Archaeology is Not a Good Career

Björn in Helsingborg wrote me with a few questions regarding archaeology as a career.

Where did you study, for how long, what exactly?

University of Stockholm. Three years crammed into two years at 150% speed, that is, a BA / fil.kand. Four terms of Scandinavian archaeology, one term of history, one term of social anthropology. Later I did a PhD as well, but that’s not needed to work as an archaeologist.

What’s the labour market like? Is it true that there are no jobs?

The labour market is crap and there are no jobs. All Scandinavian countries produce new archaeologists at a vastly higher rate than the old ones retire. If you do get a job against all odds, then that will be through contacts, and the job will be poorly paid and last only a few months in the summer.

Who is the biggest employer in the business?

The National Heritage Board’s regional excavation units, Raä-UV. There are many other excavation units, most of which are linked to a county museum.

What kind of jobs can you do except archaeological fieldwork if you have archaeological training? Museums maybe?

Yes, there’s a small labour market in the museums. It is even more crowded than the fieldwork business. Other than that, I’d say that 90% of people who do a BA or MA in archaeology re-train later to do something else or go into non-academic professions such as bus driver, subway ticket seller or security guard.

What’s a standard day’s work like?

For the few who have archaeological jobs, a standard day is either spent digging or in front of a computer. The Field-Archaeological Paradox ensures that few of the sites that get excavated are interesting.

What has your professional career been like?

After my BA at age 20, I immediately got a fieldwork job because a) I had flirted with a charming employee of the National Heritage Board during a training dig, b) I was computer literate. I spent two years in the fieldwork business before tiring of nasty weather, hostile land developers and non-intellectual tasks. Instead I went into grad school to do a PhD. This took most of nine years though I did a number of other things too during the period, such as taking parental leave and working for an excavation unit for half a year. Since my viva in 2003 I have been an independent scholar, working one day a week as a journal editor and the other four on research projects of my own, funded by small grants mainly from private foundations. I am waiting for a university job to become available, and I am not optimistic.

To sum up, my advice to young people who want to study archaeology is this. Become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, work four days a week at this well-paid and fulfilling job, and devote the fifth day to amateur archaeology. Because archaeology makes a really bad main career.

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Funding Application Success Percentages

I have previously noted that 10% of the applicants get money for humanities research from the Swedish Research Council, 6% of applicants get general research positions at the University of Linköping, and 4% get jobs at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Today I’ve learned that less than 6% of applicants get grants from the Swedish National Bank’s Centenary Fund, though 13% are invited to submit an expanded proposal.

New Office


I’ve been working as a consulting editor for the Royal Academy of Letters for almost a decade, most of that time from home. But since 2006 I’ve had an office at Academy headquarters in a quiet part of Stockholm. This is very good for alleviating the isolation of a non-affiliated scholar. But the actual room I’ve been in had its upsides and downsides. It’s part of a museum on the premises, which meant that while I did have the world’s gayest tiled stove, I unfortunately also had to use a little 19th century writing desk designed for a petite lady. Furthermore, I always had to get out before the museum’s alarm system was activated.



On New Year’s Day my consulting gig turned steady. And now I’ve got a new office: a bigger room with a better desk. Temporarily I’ll be sharing it with my old thesis supervisor. Instead of a window to the north-east, I now wave a balcony to the west. Sadly, though, my new tiled stove has none of the fabulous flamboyance I’m used to.


Sättuna Fieldwork Report Nearing Completion

I’m almost done with the report from my excavations at Sättuna in Kaga last September. Here’s an excerpt.

Finds and radiocarbon dates allow us to identify five phases on-site, two of them corresponding to the dates of the metal detector finds that occasioned the excavations.

  1. Late Mesolithic: finds and features with one radiocarbon date.
  2. Middle/Late Neolithic: one hearth with a radiocarbon date, no finds.
  3. Mid-1st Millennium AD: a pit and a hearth with two radiocarbon dates, no finds.
  4. Viking Period: one posthole with a radiocarbon date, no finds.
  5. Modern rubbish pits.

