Thursday, November 25, 2010

Winter wonderland

Breaking news: Finland is cold!

Winter is in full swing already here.  It's different than the winter in the US, where the ground stays warm enough that the first several snows melt away, assisted by the diligent salting of every horizontal surface within reach.  Here the cold came early, so a couple of blizzards came through and we've pretty much got snow that will likely be sticking around for some time.  In the Midwest the snow was a fairly annoying but temporary visitor, which showed up for a couple of months, stuck around long enough to make everyone drive badly and whine a lot, and then by March you would be pretty sure you were well on the road to spring.  Here, the snow shows up all at once, kicks its shoes off, settles down in an armchair and gives the general impression that we warmbloods are actually the visitors here...

Unlike in the US, where every square inch of ice is carefully removed to avoid lawsuits from clumsy pedestrians, only the main roads are salted and the rest of the driving and walking areas get a treatment with a little bit of gravel.  In some areas the only way to tell where you drive and where you walk is the shape of the tracks furrowing the surface.  The snow falls and life continues on top of it; snow removal in November would be a waste of effort here.  There's ice of course, and where the gravel is sparse it's easy to slip and fall.  Finns seem to take a shit-happens approach to walking around on ice: "We don't sue people, we just punch them in the face" as one friend said.  Do people use ice cleats for walking?  "Old people do..."  So yeah.  I use mine when the ice is bad (I don't have to fall down until I'm 60 years old to figure out that those might be helpful) but while venturing out without them, I fell a couple of times but since we've had some fresh snow, it's a little less icy.  Like driving in the winter, it's good to go a little slower.  It's a dry snow, the kind that actually shifts around and blows into dunes with the wind, so that you might be walking one some level hardpack one moment and the next, your feet are churning through powder up to your shins.  And it's beautiful, it really is - the piles of snow on the rock formations, the balcony chairs upholstered with snow, and the big patch of ice on the river.  I lost my bus pass on Monday so I've had plenty of time to enjoy it on foot for kilometers at a time, up close, late at night when there's almost no one else out.  Many times it feels like living in a postcard.

This weekend we're supposed to get some real chills: -15 to -20 C.  In Lapland already there's -30, and it's only November... thankfully, so far so good with my heavy duty winter clothes, including a new hat I got for 1 € from the thrift store: it's a gloriously huge fur cap made out of badger or fox or wolf or Father Christmas or something.  It would look ridiculous in any warmer climate, but it's perfect for this weather and I love it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Piles of rocks, and how much I love them.

Yesterday I took a bus from Turku up to the town of Eura with a couple of other history enthusiasts from the local SCA group.  We were to leave the bus station at 8 am, and so my day started very early.  Daylight was barely beginning to color the sky as I headed downtown.  Halfway there, I realized I had forgotten to check the weather forecast for the day, but as I've become accustomed to weeks-long stretches of cold, dark and damp, I had packed an umbrella and scarf by default, and decided on my leather coat and snow boots.  This decision ended up being a very lucky one, as I'd find out later.  We met up at the station, and once settled on the bus I pulled out my mp3 player, but to no avail, as I was asleep as soon as we pulled out of the station.  Around an hour and a half later I was woken up by a gentle shove on the shoulder and gathered my things from the bus.  At least it had lightened as much as the always-cloudy sky would allow.

Eura is a small village with a population of about twelve thousand.  The bus stop was more or less typical: a tiny bus station, a grocery store, a bar, and a kebab place.  The only indication that the most significant archaeological findings in Finland were found here was a small sign from the road indicating the direction of the prehistoric information center with an arrow.  For unknown reasons, the ancient locals had practiced inhumation instead of cremation, which would not happen in the rest of Finland until the spread of Christianity around 1100-1200.  For that reason there are a wealth of objects found here from the stone age through the iron age, and somehow over a thousand years of cultivation and farming, these areas were mostly still preserved intact.

We had arrived before the museum opened, to take advantage of the diminishing sunlight, and so grabbed a coffee and then headed out towards Käräjämäki, a short walk behind the museum's property.  A modest hill sandwiched between a couple of farms, this location is an iron age (6th-7th c.) burial hill, topped by a ring of stones that functioned as a court/moot/althing-style meeting point for the ancient locals.  Many of the graves themselves had either collapsed or been plundered long ago, and the surface of the ground was covered in holes and depressions where the burials had been.  Many of them have yet to be excavated, however.  At one end of the hill a burial was found intact, a very wealthy man buried with expensive weapons and lots of supplies.

