I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for June, 2011

Chairy Thoughts

Nothing says “Viking” better than a Stargazer Chair, unless maybe it’s Lee Majors’ horned helmet in “The Norseman.” Just looking at it fills me with a Neo-Viking fervor! Makes me want to go raid a monastery!

The stargazer chair can be seen at so many events, both LARP and otherwise. It is also known as a bog chair, an X-chair, a plank chair and a hocker. It consists of two planks that slide together to form an “X.” A proponent of the chair notes that “it was something someone saw some SCA guys doing, but that they had gotten the idea from an actual viking chair found by archaeologists.” Others note that the chairs have been found in Africa and that proves how far the Vikings traveled. Others note…

Well,  I think you see where this is going. Documentation based on what you want to believe is below contempt. Documentation based on fudging or ignoring a few facts is detestable. Saying that the chair cannot be documented but is really comfortable and convenient and better than a lawn chair is…well, I already dealt with convenience in living history; you know what I think of it.

You might also suspect by now that my first statement might be a little questionable. Why yes, and so is my note about the Six Million-Kronar Viking!

Simply put, there are no such chairs from the Viking Age in northern Europe. The chair, it has been conjectured, was introduced from Africa in the nineteenth century and became really popular in the early twentieth century when Boy Scouts began to manufacture and make them. All this is second hand and not even trustworthy second hand. Like folding stools with backs, they seem to have just popped up!

It is so difficult proving negatives. I had searched for and not found Victorian photographs showing the plank chair—the photos are often taken of European explorers who are sitting in European chairs brought for the safari—and even if I find them, that only proves that they were used by the Africans, not where they originated! Talking to persons importing the chair from Africa, they say they are “traditional,” that deadly term that often means “my father had something like that” and might be based on a concept that someone saw at a Scout Jamboree down in South Africa!

The chairs existing in the Viking Age—and documented by artifacts—range from stools (Lund and York come to mind), to benches, to box chairs with backs to chairs and benches that might seem more appropriate for eighteenth century reenactors (for photos of various types of chairs, see a copy of From Viking to Crusader or similar book, or just take a look at the section on seating in the Viking Answer Lady’s blog entry on “Woodworking in the Viking Age”  http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml#Furniture
They can all be easily constructed (and many easily transported, something our ancestors probably did not have to worry about!) . In fact, they might not have had to worry about chairs very much at all. Forensic studies of bodies from the era indicate that many people of the Viking Age just squatted:

“The physical type does, however, suggest that they are of Anglo-Saxon date, as does the presence of large squatting facets on the leg bones. These are less common after the Norman conquest, when it became customary to sit on stools instead of squatting on the floor.”

Neither comfortable nor practical for most reenactors, but still pertinent!

Getting back to the ubiquitous stargazer chair, I can only say that their existence as part of the Norse or Anglo-Saxon heritage is unlikely at the best, and I would advise against their use by Norse reenactors until such time as one is actually found! Going on strictly evidential grounds, the plank chair is certain twentieth century; and from speaking with producers, etc., I am willing to entertain the theory that they came to Europe and the Americas from Africa in the nineteenth century, but not only is that of no striking relevance to their banning in “Viking encampments,” but of little relevance to my reenacting at all (and btw I’ve never seen ACW photos of them as some have claimed). Viking and other reenactorts of the period should learn to sit on their stools!