Late Mesolithic

This phase is identified by a radiocarbon date and a collection of lithics, mainly knapped quartz with some leptite, ultramylonite and basalt, but no pottery and no flint. The only well-defined tool is a ground-surface asymmetrical basalt adze (F220) with a quasi-rectangular cross-section, found on the surface of the field during stripping. After separate first-hand study, Stone Age specialists Fredrik Molin and Roger Wikell unanimously placed the assemblage in the Late Mesolithic (5500-4000 cal BC), noting that the adze would look entirely at home among the abundant finds from the Strandvägen settlement site in Motala (cf. Tom Carlsson 2008, Where the River Bends, pp. 232-245, 374-379). This date is consistent with the level above the sea and the absence of Neolithic pottery. None of the finds can certainly be determined as shore-abraded after knapping.

Most of the Stone Age finds occurred singly in the fills of sunken features that looked no different than usual. Only pits 124, 128 and 154 yielded more than one piece of knapped stone each, suggesting that they may have been Stone Age features. Radiocarbon-dating 128 and 154 would have been problematic as both showed signs of modern disturbance. This left only 124, but it yielded no charcoal. Hearth 45 however, which contained no other artefacts, yielded charcoal of rotten oakwood that was dated to 4460-4340 cal BC with 95% probability (Ua-37499, 5560±40 BP).

We found raw material in the form of unmodified quartz seashore pebbles in some features and collected them when they co-occurred with knapped stone. They are very unlike the typical gravel mixed in the fills and natural on site. In several cases, very small quartz pebbles have been used for knapping or simply broken open and then discarded.

In an appendix, Fredrik Molin analyses the lithics and summarises his impressions as follows (and I translate):

“The adze, the signs of micro-blade production, and possibly the use of leptite and ultramylonite all suggest a Late Mesolithic date. Nothing however excludes an Early Neolithic date except the absence of pottery.

Most of the quartz cannot be dated. But to my mind it appears too coarsely knapped for the Early or Middle Mesolithic – and such a date can be ruled out anyway because of shoreline displacement. Quartz knapping [in Östergötland] becomes progressively coarser and uglier with time.”

Middle/Late Neolithic

Feature 123, whose functional interpretation as a hearth was uncertain, yielded hazel charcoal that was dated to 2460-2270 cal BC at 79% probability (Ua-37500, 3855±35 BP). The interval straddles the Middle/Late Neolithic period shift at 2350 cal BC. A shore site from this era might be expected to yield some Late Pitted Ware decorated pottery, of which we found none. Fredrik Svanberg (web log comment, 20 March 2009) has suggested that the sample may have been contaminated, possibly combining material from the site’s Mesolithic and Iron Age components.

Mid-1st Millennium AD

The Early Vendel Period, the later 6th century, is the site’s heyday in terms of the metal detector finds. We made no datable finds of this era during the excavations. Two sherds of black coarse svartgods pottery are most parsimoniously allocated to this phase, though they may well be somewhat earlier or later. Pit 170 and hearth 135 yielded one radiocarbon date each, 170 on spruce-trunk charcoal in 320-440 cal AD (86% probability) and 135 on maple charcoal in 410-550 cal AD (95% probability). As none of the samples had a confirmed low intrinsic age, and as the site has not yielded a single piece of metalwork dating before the Migration Period, it seems safe to place the beginning of this activity phase in the 5th century AD. All pits and hearths on site that yielded no dating evidence are most parsimoniously placed here.

The excavated surface yielded several datable pieces of metalwork from the ploughsoil but none from the sunken features, and there were no remains of building foundations. This suggests that in the 6th century, this particular part of the site saw some metalworking carried out in flimsy structures or outdoors. Any refuse pits and postholes resulting from this activity were apparently less deep than the modern ploughing.

