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2 November 2009
11th Nordic Bronze Age Symposium

The 11th Nordic Bronze Age symposium has been organized by the Institute for Cultural Research / Archaeology, University of Helsinki (Finland). The theme of the Symposium was the changing picture of the period of early metals in the 'peripheral' areas of the Baltic sphere and in Northern areas up to the Arctic Sea. The three-day conference counted about 60 registered participants.
     The main themes touched upon in the presentations were: Building a new model of how Bronze Age society in Southern Scandinavia was organised; Current Bronze Age research in Estonia; Past and present interpretations of the Early Metal Age and Bronze Age in Finland; Is it possible to find a northern border of the Nordic Bronze Age culture along the coast of Norway?; The Bronze Age in the Stockholm archipelago; Recent rock art surveys in Södermanland province; The ethnic and social background of various find types in the Finnish Bronze Age; Correspondence analysis of Gotland's stone ships; Human sacrifice and corpse rituals in Lithuania.
     The jaw-drop moment of the conference came when osteologist Lise Harvig showed pictures of what she is doing. She's a PhD student with Niels Lynnerup at the Dept of Forensic Medicine at Copenhagen. Recently, Danish archaeologists ran a crumbling Neolithic amber bead hoard through a CT scanner instead of excavating and stabilising the thing. Now Lise is putting entire Bronze Age urn burials through that scanner. She knows where every piece of bone and bronze is in those urns before she even cuts open the plaster they've been encased in since being lifted out of the ground. She has perfect 3D digital models of urns that fall apart when you remove the plaster. And she has demonstrated that a lot of the bone fragmentation, that has commonly been assumed to be due to dedicated crushing and grinding by the mourners, is actually simply due to the brittleness of burnt bones whose organic component has leached away over the millennia. Big bones are sitting in the urns, each fragment in place, and fall apart when you try to lift them. As Lise put it, "The one who does the ritual crushing is me, when I empty the urns".
     So, how can a PhD student in archaeology afford to use this sort of hi-tech equipment? Turns out, the technology is developing so fast that the hospitals frequently swap their CT scanners for newer models. The used one at the Dept of Forensic Medicine makes one slice every three millimeters. Not good enough anymore for brain surgery. But perfectly useful for archaeology.

Sources: University of Helsinki, Aardvarchaeology (30 October 2009)

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