Articles detailing why we think squatting was probably prevalent in the past may be seen at http://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=44463 or http://www.suite101.com/content/human-bone-analysis-a62847. For the entire article from which I plucked the quote from earlier, “Medieval Britain in 1967,” see http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-769-1/ahds/dissemination/pdf/vol12/12_155_211_med_britain.pdf If inspired to do a more realistic seat for your early medieval encampment, see Stephen Francis Wyley great article on reproducing the Lund Stool at http://www.angelfire.com/wy/svenskildbiter/Viking/vikstool.html


It amuses to me how many people confuse safety with convenience and say, “Hang the accuracy; I want to be convenient!” They glorify the use of modern spectacles and eyewear (“I just can’t see otherwise, and I can’t wear contacts!”) , alibi the use of sneakers and Harley boots (“I’m not able to stand or walk around otherwise, and besides nobody does accurate footwear!”), scoff at required research (“That’s just not fun; don’t be so anal!”) and obliviously and openly use modern electronics and talk about that episode of  “American Idol” they Tivo’d instead of anything remotely period during public hours (or do not have public hours and instead want a big fancy-dress LARP). Then, as if to further justify their approach, they defend their actions and choices with the ferocity of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar: “That takes away from any fun I’d have and is just not convenient!”

Well guess what. Having un-sharp weapons on the field is safety; using modern wheelchairs or crutches to get onto site is safety; not using poisonous cosmetics is safety. Using something that makes you feel more comfortable with no provenance, no likelihood of existing in period is not a safety; that is the supreme god of people who feel no compunction about doing frivolous living history. A matter of convenience! They even avoid things that were essential to the era—and even more essential to understanding it–as being not merely inconvenient but disruptive. Myself, I find having an Authenticity Officer is safe and reassuring; a lot of people find—or would find if the concept even occurred to them—it is inconvenient. It’s a threat to the laissez-faire sense of Fun that they want to engender and to enjoy.

Are their ultimate goals to attract as many members as possible and rake in more and more money? At an early meeting, we decided on “quality, not quantity.” They may have five hundred people out there in bluejeans, Air Jordans and hurriedly stitched T-tunic made out of polyester; we may have five who look not merely Good but Superlative. That is where I’m coming from, and that is what is important to me. It would be nice to have hundreds of well-dressed participants in a period-looking environment, but those numbers are nothing to me compared to the time that a spectator who says, “Wow, even your shoes look accurate!” (yes, they do so notice!) Nothing is more fun that doing the research required to make something that is accurate and not just fabricate something that will look similar to something seen in a fantasy film.

What is my point? I guess it’s that good, serious living history is fun. The research is fun. The presentation is fun. And the practice is fun. It will probably never ever be convenient!

Into Each Re-Creation Some Fantasy Must Fall

Let’s talk about Otzi. Otzi is the name given the so-called Iceman who lived a few thousand years ago, died and was flash frozen (not literally of course), existing with clothing, tattoos, weapons, etc. We probably know as much if not more about his physical culture than about the cultures of the Viking Age. A wonderful looking glass into the past!

We have no real equivalent for the Viking Era. But we have fantasies. My fantasy is, of course, that a Norseman, hiking across a glacier carrying weapons, wearing everyday clothes but carrying special clothes and, what the hay, pulling his own version of a Mästermyr chest in a sled, slips and falls into the ice and is frozen. In my imagination, he will pop out perfectly preserved a week or two from now. In my fantasy, he’d have been in suspended animation and would just wake up and be able to tell us all about his everyday life.

And while we’re talking about fantasies, then, let’s talk about time travel.

Wouldn’t traveling in time be great? Well, aside from opportunistic manipulation of betting on sports events, investing in the stock market, buying shares of companies ready to go through the roof and slipping multiple copies of Action Comics 1 into mylar bags, I am disinterested in traveling corporeally in time myself. If you have to take shots to visit third-world countries today, think how much of a pin-cushion you’d be to visit 1000 CE. If you have to be careful crossing streets today, think how careful you’d have to be not to offend that guy over there with a sword length greater than his IQ. If it’s difficult dealing with insurance companies and medical care today, think how wonderful it would be if you stubbed a toe and had to go to a laece whose idea of health care was praying really really hard. If you want to communicate, think about learning a foreign language whose modern reconstruction might be a trifle dubious. Then there’s the matter of coin, precious metals or the occasional goat to trade. If one carries a modern firearm for protection, what if it falls into the possession of an inventive metalsmith? And so forth; people thinking of the romanticism of being there at an historic event don’t think of the guy who’d be sniveling and coughing next to them! As it says above: I don’t live in the past; I just visit.

