people a disservice in “dumbing down” the information? Do we have to cater to the lowest common denominators? When we do that, we are writing these signs for school children, not for an interested general public. Seems to me that insetad of taking up space on this sign with a non-scientific theory, they could have brought up the answers to some of the FAQ’s regarding these things, such as “Is there still somebody buried under there” and “Where within the structure would the dead person be placed, which way would he face…eeeh…I mean, it is a “he”, right?” etc. Thise things are things we know the answers to 9 times out of 10, and those things are things that both children and adult non-archaeologists ask much more frequently than what Bob Lind thinks.
    And who at RAÄ chooses which theories to print – there must be more than two, if we’re going to get into wild fantasy hypothesis! How come there was no space made for those people that feel that these are remnants of beings that came here on space crafts to leave mysterious signs like these for us archaeologists to decypher? Or maybe the whole thing is a marker that points out the direction to the lost city of Atlantis, so that we archaeologists can go find it…”That is what archaeologists do, right?” “Yeah, that and dig up dinosaurs.” Uh-huh, I’m frustrated.

  14. #14 JG
    July 23, 2007

    Yes, Marin, I agree with Savon. But I would have been much happier with another, more open, attitude of NHB. They know about this discussion. And still they don’t bother to openly contribute to the discussion of this blog.

    It makes me remember the old saying: Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi. And it makes me a bit unhappy.

  15. #15 Martin R
    July 23, 2007

    Kai: Rösaring is a cool site complex. But as far as I know there’s nothing spacy about it. Like Ales stenar, no archaeologist has cared enough about it to find money for a full excavation.

  16. #16 kai
    July 24, 2007

    Well, now they have shat in the blue cupboard!

    In today’s DN (no web ref, sorry), RAÄ explicitly say they won’t and don’t consider the opinions of university-employed scientists before those of anyone else. The reporter did not kick the bejeezus out of the spokesperson over this. Perhaps the readers are expected to draw their own conclusions.

    I’ve said it before: nobody would argue that we should man the national football team with division 8 players, but in scientific pursuits any idiot’s position is suddenly equally valid. Gah!

  17. #17 Martin R
    July 24, 2007

    Oh. My. Dawkins. Ever heard of the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award?

  18. #18 kai
    July 24, 2007

    Yes, but I think this calls for a more rapid reaction. Time for a letter to the editor again, I think. Co-write or send in separate ones?

  19. #19 Martin R
    July 24, 2007

    Who reads Letters to the Editor? I’m gonna blog their ass.

  20. #20 kai
    July 24, 2007

    Well, I understand politicians (you know, the ones that hand out the public money) still keep fairly close track of what goes on in the Letters pages in printed media, but I bow to your better informed understanding of where to hit (the relevant people at) RAÄ so it hurts most :-)

  21. #21 Martin R
    July 24, 2007

    A letter to DN won’t hurt. But there’s no guarantee they’ll print it, and today’s paper is tomorrow’s bin liner. A blog entry goes on-line immediately and is available indefinitely.

  22. #22 Lisa K
    July 24, 2007

    Bengt O said: “The universities of Lund and G?org have professors in parapsychology.”

    What has this got to do with anything? I thought science was measured by its theory and method, not by its choice of subject

  23. #23 mary
    July 24, 2007

    Dude, I wasn’t accusing you in particular, as you sound like an articulate and plainspoken fellow. But it is a problem in archy. And I don’t doubt you deal with a much more highly educated public than I do in the American South. Fer instance:An Arkansas paper yesterday accused a friend of mine of using “rusticating” radar at a cabin site. I have to tailor my talks for a farmworker w/8 grade education, schoolkids from generally abysmal schools, or a crowd of skilled amateurs who are retired professionals. We really have to make the effort to get not just findings but perhaps more important our methods across to our potential supporters. I think you do a pretty good job of that.
    I puzzeled over the Dagens Nyheter article a while last night and from what i could make out they did a very biased report, sho-nuf giving Mr. BGL another “feather in his cap” and making the board projectleader look very anti-science. Maybe paper’s attitude is a reaction against government in general? So, is your National Antiquites boad a pile of political appointees, or do they have to have any professional qualifications to get on? Or maybe it’s where they “kick upstairs” degreed folk that can’t cut it as researchers? Does your being out front w/ yr opinion have the potential to have employeement repercussions for you? Here, I think if I took on something like this on net or in papers (net would be worse cause as they say it lasts), I would be treatened and/or punished, even as a contractor rather than fed, state or U. academic.

  24. #24 Martin R
    July 24, 2007

    Your audience sounds pretty challenging! (Not to say “challenged”.)

    In today’s article, quoted at length here, the Board is given a chance to explain itself, and their spokesperson states clearly that they don’t value academic scholarship over anyone’s opinions about the past.

    The Heritage Board consists of hundreds of field archaeologists headed by a central office staffed with po-mo 90s archaeology and museology MAs and PhDs. I have been fighting po-mo archaeology in all media since 1995 and so am unlikely to ever get a job where these people have any say. But that’s their loss, not mine. The only archaeology job I want is as an academic researcher and teacher.

  25. #25 Bengt O.
    July 25, 2007

    Lisa K.: It’s got everything to do with it. Humbug is humbug no matter how many dollar millions flow into it.

    It may not have much to do with archeology per se but my point is that superstition and fake science is on the rise and that something should be done about it.

  26. #26 Mattias
    July 26, 2007

    Humbug is humbug until proven otherwise, right? What is todays fake science and superstition MAY someday be proven science. Sure not everything, but some WILL.
    There was a scientist that concluded that you could never make an heavier than air machine. Well, he was proven wrong was he not?

    Humbug is humbug is an attitude that serves right sometimes, BUT it also will look our perspectives into channels that may not be breached. Your rabiant words are as hostile as those from creationist christians, whom I have the dishonour of sharing my belief with.
    Oh! I shoot myself in the foot did I not. I cannot be counted as an archaeologist can I?
    But I refuse that and still calls myself an archaeologist and yes, I proudly calls myself a museologist aswell, and a museums teacher and whatever person involved in the interaction with the public and teaching of history of the past!

    Archaeologys main fault is its inability… no wait… its particioners unwillingness to communicate with the public because… “they are stupid and do not understand…”
    Martin is not counted here, for I know he does alot of lectures, BUT ever tried to teach children? Ever tried to engage a random tourist group? There is a difference between having lectures for a selected and intrested part of the public.

    If you want to claim your right of interpretation, go out there and claim it! Write popular science that interests the masses, not just the selected few! And work as a guide…

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