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.]
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.