For that matter, I wouldn’t want someone else to journey back in my place. I probably read “A Sound of Thunder” when I was too young and impressionable. I don’t want to step on a butterfly and elect Adolph Hitler as president!

Copyright 1962 DC Comics. From THE ATOM #3, reprinted in SHOWCASE PRESENTS THE ATOM VOL ONE

Fans of the silver-age Atom comic book might well remember Professor Hyatt and the Time Pool stories In them, a professor learns to create a small disturbance in time and lowers a magnet at the end of a fishing line into that disturbance to “fish” for objects from  the past. Of course, the size-changing super-hero is able to get into that limited area, but quite frankly his adventures in the past was not what whetted my interest. I wanted to send a camera into the past. I wanted to take videos of everyday life, and I still do, now more than ever! Just imagine what you’d find out: Period sailing methods. Period fighting techniques. What the streets of a port looked like. How people dressed. What they carried around. How they cooked things. What superfluia was universally available and used but so commonplace that nobody mentioned them! Look at the little details we know of life in the American Civil War since the camera was not an artist cleaning things up!

Excuse me, I’m drooling. Getting a snapshot of everyday life in places such as the Oseberg burial is one thing. I think the Oseberg and the King Tut’s tombs are the most wonderful discoveries of archaeology during the twentieth century! But getting a video—or even just a physical snapshot—of a culture going about its usual job would make them pale in my mind! Miniaturizing a human visitor would, in that same mind, just be slightly superfluous!

Ah, fantasies. All of living history is a fantasy no matter how accurate you are or have to be. Maybe that is what makes this particular fantasy just so gosh-darn attractive!

Fictional books such as Harry Harrison’s The Technicolor Time Machine: The Movie Industry Has Discovered Time Travel–And Hollywood Will Never Be The Same (http://www.amazon.com/Technicolor-Time-Machine-Discovered-Travel–/dp/B003AWPZJ6/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1307838313&sr=1-2 are fun to read and dream about. The Atom stories (http://www.amazon.com/Showcase-Presents-Atom-Vol-1/dp/1401213634/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1307838086&sr=1-2) even more so. Just remember, that you can’t read the academic journals all of the time!

A Thoroughly Inappropriate Book Review—or is it?

A. J. Hamler, Civil War Woodworking. Linden Publishing: 2009. ISBN  13: 978-1933502281

I was looking for an adz and figured that if the CU Woodshop—“Home of the Dream; http://www.facebook.com/pages/CU-Woodshop-Supply/470261515446—didn’t have it, I’d still have a great time wandering around. They didn’t but knew of someone who might be able to help; thanks! Then as I was looking through their book section and gravitated toward this, took a quick glance at what it offered and, hugging it to my bosom, bought it.

At first glance, a Viking reenactor might go, Oh, another Silly War book! It has nothing to do with me! How parochial. How close-minded. How wrong!

Anything that happens in living history, no matter what era, I important to anyone who wants top do living history. We go around in circles, reinventing the wheel, and often different elists for different eras will actually have the same thread or topic at the same time, approaching it from similar directions but totally separated by a thin barricade between them that someone else is doing the very same thing. The different eras—or factions if you prefer—are all earnest and resolute and very very proud that they’re doing this without any input. The fact that they are doing working twice as hard as they have to and duplicating efforts by others seems to be remote and unconsidered. And so they cannot see what something might offer because it is, alas, devoted to another era.

