Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Melted Ice and Withered Blossoms

Spring in Washington doesn’t just bring pretty pink cherry trees this year. It also brings cool, Swedish ICE to the waterfront in Georgetown.

That's how the House of Sweden (see photo) introduces its theme for the spring: Water and Environment. Sweden officially lists climate issues as a top priority and this exhibit and related programs offer education about and different views of the climate crisis.

The mention of the “pretty pink cherry trees” refers to April’s cherry blossom festival, centered around cherry trees given to the U.S. by Japan in 1912 and planted around the tidal basin on the National Mall.

The Japanese love of the cherry blossoms is due, in part, to their transience, symbolizing the transience of beauty, youth and life. Here in Washington, the “peak days” for the blossoms around the tidal basin are eagerly awaited and announced with due fanfare by the National Park Service. Tourists, joggers, bikers, and workers on their lunch breaks or playing hooky circle the tidal basin en masse, admiring the knobby, silver trunks and clouds of pale pink blossoms.

It’s quite something, really, for a city seemingly so immune to natural beauty, to celebrate a few blooming trees in this way. It’s the only “rite of spring” that we collectively have.

Yesterday I was in Georgetown and walked down to Sweden House, the new home of the Swedish Embassy, where earlier in the month they had arranged monumental sculptures made of Swedish ice around their sundial on the waterfront terrace. I figured the blocks of ice would have long melted away, but thanks to an unusually cool spring, they were still there and still quite large. The hot sun was at work, though, speeding up those molecules to the point at which gravity could pull them into the tanks below with the dripping sound of spring.

One tends to associate ice with coldness, hardness, barrenness and blankness. But in Norse mythology ice plays an important part in the creation of the world. Indeed Ymir, the first living being, is “born” through the contact of fire and ice. The outdoor exhibit at the House of Sweden certainly highlighted the creative potential of ice. Even after the forms of the scultures were melted beyond recognition, the ice was not at all blank or barren, it was patterned with interior cracks and bubbles, different colors, and, on the surface, different textures for touching. Illuminated by sunshine, it was more beautiful, and certainly more evocative, than any stained glass I’ve ever seen.

For us earthlings at this point in time, the life-giving, life-sustaining nature of ice has become apparent and even urgent. If the endangered polar ice is melted away, the predictable cycle that brings us the cherry blossoms, among other things, will be disrupted. And we will, belatedly, truly understand the meaning of transience.

Click on the images to enlarge.

Read my earlier piece on Climate Change in the North.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Just how bad were those Vikings? I mean, relatively speaking...

I recently had a familiar conversation. A friend had been reading Egil’s Saga and commented on all the (apparently) wanton destruction and killing that takes place. And I found myself, as always, trying to defend these old buddies of mine. Trying to explain how they really weren’t all that bad.

But how bad were they really?

I don’t subscribe to a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us view of things. The way I see it, there’s one world, with good and bad all mixed up in it and in us. If you put Egil’s behavior into the cultural context, of course, it looks pretty normal and it brought him success. You could see it as an example of a Darwinian struggle to pass on one’s genetic code. You could see Viking behavior in general as a cultural evolutionary strategy.

But that’s not good enough for me. I just love these guys (and girls) and I hate to see them put down. I can list their accomplishments. Egil’s poetry, for one. Evidence of other literature (albeit oral) and legal codes. Ship design and navigation. Architecture, runestones, metalwork, wood carving, agriculture and animal husbandry, trade, and—don’t laugh!—foreign relations and statecraft.

Okay, I admit it, I have a strong interest in promoting a positive view of the Vikings, even if it means pointing out everyone else’s negatives!

So just what were the European non-Viking alpha males of that era up to? (I mean, when they weren’t at church.) Surely they couldn’t have been, uh, killing anyone?

Around the time of the first Viking attacks on England, we have the “rise of the Kingdom of Wessex, which overcame the Cornish Welsh and the southern dependencies of Mercia…enforced the submission of both Mercia and Northumbria.” Just how did they enforce the aforementioned submission? Did they make the Northumbrians wear women’s underwear?

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Uí Néill and the Eóganachta were the primary adversaries, with the Laigin stuck in the middle, forced--upon pain of…uh…having their lunch money stolen--to accept the “overlordship” of one or the other. They had been fighting for centuries and when the Norse appeared on the scene they made no bones about using alliances with the newcomers to further their own agendas.

And then there was Charlemagne, whom people seem to love for reviving Roman “culture.” (I'm not sure whether gladitorial combat to the death was included in that.) He was operating around the same time as our friends from Wessex. Here’s how he’s described by one author: “…[Charlemagne] spent his long reign fighting continual aggressive wars…conquered the remaining fragment of Frisia and…Saxony…absorbed Bavaria…establish[ed] protectorates over the nearer Slavs…[in] conflict with the Avars, whose downfall he contrived with the aid of the Bulgars…annexed the Lombard kingdom…” And in his spare time he did needlepoint, skipped gaily through the forest, and hosted telethons to raise money for poor starving orphans…actually that last bit is true, and I understand it helped him get into heaven in spite of it all. (That and protecting Pope Leo III when he was assaulted by his enemies, who, by the way, were not Vikings.)

