Because.

So I killed a rooster and turned him into beer.

Behold the majesty of my cock. Yes, this post will be full of juvenile cock jokes.

Shockingly, though, I’m not interested in discussing my cock or its majesty at any…length…in this post. A discussion about the production of cock ale will probably be put up much later, so you will have to wait very patiently to sample my cock.

Ale.

I promise, I’m an adult and a professional government employee. Really.

No, this post is a further examination of a topic I’ve already addressed. In a sense, I’ve already touched upon my cock – but it warrants revisiting.

You see, from time to time I still ask myself, “Self, why are we doing this? Why did this majestic cock need to die?”

I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend Phil (the expert cock handler pictured above) during the weekend where Death Cluck was slated to die; his extensive undergraduate education netted him degrees in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Medieval History. Yes, I mean 3 separate degrees. I don’t know about you, but I was a crappy student in my undergraduate career; that level of education is somewhat intimidating to me.

Yet, despite this intense level of education and intelligence, Phil expressed a sort of dismay at the general uselessness of it all. That no matter what, holding that cock seemed somehow more generally useful than, say, digging up some old pottery shards. That it wasn’t really making a difference. That it just seemed to exist in order to perpetuate its own existence.

We talked at length about our perspectives on the archaeology community and archaeology as a discipline, and we both take a similar view: it’s at best a weak science, and at worst a field of undisciplined and poorly-controlled speculation. Phil expressed a degree of regret regarding his choice of field – what good was it? Does it help anyone? Does it fix any global problems? The community seemed to consist of a circle-jerk telling itself that it was cool and valid and stuff – but what good is that? I found myself generally agreeing with his assessment.

True, as an elite member of the S.T.E.M. master race (to use the vernacular popular of the Internets), it’s easy for me to be dismissive of all those “lesser” disciplines that result in a B.A. or M.A. – or really, anything that awards an “A” as a degree. I have a lot of practice in being an arrogant prick, and even more practice in telling people why they’re wrong and need to re-evaluate their perspectives. A valuable asset to society, no doubt.

But I’ve pondered this more, and I’ve come to something of a conclusion.

Oh please, tell me more about the inferiority of the arts as a field of study.

I mean, OK, we study things because they’re cool. Sure. We dig up ancient artifacts and attempt to reconstruct history because it’s pretty nifty. Is it as “valuable” as curing AIDS or cancer? Probably not, but that’s a really unfair standard – and such comparisons lead to infinite regression or reductionist cycles.

AIDS is solvable with money – so if you’re not tackling novel influenzas, you’re not really helping. But y’know, viruses aren’t even the real issue – we need to improve the infrastructure of developing nations so that they can improve sanitation and thus get healthy. Aw hell, that really pales in comparison to the socio-political biases in the world that perpetuate those situations in the first place. But that doesn’t even matter because peak oil is coming, and everything is going to hell anyway. And none of that will matter if we can’t get off of this rock before we ruin it – so really, if you’re not a gazillionaire funding a ludicrous space colony program, you’re really not helping.

You see why such comparisons are silly? No matter your discipline, someone somewhere will find a way to tell you that it’s useless and you should be focusing on something that’s “more useful.”

Sure, we have to set our priorities and decide what things will get what amount of attention – but that reality doesn’t invalidate any particular field of study.

At its core, the discipline of archaeology is one of examination and investigation of very scant material. It is a necessarily outwardly-building discipline, because there is simply a lack of stuff to fill in any particular hypothesis. It proceeds in a direction somewhat opposite the typical path of science; whereas I take a complex system and break it down into fundamental components, archaeology looks at a component and attempts to extrapolate the system.

This is a very necessary component of critical investigation and knowledge-building. Yeah, we do that in science to some extent – but it’s never really on a big scale. The only reason we have any idea about dinosaurs is because some dudes way back when looked at some bones and said, “What if it was like this?” Good science? Not the best, but a useful thing. It examines and tests the exterior of our knowledge framework, while the sciences concern themselves with describing within that framework.

