Swedish Heritage Board Shoots Self in Foot


For years and years, there has been an on-going 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 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. People have actually come to blows over this in 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.

Well, archaeology isn't just an issue for scholars and amateur scholars. Among the groups taking an interest in the subject are the authorities at various levels, primarily the National Heritage Board, Riksantikvarieämbetet. The Heritage Board is by no means staffed only with people who know anything about current archaeological research. And now, according to Dagens Nyheter, the Board has replaced the visitor's signs at Ales stenar with a new version stating that whereas Lind is wrong about the date of the monument, he's right about its astronomical function! It just makes me want to bang my head against my keyboard. The signs don't actually endorse Bob Lind's views, they just report on them neutrally.

How could this happen? Well, remember post-modernist hyper-relativism? Turns out the person behind the new signs is Kajsa Althén, one of notorious Stockholm ex-museum director Kristian Berg's old cronies.

"Kajsa Althén observes that there is no final truth about Ales stenar or other stone ships. 'It's fun to see new knowledge appearing all the time', she says."

To understand what these words really mean, you need to have suffered through a lot of pomo garbage. Here's my translation.

"Kajsa Althén believes that there is no final or single truth to be found in archaeology. 'It's fun to see new conflicting theories appearing all the time', she says."

This is a fucking disgrace. Dear Reader, if you happen to have any say at the National Heritage Board, please get those signs taken down ASAP. They have nothing to do with informed scholarship, being instead motivated by a pomo ambition to harmonise official viewpoints with current folklore. These people really don't care what's the truth about the past. In fact, they believe it's unattainable.

Update 22 July: Kajsa Althén tells me in a letter that both her statements and the text on the signs were misquoted in the newspaper item. A lot of people are now keenly interested in finding out exactly what those signs say. It would be most illuminating if someone nearby could photograph the signs and send me pix!

Roger Lindqvist, the journalist who wrote the piece linked to above, tells me that he hasn't seen the new signs. When asked where the information that the Heritage Board had endorsed Lind's ideas came from, he replied that Lind's work "is covered on the sign". I hope to learn soon whether this coverage of Lind is in fact an endorsement, a critical distancing or a neutral mention. In my opinion, any mention other than a critical distancing would be comparable to selling Creationist tracts at the Grand Canyon visitor's centre.

Sydsvenska Dagbladet reports that "now the Heritage Board has begun to agree with" Bob Lind. "Ales stenar No Longer a Mystery" is the headline. An interview with Lind has the headline "Rehabilitated After Ten Years". And the wonderful thing about all this reporting is that no mention is made of how archaeological knowledge arises. The journalists are just happy to tell us that the State Board and County Council have now decided that Ales stenar is a calendar. Science by fiat.

Update 23 July: My dad happens to be on vacation in Scania. He just called me from Ales stenar (where Bob Lind is sitting in a deck chair and talking to a TV team) and read the new Heritage Board signs out to me. Pix are on their way. Turns out the media have misrepresented the signs' message. More about that in a separate entry.

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Someone's grasp on reality seems more than a little strained. Why is it that pomo afflicts some brains and not others? Any theories on this? Anyone?

By Ian Rogers (not verified) on 19 Jul 2007 #permalink

Ian, I suggest we research it using a method that entails a clearly stated question, an outline of our method, testable data and a clear and concise conclusion. Then we storm the Heritage Board (seing as how they won't care about our logical findings). Signum delenda est.

By Christina (not verified) on 19 Jul 2007 #permalink

Well, I don't know about you in Stockholm, but in local media in Southern Sweden, there was actually this week lots of reports that "Bob Lind is right". Bullshit I think.

Why do everybody in the academic world think they are better than others? I have no academic degree, but my job is to write books used in education of them. Believe me, it is possible to find out things even without a diploma (often it is even easier).

People who have no particular reasons to be respected, but do possess titles and diplomas, tend to make a great deal of fuss over them.

People with claims to excellence usually don't make a big deal about titles, because they've had accomplishments far more worthy.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'm sure you'll agree that the more training and experience you get at doing something hard, the better you get at it. Now, archaeological research isn't easy, but I've spent 13 years doing it, and I think I'm pretty good.

From your e-mail address I get the impression that you are a technical writer specialising in user manuals. I'm sure you do a good job of it and that your work takes a lot of knowledge -- knowledge I, for one, do not have. If I started writing user manuals full of errors and clumsy explanations, you would probably not like me very much. This is what has happened at Ales stenar.

Well, this was... well, regrettable. But there are many post-processual relativists in Sweden. Now, Martin ain?t one of them, and neither am I. I do see myself as a type of postprocessual thinker, but my AS prohibits me from grasping their ideas of relativity. Maybe it is my blessing.
I would not claim that it is extraordinary that such a stone mountment COULD have been used for somekind of study of the heavens, it certainly was not for astronomical use, but for some religio-magical reason. But there is no real proof of it. I guess you could find alignments to heavenly object for any group of stones if you tried real hard.