This volume is a dream. I would love to see an author put something tegether like this for the Viking Age, Its subtitle is listed on the cover: “17 Authentic Projects for Woodworkers and Reenactors.” Very true, but I’m afraid that it does not really cover the attractions of this volume. The Projects are neat enough, and there are actually a couple that can be altered slightly and made period for my era. The author has included photographs of the items being used during the American Civil War, something that is powerful and useful and would be impossible for most earlier eras (a Viking-Age equivalent would have to feature photographs of period artifacts, which some have done but too many have not, just noting the ambiguous ”inspired by” in many instances that even notes the original), and Hamler, a veteran woodworker and reenactor for more than fifteen years has the right stuff and approaches many philosophical points in a welcome, forthright and “take no bullcrap” way. For example, in a section on a folding stool, he notes:

“It’s one thing to make sure that a Civil War reproduction is accurate and period-correct, but it also has to be used correctly. The stool in this project is patterned after an original, so I know it’s correct. It would be complete inauthentic, however, if it were used by a private in a campaign scenario. When on campaign, marches of 20 miles a dat and more weren’t unusual, and the common foot soldier carried only what he absolutely needed to sustain him. Officers would have all kinds of comforts carried on wagons, but the only seat a foot soldier would have had was the sea of his pants. Th camp stool in this project is highly authentic, but sometimes the most authentic stool is none at all.” (p. 88)

Bravo! Something anyone trying to present an educational scene should heed, whether that scene is from the ACW or not. That attitude and the projects themselves make this volume useful, but it is the two opening sections of the book that makes it essential.

The first “Stepping Back in Time,” is a collection of wise and exacting essays on the philosophy and reality of living history, including “Authenticity and the Reenacting Community” and “How Authentic Can Your Project Really Be?” The essays are succinct and pertinent and gives such helpful things as the definition of “farb.” They are aimed toward reenacting of the ACW, of course, but any serious reenactor can read it and easily apply things to his own era, and they bring up matters which any reenactor should think about in regard hid own era. Very satisfying. The second section is “Bringing the Past to Life” and deals with period techniques and tools and is perhaps—but not always—irrelevant to other eras but, like the first section, can be applied in many instances to and bring up pertinent thoughts about other eras. It includes 19-century woodworking techniques but also talks about finishings, types of woods and such pertinent matters as cut nails. Also very satisfying. The worse thing is that in the author’s mind, it often seems that he think reenacting to be limited to his favorite era, but such an attitude can be overlooked and should not be duplicated in your own definitions!

But of course, hope against hope that someone will write a book or book dealing more specifically with the eras that you favor!

For buying a copy of this book, talk to your local woodworking shop, bookstore or head on over to the entry on Amazon.

Hoaxes, Beliefs and Probability

Everyone seems to have certain preferred beliefs. Some of these are grounded in rationality and fact, but others seem to be a belief that fills you with satisfaction without any facts or, perhaps, disregarding any facts that disagree with your views. The old comedic phrase is “Don’t confuse me with facts; I know what I believe!” Hopefully, my beliefs are backed by facts and will change if new facts come to light; I was trained as a journalist and in those days at least, the journalist was taught to have a fluid and pragmatic view of reality. Journalism—at least when I learned it four decades ago—differed from academia, science, history, etc., where if you want to get ahead, you better reject any revisionism and tow the current line! My views, of course, may contain self-perpetuated blind spots, but I hope that I am being honest!

I cannot speak for such areas as science and academia since I am, believe, completely disassociated from these. On matters of history, I am much more familiar and far close closer. I know that there are certain beliefs that are sacred cows, if only because conventional historians have lectured me when I have espoused a revisionist theory that was brought about by reading facts set forth by revisionist theorists. This is not, of course, to say that I mindlessly follow any revisionist theory. Theories about the Roman Empire not being as bold and original as presented are backed by believable facts; conspiracy theories about John Wilkes Booth escaping with his life seem just a little too vague, ambiguous, capricious and contradictory, attempting to replacve facts only with unproven innuendo.