That outward framework building, fraught with errors and confirmation bias, is really the best way we know to expand our analytical framework. If someone didn’t push at the boundaries of what we can confidently know, we’d progress very slowly. Archaeology is a bit like engineering or architecture, except that it attempts to build a historical narrative of a society – it’s a field for dreamers who want to build new things. Sketch the framework and let the detail-focused people fill it in. Maybe the sketch has to change – that’s OK. The point is that while science is working at tiny level, carefully shading individual pixels comprising the image, archaeology (and other similar disciplines) is trying to outline the picture.

It’s also a way to teach people how to make decisions and formulate plans with little to no workable information. As a scientist, I can be stalled by a lack of information. Too many variables. Directions unclear. Ham-fisted cock joke. But because archaeology doesn’t hold itself to the same standard of verifiability, its adherents are more free to dream big dreams and come up with ludicrously complex ideas. Most are wild speculation, but hey – so are a lot of things.

The back-and-forth between strictly disciplined science and less disciplined investigative fields helps us to fully flesh out our understanding of the world – and that is an ultimately useful and noble goal. Any pursuit that is an attempt to usefully increase one’s knowledge or understanding of the world is a useful one, and the interaction with other people doing similar things allows you to make a very real contribution to the entire progress of humanity. It might not always seem direct, but there it is. And this interaction and the reconstruction of historical narrative helps pull us together – teach us more about our shared history, and we’ll feel even more connected to one another.

Seriously, why not? I mean, except for the whole “freezing to death alone on top of a mountain” thing. Also, cock joke.

Ultimately, the simple pursuit of understanding is a goal in and of itself. It might seem weak, but the truth is that pursuing knowledge because you think it’s cool is exactly what everyone does. People go into robotics because they’re fucking awesome. Prosthetics? Screw you nature, I’ma give this guy his legs back because we’re that awesome. Neurosurgery is amazing. Saving starving children in Africa? Bad-ass. Every single 5-year-old child loves dinosaurs because they’re so fucking cool, and in many cases that has lead those children to pursue careers in science. I can say confidently that I’m into biology because the T-Rex is approximately the most stupefyingly amazing thing we’ve ever discovered except maybe some sweet-ass planets. The image of the T-Rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History is burned into my brain, and that’s just fine.

Sure, we like to feel like we’re accomplishing something more than ourselves, but even that ultimately comes back to making ourselves feel good about who we are. Some people think that helping others is the coolest thing ever – and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. You’re accountable to yourself above all, and since you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself, I can’t see begrudging anyone their chosen passion.

Are you pursuing it because you love it? Are you connecting with the community? Are you taking opportunities to better yourself in pursuit of this thing? Yes? Then we’re all good.

We climb mountains because we can. We build progressively faster cars because we can. Tall rollercoasters, square watermelons, 50% ABV beers, chili peppers hot enough to physically burn your skin – all because we can.

So there’s the answer to the question. Why slaughter a chicken and throw him into beer? Why dig up 20,000 year old pottery and try to reconstruct the culture around it? Why perform open-heart surgery for 20 straight hours?

Yes, we can and should argue the particulars of what to pursue when, but the answer still stands:

Because.

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Brewing With Egil: Sheep Vat’s Deep Drafts

Man, that’s a mouthful.

I’ve talked about the ingredients that likely went into Viking-era “beer,” and presented my hypothesis about the production of such a beverage. One area that’s critically lacking in the research is an analysis of the equipment that may have been used.

Brewing is extremely process-intensive, and the process is very closely tied to the equipment you use – everything from the gap between rollers in your malt mill to the quality of insulation in your mash tun to the precision of your temperature monitoring equipment can affect your final product.

To that end, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Vikings may have used as a fermentation vessel, and from that extrapolate how they may have fermented their beverages.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hei%C3%B0r%C3%BAn

Oh god I hope that’s booze.