I have not read the sign, so I do not know how the writer have worded it, BUT the proper way of writing would have been to say that the stoneship is most probably a grave from the 10th century, but that it could also have had a secondary function as some kind of calendar gizmo. But you will never be able to prove it.

I also take offense from those saying that my studies in archaeology are worthless and that they could do better than me. Remember the old story about the stonecarver and the shoemaker.
I CAN make my own prehistoric shoes, BUT a trained shoemaker makes it that much better. It is the same with archaeology.

As an aside, I have studied history, ancient cultures and I do not know what, and consider myself quite educated in those areas. But as I have made this in my free time and not as part of a scholary study, I always bow for the trained scholar in the field. They usually have an in-depth knowledge of egyptian wine zeals or medieval terminology that I as a layman in their fields cannot attain.
What a well versed amateur like me, with a broad field of knowledge AND some training in source-critical thinking (that IS harder than most people like to belive) is that I might get ideas from another field that the more specialized scholar might miss.
The classical example of this of course Michael Ventris, the amateur linguist who cracked the the Linear B alphabet. He, fiddling around and just as desillusioned and desperate as his professional colleagues, did what they would not have done. He tried old greek just for the heck of it.
And it worked.
He then had the wisdom to get in contact with a professional, professor Chadwick, and he had the wisdom to listen and see what this probably quite agitated amateur had really find. Together they then went on breathing life into a dead language.

One of my colleagues on the work, who is still an archaeology student with a history in theatre and arts, find post-modernism the most rational way to treat archaeological material, since we cannot really be sure about anything than the most basic facts. She feels that the best thing is to gather as many loose ideas and strings and just let them be there, and she thinks that seeing all these loose strings is the fun and educating part.
Me as an aspie and a very curious person wants to study each little string and try to get to some conclusion.
But a person form the theatre will of course not mind that a play could be interpreted differently. To her, the archaeological material is a script that must be filled out, an no one can say that one interpretation is "correct" and the only one true. But one could say that some are "better" and more "believable" based on what we know.
But to her, our job is to present the loose ends as the final results and then maybe give many stories.
As far as I understand it, the idea is that this will generate more knowledge in the end.

I also have to agree partially with this view, even if I will try and find what I believe would be the best theory based on the evidence, however slim.

But we must accept that the final "truth" will be hard to find, if it is even possible, but we can and do amass knowledge.

Archaeology can't expect to be allowed to cultivate its own private definition of science. It is publicly funded on the explicit assumption that it is an empirical science, not an aesthetic activity like literary criticism. And so its prime duty is to evaluate conflicting interpretations in the light of the data and discard the weak ones. As for questions not answerable by such means, they are non-scientific and should be left to the novelists and poets.

Martin, you write: "Archaeology can't expect to be allowed to cultivate its own private definition of science. It is publicly funded on the explicit assumption that it is an empirical science..."
Is present day archaeology really a science and not an art? In your thesis you have used a clear and sound scientific approach for treating your material of study. But in other contemporary thesises the material is treated in a way which has the nature of analysing matters of arts. A good example is "Masking Moments" by Ing-Marie Back Danielsson, which can be easily found and downloaded from the webb.
Myself being a scientist now wonder if archaeology should not be considered rather as an art, which uses (more or less) methods, which are borrowed from a few scientific areas.

It is obviously different players involved here, Kajsa A, a "summer journalist" and NHB. I think one should check out the empirical data before judging what a) Kajsa A has said, and b) what is written on the signs at Ales stenar. My experience is that things can be very f-d up when summer journalist is out chasing juicy conflicts, especially in summer time when all predators are lying on the back in the sun.

JG: Never mind extreme academic minorities, 95% of all archaeologists work empirically in the field.

LL: The guy's a summer journalist employed by the country's largest, and highly regarded, newspaper. But of course, I can't wait to see pics of the signs!

Martin, you tell me: Never mind extreme academic minorities, 95% of all archaeologists work empirically in the field.
All right, but the present matters of this blog concerns archaeological information given by a representative of the national archaeological authority. Isnt this right? From the present discussion it seems so that the information was given by a summer journalist, ordinarily employed by a respected newspaper. Maybe the information was not checked by a professional archaeologist.

But I think that this raises also the question about what is a professional and/or competent archaeologist. Maybe not only concerning what person should be fit to represent a national authority for providing correct information.

I think that an archaeologist must be a competent scholar of archaeology. If we can agree on this then we should also be able to agree on what archaeology is, I hope. I think that a reasonable definition of an archaeologist could be that it is an academic scholar with a university exam in archaeology. Hence I leave the right to the universities to judge what archaeology is. I dont think that Mattias might like my choice of delimitation of the concept of an archaeologist, but what better choices are there?