Have I made my point yet? Bear with me, I've got one more example.

I can't forget the Germans in the tenth century. Henry the Fowler collected tribute from the Danes, I believe. What he had to do to get that tribute, I can only imagine. Otto I “humbled or dethroned other dukes...spent [years] fighting in south Italy…suppress[ed] Bavarian revolt…attempted invasion of France…died…while organizing a campaign against the Saracens.”

“Excuse me, but I’d like to try out that throne now.”

“Oh, yes, Otto, please, do have a sit! And can I get you a nice mug of cold beer?”

Perhaps I’m being snide, but there are some important points to note here. Most obviously, these guys had literate public relations people at work from the very start, whereas the Vikings did not write their own stories. Even the modern vocabulary is telling: the Vikings plundered and pillaged, but the others “overcame,” “enforced submission,” “conquered,” “annexed,” “absorbed,” “humbled and dethroned,” etc. Anti-pagan bias historically played a big part, too.

Finally, the English, Irish, French and German leaders fit within a traditional, and in a sense, evolutionary, view of history that sees the creation of the nation-state as an end that justifies the means. Thanks to newer currents in historiography we can move away from that view now. The Vikings certainly used violence, but they were not alone, and they also had their creative, honorable sides. The more we discover about them, the more there is to admire.


Hoffman, Ross J.S. and James J. Flynn. Medieval History With Questions and Answers. Littlefield, Adams and Co. 1965. (Okay, so this one’s a little old, but this is the stuff we were given when I was in school.)

McEvedy, Colin. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Penguin Books. (And would you believe it? I can’t find a date on this thing! I promise it’s not from the dark ages, like that other one. The ISBN is 0140512497.)

Moody, T.W. and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Virginia Woman Blogs; Receives No Comments

With all the interest in blogging and bloggers lately, we here at spindlewhorl decided it’s high time that we work up our own blogger profile.

Close at hand is blogger Leslie Spitz-Edson, 42. We caught up with her at her home, where she can often be found, sitting at her desk and wondering why she receives no comments on her blog, spindlewhorl.net.

“I just don’t get it,” she said, reflecting on possible reasons for the shunning of her blog by other cyberspace regulars.

“There’s nothing controversial on my blog. Nothing at all…well…I did once call the Soviet system a ‘purveyor of revenge on successful families and an instigator of rage, despair, murder and suicide,’” she reflected, referring to her review of The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky. “Sorry!” (Phone calls to Konstantin Chernenko were not returned.)

“But, honestly, there’s nothing offensive…uh…I did once review a novel by an author who once wrote a book with a lot of sex in it.” Spitz-Edson quickly pointed out, though, that the book she DID review, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, has no sex in it. “Well, almost. There was one illegitimate birth. Oops!”

“There might be the odd musing about a 1000-year-old buried object, but nothing that would warrant concern about me or my soundness of mind,” she insisted. “But now that I think of it there was an awful lot of drinking on that television skit I mentioned…” What? Dinner for One?

Ms. Spitz-Edson says that she blogs mainly about her areas of interest. “I’m not trying to ride on anyone’s coattails here, or steal anyone’s thunder, or take the words out of anyone’s mouth or anything,” she insists. “Although I have to admit that Alicia Björnsdotter’s and Emma Reid’s Grovt och grant WAS already listed on another website...oh dear, I’m a bad, bad, woman!”

Recovering quickly, she added, “but really, of all the 10,600,000 Google-hits for “Jamestown”, my article is definitely the best!”

Talk about riding on coattails! Apologies to The Onion!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Review of What’s New at Jamestown: The Case for Archaeology

When I was a girl, Jamestown was just a story, and a somewhat confusing, problematic one at that. It was supposed to be really important, but just how did it fit into the Grand Patriotic Narrative of American History? Was it the first European settlement in America? No. The first permanent European settlement? No. A settlement based on lofty principles such as liberty or freedom of religion? Uh, no. Well planned and executed by highly competent individuals? Hardly. What it did have was a (supposedly) sympathetic “Indian princess,” cannibalism, and let’s not forget the genesis of the tobacco industry, still claiming lives 400 years later.

But never fear! These days, rich, true stories are being unearthed and told at Jamestown, and they can add much more to our knowledge of history and of the U.S. than those old, tired ones ever could.

There are two Jamestowns. Jamestown Settlement, run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, offers a visitor center with café, gift shops and a museum, along with three living history areas: reconstructions of an Indian village, the Jamestown fort, and the three ships that carried the first English colonists, the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant. Historic Jamestowne, a National Park Service/APVA Preservation Virginia site, offers a visitor center, film, the site itself (currently being excavated) and the new Archaearium, a museum that presents the area’s archaeology. Together the two Jamestowns tell a story of that settlement—and of the U.S.—that began long before 1607 and continues as I type: a story that embraces events in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and in the sea passages between.