The word skap-ker (sometimes skaptker) appears in a few places in the corpus of Old Norse text. It is generally agreed to indicate the vessel from which ale is served at feasts – this is documented in a few different sagas . However, no text describes the nature of a skapker – its size, construction, appearance, or any other physical characteristics.

Linguistic analysis may give us some clues. One reference comes from the Elder Edda, in Grímnismál, in a passage describing the goat Heiðrún (Hollander’s translation):

Heiðrún heitir geit,
er stendr höllo á
ok bítr af læraðs limom;
skapker fylla
hón skal ins skíra miaðar,
knáat sú veig vanaz.
Heithrún, the goat
on the hall that stands,
eateth off Læráth’s limbs;
the crocks she fills
with clearest mead,
will that drink not e’er be drained.

I added the emphasis on “skapker” so you can pick it out. The mythology seems to indicate that the “skapker” is the vessel which is eternally filled with mead. Given its mythological use, and the associations between ale and feasting/sacrifice/sacrement, this makes a degree of sense. It may be that the word “skapker” is a callback to the methaphysical beliefs in the Viking age – that is, the physical vat from which ale is served is symbolic of the ever-full vat in Valhalla.

Of course, that’s pure conjecture on my part. Seems logical, but I’m coming at that from a post-pagan Christian-centric perspective. Just because we think that way doesn’t mean they thought that way – but it’s certainly plausible given the context of use.

Dissecting the specific meaning of “skapker” becomes an interesting exercise. It’s a compound – “skap-ker” – whose meaning is somewhat ambiguous. “Ker” is pretty solidly “cask,” “vessel,” or “tub.”

“Skap,” however, may be related to the word for “to work” or “to make.” So could it mean “working-vessel?” If the skapker is a fermenter, this would make sense.

The noun form of the word is also “skap,” and also means “shape” – but it can also mean “mind” or “temper.” Hmmm. “Mind-vessel?” What could that be?

When we look at the entry for “skapker,” we find a note indicating that the word “skap” is actually derived from “skepja,” which is a form of “skapði.” All of these seem to indicate work or creation of some kind.

A related word is the Anglo-Saxon “ge-sceap,” which again means “of shaping or working.” However, the word “sceap” by itself also means “sheep,” and this is confirmed in the Latin-AS glosses I’ve already talked about.

“Sheep-vat?” Really? It’s actually not that crazy if you think about it – the aforementioned goat is extremely closely related to sheep. In fact, many animals called “goat” or “sheep” are distinguished fairly arbitrarily and sometimes erroneously. Add in that they were using very different breeds 1000 years ago, and one can conclude that there may have been very little difference between a “sheep” and a “goat.”

And let’s not forget that all of the works in question were compiled in the 13th – 14th century – where skeps were commonly used to raise bees. It’s conceivable that “skapker” is more like “skepker,” meaning something like “honey-comb vat.” Given the use of honey in ale production, this is also not totally crazy

So the word itself might mean “working vat,” or maybe “honey vat,” or even possibly “sheep vat.”

What might a “sheep vat” be?

Please be wrong.

Please be wrong.

OK, OK, the “sheep vat” thing is a stretch anyhow. If anything, I would suspect it means “sheep’s vat,” an allusion back to the story about the goat with teats that produce mead forever.

All of the possible meanings do seem to make a sort of strange sense, though – we have references to a goat/sheep that fills a “skapker” with mead for all eternity, the “skapker” is used in situations where mead or ale would be appropriate, and “skapker” as “working vat” still has connotations of fermentation (often referred to as “working” the product in medieval sources).

No matter how we slice it, the “skapker” is the vessel from which ale or mead was dispensed for consumption – and given its associations with “working,” I think it’s reasonable to extrapolate that it may have served as a primary fermentation vessel.

So what was it made of? How big was it? We’re still at the same place, aren’t we?

When you absolutely, positively, need to get a bunch of people drunk.