One other choice, which might be suitable if archaeology should be considered as an art and not a science, is to analyse the concept archaeologist in the way described by Wittgenstein, i.e. as a product of a language game. A recommendable link for description of this can be found at http://users.california.com/~rathbone/word.htm.

If as much as 5 % of archaeologists are extreme minorities because they treat the subject as an art, but still are considered as archaeologists, then I find the situation a bit confusing. Archaeology is certainly a Wissenschaft, but is it really a science? Is the definition of the concept archaeology based on only language games or are there some generally accepted definitions of what it is in terms of a science?

Actually, I meant that 5% of all professional archaeologists in Sweden work at universities, and an extreme minority within this group wishes to ditch the scientific approach.

I learned at a fairly young age that just because someone considers themselves to be something, and says they are that something, it does NOT mean that they really are. The legend says that in the Iron Age, one could call oneself a goði only if one had stood up and publicly anounced in a group of peers that "I am a goði" - and nobody laughed. It is "we the peers" who decide who is a peer, and "those" extreme minorities are not ones that I feel are my peers, degree or no degree. "Those" people would be better off calling themselves "pseudo-archaeologists" or something like that.

By Christina (not verified) on 21 Jul 2007 #permalink

Thank you Christina! I completely agree with you. Since I am not an archaeologist myself and am interested in archaeology as a layman, I feel a need to know if archaeological information presented is trustworthy or not.
A physician is officially recognized by his/her peers. NHB, I think, should garantee that the information they give out has the quality, which is of the level of what is accepted by the peers of real archaeologists. The national medical authority could not be accepted to spread information, which is not accepted by the peers of the medical professions.
Maybe the present archaeologists should be divided into pseudoarchaeologists, which treat the subject as an art, and real archaeologists, which treat the subject as an empirical science? It should be up to you peers of scientific archaeology.

I´m not an archaeologist, but God, how much bullshit I´ve seen in archaeological scientific papers. Often it has been from day-to-day bargaining in what is political correct at that moment.
Not to say anything (I don´t know) about Ales stenar, but there is a "singing" stone ...

The "singing" stones you mention are a rare feature of Bronze Age sites, known as sangelsten or klangsten in Swedish. Such a stone is a glacial erratic block placed upon smaller stones in such a way that it can be rocked to and fro and made to vibrate, whereupon a tone almost like that of a muffled brass bell is heard. Very cool stuff! The most well-known one is found at Lekarehed in L�rbro parish, Gotland. Here's an MA thesis in Swedish about them.

None of the orthostats in Ales stenar is a singing stone. They're all planted in deep pits and thus unable to vibrate.

Heard about Bob Lind and his goofy Astro-archaeology, however I never thought Riksantikvarieämbetet would present his wild ideas on a sign, and especially not on the site, I thought they didnt want him on running a round on Ales Stenar. Im VERY skeptical to this mans ideas.

Bob Lind has every right to visit the stones and make his opinions known. The reason that us scholars don't like him much is his hostile and aggressive behaviour.

The Heritage Board's signs are a popular science medium. When you explain science to the public, there's no need to present discarded speculative hypotheses, unless you believe in pomo "multivocality", which is basically an aesthetical approach to the source material.

Oh, I didn�t know that it was the movement of the stones that made the sound only, I thought it could be the material of the stone, and I have heard that one of Ale's stones is of a "sounding" material. Interesting anyway, wood can also be of a a "sounding" kind of growth, very hard. Smaller drums must be made of that kind of material to sound really good.

The sign; why not make more texts on the sign, just to be openminded, something like; 'this is the scientific explanation so far, but there are also other ideas, more speculative...' Many people knows about that guy, and it is maybe the reason why they don't 'sweep (him) his ideas under the carpet'. (Haha!!! I like it; 'To sweep or not to sweep, under the carpet, that's the question (often)')

Yeah, I'd be happy to see a brief explanation on the sign for why nobody who knows anything believes in the calendar interpretation.

The main reason is that to make the model work, you have to allow a large amount of elasticity in the measurements. So large, in fact, that chance is a better explanation than intentionality.

Very true: the voice of the Heritage Board here is the sign. Two major newspapers have reported the message of this sign in a consistent way. As I type this, my dad (who is on vacation in Scania) is hopefully on his way to Kåseberga to take some pix and read the sign out loud to me over the phone.

IF it is a solarcalender it´s not a small thing, because it was enoumously important to have a cult around the sun, because it was a cultic show, when the big herds was to return after the winter migration, during the time of hunting and gathering.(And in later agricultural times the growing season.)
Then the ship wasn´t even a ship in that "material" way, instead it was the birthplace of the herds as a Mother earths "organ" (a vulva) maybe.
You showed earlier a picture of a "Sheeila", there you had it again. It seems as it is very old way to explain life and death.