Recent Archaeomags

Archaeology Magazine’s July/August issue (#63:4) has a lot of Old World articles which made it particularly interesting to me. We get Nabataean mausolea in Arabia, Europid Bronze Age mummies in Xinjiang, the Neanderthal genome, Greek temples in southern Italy, and a great feature on new developments in the urban archaeology of Medieval Jewry in France and Germany. As it turns out, Medieval Jews are to some degree archaeologically distinct from their Christian neighbours. But more importantly, their culture turns out to be distinct from recent Jewish culture and the Medieval written ideals of that culture on a number of points. Just as I am not a Viking, a modern French Jew is not interchangable with one who lived there in the 13th century, and he in turn did not live quite like the leading rabbis of his age wanted him to. The same reasoning may be extended to NAGPRA conflicts in the United States.

Having often complained here that there’s too much about ancient state civilisations in Archaeology Magazine, I was particularly pleased to find a piece on Scandinavian Prehistory, my own field of study. It concerns Stone Age seal-hunter settlements on the coast of East Botnia in Finland. But the article is marred by terminological and chronological confusion. The author, an English free lance, refers throughout to the period and culture as “Neolithic”, but shows no awareness of the fact that this label means something altogether different here than in most of Europe. Sure, the people under study here were sedentary and made pottery, but they grew no crops and kept no livestock. In fact, both sedentariness and pottery in East Botnia pre-date the introduction of agriculture to Scandinavia, and so have nothing to do with Neolithisation as it is generally construed.

Then there’s the issue of post-glacial shoreline displacement. This is a long-lived effect of the end of the Ice Age, and it is still very much an on-going process. But the article spins it as if life in Stone Age Finland still somehow reacted to the actual ice melt several thousand years after it ended. The headline (for which the author may not be responsible) reads “Bouncing Back from the Ice Age”, as if 4th millennium BC people in Finland remembered the Ice Age and were happy to have seen the end of it. So the lay reader is confronted with an image of an extremely early agricultural population living shortly after deglaciation, when in fact the archaeology referred to concerns hunter-fisher-gatherers living about the time of the first Sumerian city states.

Danish pop-archaeo mag Skalk’s issue 2010:3 (June) is a little funny as it contains only one archaeological contribution, about the first Danish finds of Viking Period skeletons with decorative horizontal grooves on the front teeth. This custom has been surveyed by Caroline Arcini in the Swedish material, and it’s good for once to see our Danish colleagues picking up something useful from us. The rest of the issue covers historical duck-keeping, Henrik Ibsen’s inspiration for The Doll-house, marauding Swedish troops in 17th century Zealand, and Medieval church roof structures (covered in meandering and long-winded detail). More finds and sites next time, please!

Archaeology Southwest, published by the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Arizona, is behind schedule: I received issue 23:4 (Fall 2009) just the other day, and according to the Center’s web site this is the current issue. But I don’t mind: the mag is as good-looking and interesting as usual, this time concentrating on Classic Hohokam sites along the Gila River. People here subsisted on irrigation agriculture and built multi-story adobe buildings in the early 2nd millennium AD. One detail that endears this publication to me is that I seem to recognise their headline type face from one of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books.

Finally, Kinarapport, the journal of the Swedish-Chinese Assocation, takes a themed look at Chinese archaeology in issue 2010:2. The articles are largely written from the perspective of tourists, museum-goers and historians of past Swedish involvement there, but there is also a piece by Magnus of Testimony of the Spade about his work with the Yangshao culture of the Chinese Neolithic. This was a real and particularly early Neolithic with rice, millet and pigs.

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Comments

  1. #1 Deborah
    July 15, 2010

    You’re not a Viking? I’m shattered!

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    July 15, 2010

    Post a picture with teeth exposed, so we can check for those horizontal stripes!

    (Seems like that particular practice would be rather impractical in cultures subsisting on food tougher than, say, soy-protein smoothies… Man does not live by mead alone!)

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 15, 2010

    I’m a swarthy descendant of Viking Period thralls. (-;

    The grooves are too shallow to compromise the teeth structurally.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    July 16, 2010

    The grooves are too shallow to compromise the teeth structurally.

    IANAD (I Am Not A Dentist), but I strongly suspect that any stripes across the front teeth visible enough to be ornamentation and deep enough to be noticed many centuries later, would be injurious enough to the enamel that serious decay would ensue (even in a population with a low-sugar diet).

    Of course, if you have the stripes, you have the teeth they’re on. Just how long did this particular fad run, and how many pieces of incisors seem to have gone flying when breakthrough body-mod berserkers bravely bit their bucklers?

  5. #5 Martin R
    July 16, 2010

    The article actually discusses that although most of the bodies with tooth grooves are those of men who died young, it is likely that the members of that generation who lived to an old age went to their graves without any front teeth left for us to find.

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    July 16, 2010

    … the members of that generation who lived to an old age went to their graves without any front teeth left …

    I rest my case, though my stereotype of the Viking lifestyle implies a lot of front teeth were, um, detached during business negotiations and friendly debates anyhow. When you say “that generation”, can I infer that this fashion did not persist for centuries?

    OT, but since I may have to wait a long time before an on-topic opportunity arises: having just finished Guy Gavriel Kay’s saga The Last Light of the Sun, set in a parallel Earth but based on serious study of Vikings, Celts, & Angles, I’d like to ask whether you’ve read it, and if so, your thoughts on same.

  7. #7 Martin R
    July 16, 2010

    Unless I misremember, all the burials with grooved teeth date from the 10th and 11th centuries.

    I haven’t followed Kay since the early 90s. Medieval fantasy once inspired me to take up archaeology, but then archaeology made it impossible for me to enjoy most Medieval fantasy. It’s particularly hard with writers like Kay, who produce explicit re-imaginings of certain historial epochs.

  8. #8 homer
    July 16, 2010

    The next issue of Archaeology Southwest will be a double issue to catch up, I wrote most of the articles.

  9. #9 Martin R
    July 16, 2010

    Cool, I look forward to that.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    July 16, 2010

    Two centuries of dental disaster seems quite sufficient.

    Kay is a better writer than most, and at least his use of a world-not-quite-Earth makes the anomalies easier to tolerate. (His version of Alfred the Great being a contemporary of his [offstage] version of Charlemagne, f’rinstance, is a lot more bearable than having someone just slamming the two together across half a century.) Kay’s fantasy elements seem to have been lifted straight from the Mabinogion (just as his Celts are strictly Welsh), and are secondary to the plot, and (in this book) romanticism seems limited to the leading characters, not their milieu.

    But I understand and sympathize with your aversion to the genre – anything which induces bruxism is also dentally contraindicated.

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