These are vessels recovered from the Oseberg find. The pail with the handle is the so-called “Buddha bucket,” and it may have been large enough to hold a lot of booze. An Irish Arts Review paper (sorry, cached copy – can’t get to the full thing) mentions that the thing is 36 cm tall, and tapers from 32 cm to 26 cm in diameter. Using a handy volume calculator, a cylinder 36 cm tall and 32 cm in diameter should have a volume of ~29,000 cc, or 29 L. Of course, this tapers to 26 cm in diameter (a cylinder whose volume is 19 L). Averaging to get a volume estimate for the bucket gives us roughly 24 L – about 6.5 gallons or so. Of course, all of those measurements are probably outside diameter and fail to account for wood thickness – but we’re estimating here.

You can see that the vessel with 4 rings is larger still. And the Oseberg ship itself had a barrel with a capacity of ~750 liters – so the Vikings certainly had the ability to craft wooden vessels of significant capacity.

We also don’t see stone or metal vessels of this size in Viking-age finds. We find them a few hundred years prior in Celtic digs, but Vikings seem to have a decided lack of large stone or metal vessels. We know that their woodworking was excellent – the ships we’ve uncovered show masterful craftsmanship – so this seems to make a degree of sense. It seems that Viking-age vessels of significant capacity may have been made primarily of wood.

One thing to note is that all of the buckets pictured above are made of yew – which is a toxic wood. The toxins dissolve quite readily in alcohol, so I doubt that these specific vessels were used to hold alcohol. One vessel did have wild apples and a ladle, so I suppose it is possible. However, they certainly serve as evidence of a type of vessel that Vikings made, and which could possibly serve as a “skapker.”

I’ve mentioned before that Viking-era drinking vessels were smaller (most are around 6 – 8 fluid ounces), so a 6.5 gallon bucket of ale will go a long way for a lot of people. Ale was most often drunk during celebrations and feast gatherings, so many people would be available to drink it. A 6 gallon batch of ale contains roughly 50 pints, which is 100 servings of ale in Viking-era cups (assuming an 8-ounce average). Plenty of booze to get 20 – 30 people drunk – a size of party that is documentable in the sagas.

In the saga of Hakon the Good, we find that Hakon directed the Vikings to celebrate Yule at the same time as the Christians. He also issued a decree about ale. The decree is often translated as “and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.”

The “meal of malt” part is especially interesting, because the Old Norse text doesn’t actually say that. It says:

ok skyldi þá hverr maðr eiga mælis öl, en gjalda fé ella, en halda heilagt meðan jólin ynnist.

I’ve bolded the part that is usually translated as “meal of malt.” There is an Old Norse word for malt – shockingly, it’s “malt,” – and yet it appears nowhere in this text. In fact, “mælis” primarily means “measure, and the compound “mælis-öl” specifically means “a measure of ale, approximately six and a half gallons” according to Cleasby/Vigfusson.

Well look at that. 6.5 gallons would be about enough to fuel a good party, or a family for a week. And we have direct archaeological evidence of wooden buckets of at least that capacity. The examples are decorated with metal – expensive in the Viking age – so it seems reasonable to believe that they may be reserved for special occasion use.

The figure on the “Buddha bucket” might be connected to a Celtic harvest deity – indicating a possible sacramental intent. A sacramental vessel that is large enough to fit descriptions of containers from the era? It’s plausible.

——————————————————————————————————–

From all of this, the most reasonable conclusion I can draw is that the “skapker” was probably the primary fermentation vessel used in the production of ale/mead, or whatever the sacramental beverage was. It is also likely that said “skapker” was a specific vessel made of wood, whose capacity was at least 5 – 6 gallons, and was likely decorated with metal or figures to denote its sacramental status.

The “ever-flowing mead” imagery makes me think that they likely kept using the same vessel over and over, dumping onto the dregs of what was left. Even if there were no dregs, wood is absorbent and will harbor yeast – so by re-using the same wooden vessel for years, you create a vessel with a house strain of yeast that will ferment whatever goes into it.