This sort of thing, of course, can be seen in modern history; look at the beliefs repeated by some people about Paul Revere’s ride for example. When we go farther back into history, into a period that is more vague and more open to interpretation, it increases. We do not know, for example, exactly what the clothes of the Viking Age looked like, and the interpretation of a hangeroc used by my group and that used by another might differ but both still be a legitimate interpretation. Vague literary description, occasional scraps of textile and ambiguous illustrations are all that we can go on. On the other hand, no matter how much some people might object, we know what these clothes did not look like (no horned helmets, no furry loin cloths, no bare chested Conanesque costuming, no polyester trim).

And it is there that we encounter more than a little bit of trouble. I think it is fair to note that the Norse might have included people of different races and appearances because they traveled very far, encountered these races and probably brought them back as thralls to the homeland. Seeing the acceptance of foreign beliefs–Christianity—indicates to me that it is likely that theories about conversion to Judiaism and Islam by Viking raiders are correct (although I stress that it the beliefs might be no more orthodox than Christian beliefs of the Vikings).

On the other hand, there are those who assert that the Vikings—they tend to use that term rather than the more correct Norse—were a pure Aryan race, not bringing in anyone of a different hair color, etc. At shows, we have been congratulated by racists for sticking to the Aryan ideal (these sots usually get angry and sullenly withdraw when we quickly and resolutely disagree), and low-brow humor has been poked at the appearance of non-Aryans in Viking movies. We have been lectured by Viking aficionados who are certain that the Norse rejected all efforts to turn to Christian beliefs, that they were independent people who always had their own way and who traveled everywhere. One such person was certain that many Norse heathens came to America and continued their heathen ways in secret after the conversion (and are vehement should you dare argue with their theory), that Asatru is just beliefs from the Viking Age brought out of hiding, that runes are just the Viking equivalent of tarot cards, etc. The same person who became apoplectic at the suggestion that some Vikings were black (this was presented into an academic article) a week later proudly pointed to the story of a Viking voyage to New Zealand and trumpeted its truth (this was presented in a magazine which also had articles about how space aliens influenced Terran culture).

Recently, a list of supposed devoted early medieval renactors has devolved into a series of increasingly far-fetched defenses of such things as the Kensington Stone, mooring stones in Minnesota and deification of the Norse beyond practicality (and the Vikings were, above all else, practical, believe it or believe the Christian propaganda!). My forehead hurts from the times I’ve facepalmed at a new defense of a hoax or new proof that something is a fact because they believe the hoax. It will probably continue, because the adherents believe they are right, and no amount of facts are going to make them change their minds! And I’m really surprised in one sense; no one has brought forward “Outlander” as documentation!

Loren Schultz of the Fellbjorg Vikings has noted an article on folks who have their beliefs and ignore contradicting facts at http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney. It deals with matters beyond the ready belief in Viking hoaxes, some pertinent to modern political thought, but it is well worth reading and—in many cases—ignoring! Of greater relevance to the subject is a new article by Christie Ward, the Viking Answer Lady—http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/Kensington.shtml—that deals with the Kensington Stone and other hoaxes and provides clear, understandable and fair facts. No doubt, and unfortunately, it will be ignored by a few people as well!

West Stow

In October of 2010. my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Wychurst in England. That certainly would have made the trip worthwhile, but we traveled up and down the east coat, meeting Regia members that we quickly learned to hold dear, seeing wonderful sites and sights and picking favorites among the wonderful things e saw. Wychurst was certainly first; we have dealt with it here before. Durham Cathedral was another unexpected delight and—for Bede’s grave if for nothing else—quickly became a favorite (thank you Clare for sharing it!). And a favorite stop was West Stow, the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village near Bury St. Edmunds.  We could have moved in and been happy (thanks Pete, Sarah and Sophie for being such great Beatrices!).

Recently, while searching for something else, I came across this great page on West Stow and its buildings, and it not only brought back many fond memories but was very informative and succinct. If you haven’t read the page, go right now to http://www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk/sebc/play/wstow-buildings.cfm and take a look. If you want to see West stow as we saw it, head on to http://www.flickr.com/photos/folo/sets/72157625310507654/