Once the museum opened (called Naurava Lohikäärme, or the Laughing Dragon), we strolled around inside, and I was my usual slow, reading-everything, taking-tons-of-flashless-pictures annoying museum guest.  The museum (actually I'm wrong in calling it a museum, as it doesn't own its own collection, but rather rotates exhibits from national and local district collections.  But for the sake of simplicity, I'll stick with museum) was fairly small, but had a lot of really nice displays with lots of information as well as hands-on activities such as a vertical loom.  Also on display was the official reconstruction of the Eura dress, which is the most famous and most complete of the medieval Finnish clothing finds.  Thanks to the ridiculous amount of bronze the woman was wearing, some of the fabric itself has been preserved underneath the ornaments and the weave, color, and style of dress have all been discernible from the remnants.  Also on display were some other rarities such as a bronze cooking pot, a fire spade, and several swords.  There was a wealth of jewelry, though the most impressive pieces found in the area had been whisked away to the National Museum in Helsinki.  The museum focused especially on the clothing and jewelry, as well as the swords, and had a room dedicated to each.  From the shop I picked up a booklet about the local excavations and some lengths of bronze spiral made by a local craftsman that I'll add to my own garb.

We spent about an hour and a half in the museum, and then had to head to our next destinations with about four and a half hours of sunlight remaining.  We decided to head to the farthest place first, Harola farm.  About 7 kilometers south of the museum, Harola is unique in that rather than having one or two burial cairns, there are about 50 hectares absolutely filled with them as far as one can see.  They are almost entirely intact, and the few excavations that have been made date the cairns to the late bronze age or early iron age, around 500 BC - 50 AD.  Also present are long rows of rocks, which could have been either walls or sites for iron smelting, as slag was found here and ore was present underneath the nearby lake.  The true function of the long rows isn't known - but Harola would have been a busy place, regardless of what went on there.  Snow had started to fall at this point, which was at least preferable to the rain that had been falling all morning.  We made our way around the hundreds of cairns towards the lake, which was quite pretty with the snow picking up.  In the center of the Harola cairns there was a huge flat boulder which seemed to be the centerpiece of the area.  In other areas many of the trees had been cleared to make the cairns more accessible, and in the summer, the ground vegetation is maintained by local sheep.  We stopped for a moment, dusted the wet snow from our backpacks, and had some snacks.  I realized at that point that my own backpack was about as waterproof as a paper shopping bag.

The daylight was beginning to wane as we made our way back along the road, and we took a short detour to the hillfort named rather uncreatively as Linnavuori.  There are many hillforts around southern and central Finland, and this one would have served as an effective defense for the local population around 800 AD when they came under attack.  The climb up the hill is a steep one, and there are remnants of stone walls that are thought to have supported wooden walls as well.  One side of the hill is a cliff, and a fire would have been lit at the top to signal trouble.  As the surrounding area is relatively flat, a fire at the top must have been visible for quite a distance.

The last stop was Luistari cemetery.  For an area containing at least 800 graves, the field was surprisingly small - many of the graves were in layers over each other.  This area had been used as a cemetery from about 600 to 1200 AD, and as such had been a goldmine of grave finds.  It was discovered by accident as a backhoe started digging for some project, possibly the nearby road: a sword fell out of the first scoop of dirt, and thankfully they stopped there.  It was from this site that the Eura dress was recovered, along with a wide variety of jewelry, clothing, and the tools people of all ages took with them to the grave.  There was one grave for a small but well-armed boy from around 700, and an old man from 1200 right next to him.  Even in the old man's early medieval time, the graveyard was already 500 years old!  It was really something to be standing at the place these amazing objects I had only ever seen in books had been recovered, and briefly wondered what might still lie under our feet, or under the road, or the nearby house.  Each plaque had a diagram of how the grave was laid out and a description of the items found inside, and we speculated about the presence of ox heads in many of the male graves (the custom was to have a funeral feast with an ox, and send the head with the departed), one grave which contained two men and a dog, and the possible presence of a slave in one wealthy woman's grave.  Each one held a mystery about the life the person lived.  Many of the finds here were inspirations for Kalevala Koru jewlery, and I wondered what the inhabitants would think if they could know that a thousand years after they died, people would be wearing replicas of their jewelry.  We swept the snow from each plaque and eventually read them all.  At this point it was quite dark but luckily one of us had a flashlight, and the nearby road shed a little bit of light.  The 10-cm deep snow covered all but the larger rocks as well, so by the time we had read the plaques there wasn't much else to see, except maybe the sign on the fence around the area saying that chasing the sheep and lambs was expressly forbidden!

Finally we trudged our tired feet back towards the bus stop, or at least the kebab shop from earlier where I had a plate of french fries and hot cocoa to warm up.  We were all pretty exhausted from the hike as it was, and the snow had only increased our exertion.  Our de facto tour guide was impressed that I would trudge for 15 km through the dark and snow just to see some piles of rocks, and I explained that these were particularly important piles of rocks to me, and that I would have given an arm and a leg to have had this opportunity in the States.  On the bus ride home I drowned out the screaming of my hamstring muscles with my mp3 player, and then grabbed the bus back to my apartment.  I had to hang up every single item I had with me, as I was completely damp along with my backpack, even through my snow boots and two pairs of socks.  One hot shower later, though, and I was a happy camper.  I do have pictures from this whole outing, but as I also have a ton of schoolwork writing to do - it may be a few days before I get those online, but I'll add a link here when I do.