A dedicated “working vat,” made of wood, re-used for generations. Ale is ladeled directly from it through a mead strainer, into horns, and served to guests.

Hey, it sounds better than a “sheep vat,” right?

The Flyting: Provocative Prosody

What could possibly go wrong?

One aspect of Viking culture that I find particularly intriguing is the flyting.

Well, it’s not just a Viking thing – the Anglo-Saxons did it, and the tradition has carried forward in various forms since. Duels of wits and insult contests appear in Shakespeare, and we have a somewhat more familiar form today in the rap battle.

The challenge of spontaneously composing a retort, in a verse-form common at the time, was a way to test intelligence and ingenuity. It was also used as a very ritualistic test – in Beowulf, Unferth starts a flyting with Beowulf as a sort of “interview,” vetting out his claims of greatness. It was a product of cultures that valued cunning just as much as physical prowess, and some of the verse-forms (particular the skaldic forms in Viking culture) demanded a large vocabulary – one of many markers of intellect.

I’ve been interested in trying to get flytings to be a “thing” in my little slice of the SCA. Sure, exchanging insults back and forth is a time-honored bonding tradition that we all practice in our daily lives – but recreating the formal contest creates a whole different experience.

Some people are a bit gun-shy about the idea, because it does often involve some negativity (albeit good-natured) directed at one’s opponent. However, exposing oneself to such challenges also helps to build poise and confidence – one of many reasons that it may hold value. It’s all about responding to challenges, after all.

What follows is a hybrid poem that I’ve written in a skaldic form called kviðuhattr. It’s a fairly simple meter with a strictly-counted alternating 3-4 pattern of beats. Lines are linked by alliteration, and that’s really it. It leaves you free to play around with other word devices pretty freely.

The intent here is to create a conceptual bridge – I’m trying to evoke the wordplay and attitude of a modern rap battle, while using a historic form and word construction. Enjoy!

P.S. If you’re one of the SCA performers I know, consider the mic dropped. Beat that, punk.

——————-

Of dwarf-drink
I draw horn-fuls.
Oðin’s mead
I make in barrels.
Bold Kvasir’s
blood-lettings are
running free –
flooding the plain.

I drop beats
like Draupnir rings.
Foemen flee;
form relentless,
I strike strife-
stags from life-path –
my verse-form
violence slaying.

Spitting fire,
I spare no weak-
ass wordsmiths –
winning battles
with verse-shield,
a verb-hafted
spear, and mouth
of many nouns.

I stand tall
on tables flat,
kicking cups
of corpse-like ale
in foe-face,
flooding your bowl
of wheat-pap
with water of men.

I have won
wars of verses,
versus skalds
of skills renowned;
Now behold
the Har of games –
the great one
and his words’ bite.

Biting truths
tell of victory –
victims lie
with lines scattered,
scarred by harsh
hewing of verbs,
vision blurred
by blood’s falling.

Fall the skalds
skewered by wits;
witless foes
fail to return
timely blows,
blown away by
words of praise
poured not for them.

This cold blowin’
from bold rowan’s
a doom-sign
for soon-to-die
rime giants:
arrivin’ violent –
boasting rhymes –
abide the host.

Ice and snow
and Snorri’s flow,
coursing hard
in this horse-man
of iced land,
lays to waste the
wasted lines
of latest rhymes.

Hewed them all
with Havamal,
slew the wyrms
with Sigurd’s words –
no foe stood
face-to-face nor
made a space
in spate of words.

Listen well
you whelps of verse;
your verb-flames
flicker and die
meeting ice –
my meter’s cold
front serves as
frigid warning:

Your weak heat
and weaker heart
pose no threat
to Thor of verse;
sons of spring
sprinting homeward,
hear my words:
winter is coming.

———————-

Yeah, I’m on a Game of Thrones kick. So sue me. Unless you’re HBO. Then don’t sue me.