Jamestown Settlement

The new, 15-minute introductory film at Jamestown Settlement is impressive. Beautifully filmed with convincing actors, it provides a feel for the natural milieu, introduces the cultures that eventually came together at Jamestown, and adds depth to the overall experience. Though the brutality pictured was--how shall I put it?—tastefully muted, it was a bit much for my sensitive six-year old. My sheltered nine-year old had no problem with it.

The living history areas appeal, above all, to the senses. For modern, urban hands and noses, handling the deerskins, furs, pottery, baskets, fishing nets, charcoal, armor, and heavy water buckets is instructive in itself. My children loved trying on armor, scraping out and climbing into the dug-out canoes and testing straw-mattressed sailors’ bunks. I enjoyed knotting the fishing nets. I wish there had been more costumed interpreters, but the ones there were had plenty of interesting information and answers to all the key questions: How did they prepare their food? Where did they sleep? And of course (since there were young children in my party), where did they go to the bathroom?

The museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement is extensive, informed not only by history and archaeology, but also by the natural sciences, anthropology, ethnology, geography, architecture, technology, etc. It includes interactive videos and films and a multitude of artifacts that help to depict 17th-century life in Virginia, England, and Africa (primarily Angola, where the first slaves sent to Jamestown apparently originated). The museum professional in my party (a.k.a. my husband) was favorably impressed by the exhibition craft and by the wealth of information available and accessible to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

Historic Jamestowne

The real thrill of the experience, though, for me, was to get out to the actual site of the original fort on the banks of the James River. It was, until recently, thought to have been lost to the river. Thanks to rethinking by archaeologist Bill Kelso, it has been found and excavations are ongoing. Hundreds of thousands of objects as well as bodily remains have already been found. Structures that have been excavated to date include (the postholes of) a building, probably of wattle-and-daub construction (which is being reconstructed on site) and a well that contained many well-preserved objects from the early years of the settlement.

Also quite fascinating is the most recently added element: the Archaearium. This wonderful museum presents not only the artifacts and remains, but also archaeology itself. Visitors are treated to a crash course on how specialists attempt to analyze these finds, using knowledge and methods from dozens of disciplines—from art history to osteology, numismatics to geology, together, of course with modern techniques such as carbon 14 testing and DNA analysis. Then, in selected cases, the pieces are put together, and the viewer can see how knowledge grows, particular scenarios may be deduced, and conclusions can be tested and considered.

At the Archaearium it becomes apparent that archaeology, because it is perhaps the only unbiased witness to past events, can and should play a large part in the writing and rewriting of history. This is perhaps the biggest inspiration of all: a call to wake up, look for the evidence, dig in and, actually or even just metaphorically, get your hands dirty!

A practical note:

During our mid-week, spring-break visit the Jamestown Settlement gift shop was completely maxed out; the claustrophobic effect was even worse than in the passenger hold of the reconstructed Susan Constant. The café was doable for an early lunch, but I don’t see how it will be able to handle peak summer crowds. In other words, BYO food!

Monday, April 9, 2007


On a large plateau with a view over the Kungsbacka river and the fjord beyond, there was a village. It had been there, as far as anyone supposed, for generations, stretching back deeply into the Middle Ages. Around a dozen farms with their barns and stables; home fields held closely and outer fields escaping to the river, where hooves sunk into the soft ground. Fences of wood and stone, ditches, paths. Every so often a house burned, fell into disrepair, or was deemed obsolete, salvaged, and rebuilt. Again and again houses rose upon the remains of their predecessors. Like the cells of a human body, the houses were replaced, but still it was the same village; still it was Varla.

It even was Varla in the 1960s, when I was there. Hand-in-hand my grandfather and I took sugar cubes and apples to the horses stabled down the dusty road. With trepidation I observed the hay-bailing machine in the summer pasture, suffered a wasp-sting and burning nettles, but nothing clouds the sunshine in my memory.

Today much of the plateau is covered with typical, tasteful, functional Swedish homes, lining up along the streets that arch their way around the hilltop. In between now and then, though, came the archaeologists, looking for history and traces of earlier times.

Who lived there before? Would you believe it? Women in woven aprons and bronze brooches, keys dangling, in longhouses by hearth-light weaving sails for the ships that plundered and traded. Men in peaked Viking-helmets and riders with iron spurs and gleaming silver buckles of twisted animal limbs. Meat roasting in pit-ovens and bread baking on heated stones. Wells dug, and wells filled in with refuse. Births, deaths and burials following upon each other as times and habits went through their slow changes.

Is my Varla is gone? Is it gone, too, the Varla that nurtured the Bronze Age, the Vendel Age, the Viking Age and generations more? Once again we’ve built upon past structures seemingly obliterated. I wonder if, this time, it is still the same village. Is the old grown new again, or is it just layers?