Ales Stenar: Q&A

Livescience.com asked me a bunch of question about the Ales stenar stone ship on the occasion of Mörner & Lind’s new bizarro paper. They didn’t use much of what I wrote, so I’ll put it up here.

LS: What is the most remarkable thing — physical, historical or otherwise – about Ales Stenar?

MR: Its excellent state of preservation and restoration. These large stone ships form a common category of monuments, but few are currently as nice-looking as this one. (Ales stenar is not one of the largest ones we’re aware of.) Also it sits in a scenic spot in one of Sweden’s main tourist regions.

LS: When was Ales Stenar constructed, and what lines of evidence point to that/those date(s)? How reliable or refutable is that information?

MR: A number of radiocarbon dates all point to the later 1st millennium AD, most likely the 7th century. This period is known as the Late Iron Age in Sweden. Specifically, the chronological phase is known as the Vendel Period and precedes the Viking Period. The date coincides with that of all large stone ships we have dated. The analyses at Ales stenar dated charcoal retrieved from under the huge stones and inside a central posthole for a post apparently used to secure the measuring rope when plotting the design onto the ground.

LS: Who built it? (e.g., Which community or group of people planned it, and what type of workers would have actually done the construction?)

MR: The local slave-owning aristocracy.

LS: In general, what would their society have been like? (e.g., Did they live in organized settlements? How far did they travel to trade? Where did they get their food? Etc.)

MR: Pre-urban. Decentralised. Agrarian. Hierarchical. Largely illiterate. Cosmopolitan. Warlike. Mercantile. Nautical. This is the world of Beowulf.

LS: What tools and technology did they use (or presumably had access to) to build Ales Stenar?

MR: Oxen, slaves, rope, sleds, wooden spades and simple steel tools. No gun powder.

LS: Why was Ales Stenar built? Have buried human remains ever been found at the site?

MR: Probably as an ostentatious grave monument, judging from excavated examples of the monument category. An urn burial found at the site pre-dates the stone ship judging from radiocarbon. Ales stenar was rather brusquely freed from drift sand using a bulldozer after WWII, and it has only seen small test-pit excavations. We do not know if its primary burial survives. It is not likely to be (have been) an inhumation or richly furnished judging from excavated examples elsewhere.

LS: What are some of the more notable theories (both plausible and outlandish) you’ve heard regarding its construction?

MR: I have heard nothing outlandish regarding the methods of construction. Regarding the motive for construction, local amateur scholar B.G. Lind put forward the idea 15 years ago that the ship might have been an astronomical calendar. This idea has no supporters among academic archaeologists.

LS: What is it about this site that inspires such speculation? Can you think of other sites from this region or period of time that inspire similar, or even more, speculation?

New Age mystics like standing stones. It is an international movement. And as I said, Ales stenar is in an excellent state of preservation and restoration. Also it sits in a scenic spot in one of Sweden’s main tourist regions.

Comments

  1. #1 Nick W
    April 19, 2012

    This is the world of Beowulf.

    Brawl with a couple of ogres down the local, then finish off getting killed by a firebreathing dragon ! Great stuff.

  2. #2 Birger Johansson
    April 19, 2012

    Welcome back! With P Z Myers going away to Oz the blogosphere has been depressingly empty.
    — — — — — — —
    “They didn’t use much of what I wrote”
    The truth is -when viewed superficially- duller than wild speculaion.
    I think there is a Simpson’s episode about it.
    — — — —
    This is the world of Beowulf

    Is the place full of bad actors and bad scriptwriters? I will never forgive A. Banderas.

  3. #3 Felicia
    April 20, 2012

    This is a little OT… About radicarbon dating, I have learned that everything taht lives takes up C14 but ceases to do so when it dies. The amount of C14 then “disappears” and you can find out how much has gone since the tree or whatever it is died.

    But I also learned that you must know how old the tree was when it died to get as correct a date as possible. But if you messure the amount of C14 left from the point when the tree died, why do you then need to know how old it was??

  4. #4 Phillip Helbig
    April 20, 2012

    Its astronomical use presumably depends on the definition of astronomical use. Either it is aligned with sunrise at the solstice or it is not. Assuming it is (which is the impression I had; I’ve been there a couple of times), presumably this is compatible with “not being a calendar”.

  5. #5 Martin R
    April 20, 2012

    Felicia, every tree ring in a tree has a different radiocarbon date. A tree has old carbon in its heartwood and new carbon in its sapwood. When you date wood or charcoal, you need to check what wood species it is and what part of the trunk. That is why we prefer to date bone, hazelnut shell, grain, and if we have to, thin twigs. Not heartwood. And not unspecified charcoal, like we used to do up until the 80s!

  6. #6 Martin R
    April 20, 2012

    Phillip, I believe you are right.

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    April 20, 2012

    Philip, here is one of the rather few examples of large-scale alignments found in archaeology.
    “One dynasty to rule them all” http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15220602.900-science–one-dynasty-to-rule-them-all.html but no Ley Lines involved.
    (UmeÃ¥ was founded by the Go’uld; it has a grid that is rigidly aligned North-South)

  8. #8 Felicia
    April 20, 2012

    Now I understand. Finally! Thanks Martin!

  9. #9 Phillip Helbig
    April 20, 2012

    What about small-scale alignments, i.e. just Ales Stenar themselves? Of course, aligning something with sunrise at a special day doesn’t automatically make it a calendar, but does show some connection to the heavens. (This is no big deal; for people living under the conditions of the time, it would be difficult not to know anything about the heavens, and there is nothing mysterious about the alignment. I’m just wondering if, in a reaction to the crackpots out there, serious archeologists are going to far when they say there is no connection.)

  10. #10 Martin R
    April 20, 2012

    Bob Lind’s interpretation of Ales stenar has been refuted by archaeoastronomers on two main grounds.

    1. The stones are no longer precisely in their original positions.

    2. The stones are pretty wide, which means that you can only use the monument as a calendar if you already know what date it is.

  11. #11 Birger Johansson
    April 20, 2012

    If a monument is built so the light will shine on a significant spot on a significant day, archaeologists will likely recognise the connection (like the wossname monument on Irland from the earliest bronze age).
    For more fuzzy correlations, it has been said that the interpretations say more about the interpreters than about the object -for a time, everything was a phallic symbol, now it is about astronomical alignments. The ancients were not stupid, but the monuments were all about what was important to *them*. Getting into their heads is not an exact science.
    — — — — — —
    Re. Iron Sky…”a good spin for Hitler” http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2509#comic

  12. #12 thomas ivarsson
    April 20, 2012

    The stoneship is aligned to the coastline in order to be impressive. There might be a second smaller ship next to Ale pointing to a slightly different direction.

  13. #13 Birger Johansson
    April 21, 2012

    Philip, I hope I did not come across as grumpy. My venom is aimed at the charlatans, not at you.

  14. #14 Jakob Øhlenschlæger
    April 25, 2012

    Seems the story has also hit the Danish news medias: http://kpn.dk/historie/article2758972.ece

  15. #15 Geocur
    November 8, 2012

    The axis of the monument does align with the winter solstice ,which of does not make it a calendar ,but it does seem intentional .