Viking Period

After an apparent hiatus of a century or more in the Late Vendel Period, there are at least six metal detector finds that can be dated to the Viking Period, AD 790-1100. This phase also shows up in a radiocarbon date from one of the excavation’s few postholes, feature 8, where charcoal of rotten Scots pine was dated to 760-900 cal AD at 81% probability (Ua-37498, 1205±35 BP).

Modern Rubbish Pits

This phase gathers sunken features yielding modern artefacts, well-preserved bone (as soil conditions were very poor for such preservation), dynamited rock and/or a curious fine white sand. For unknown reasons, the sand had apparently been carted to site and used to fill four pits, two of which also contained modern finds. The artefact types found in the modern features were iron nails, iron wire, glass, pottery/china, roof tile, brick, fired clay and fresh wood. Modern activities that these features document are the burial of waste, the digging of a drainage ditch and the dynamiting of a few large boulders.

Daycare Looters

Not far from my home, in the woods down by the tracks, are the foundations of an abandoned railroad man’s homestead. Its name, Vinterbrinken (“Winter Slope”), survives in a nearby street name, though few know that anymore.

The house was built by the railroad company in the 1890s and was torn down, along with its barn, in the 1950s. The municipal archives have photographs of the buildings and the people who lived there, and they are all known by name.

Lately, the staff at a nearby daycare centre has been taking the kids down to the site and had them excavate parts of it, collecting hundreds of objects from the middens and demolition debris. They have now put on an exhibition at Fisksätra public library, displaying selected finds along with drawings by the kids with their own comments and interpretations, and offering some literature about the area (including a paper of mine.) In the display case are for instance parts of two pocket watches and a uniform button with the old Swedish Rail logotype.

These excavations are illegal. I don’t think they should be, but they are. When the librarians told me about what was happening at Vinterbrinken and slightly guardedly asked me what I thought about it, that’s what I replied. Swedish law offers blanket protection for all remains of human activity “in the past” provided that they are permanently abandoned. But that’s not how the law is applied in practice. We rarely bother to dig anything later than the 18th century. In fact, I believe the National Heritage Board sees this disparity between heritage protection de jure and de facto as quite a problem. Could we phrase the law in such a manner that we get good protection but only for important stuff? The issue is clouded by the fact that not everyone agrees on what is important, and that ideas change over time even among heritage managers themselves. The tendency over the decades has been for more and more categories of site, later and later ones, and less and less impressive ones, to receive protection in practice.

As mentioned here recently, I certainly don’t want our museums to spend their meagre resources collecting modern trash. And I am personally not interested in any of the archaeological questions the Vinterbrinken site might be able to answer if the daycare kids quit looting it. What do I care about the everyday minutiae of life in an early-20th century rail man’s homestead?

But I have a suspicion that there may be quite a few people who are interested in that sort of thing. Not least the members of Föreningen Motorvagnen, the Saltsjöbanan railroad’s old-boys association, who spend loads of time and effort restoring old carriages and organising rides. But then again, the old boys probably aren’t aware of the amount of information a competent excavation team could coax out of the site. Perhaps they’re quite happy just to see the finds in the display case.

A Volunteer Messenger’s Responsibility

Who is responsible for a package? The sender or the volunteer messenger who carries it? Do they perhaps have a joint responsibility? This issue has led to quite a number of arguments between me and my wife over the years, and we still haven’t resolved it.

Here’s the deal. Let’s say that Jenny’s in bed with a cold and asks her partner Anne to take out a book for her from the library. This Anne does, but on the way home she loses the book. Maybe she absentmindedly puts it on a shelf in the grocery store and it gets stolen, or she forgets to close her backpack and the book falls into an open manhole along the way. Who pays the library for the lost book?

  1. Sender pays. One of us feels that if Jenny isn’t willing to do her own running, then she has to accept that her unpaid messenger is only human, and thus error-prone. Jenny should pay. An optional generous thing for Anne to do here is to offer to share the expense.
  2. Volunteer messenger pays. One of us feels that by accepting the task, Anne accepts responsibility, and that it would be childish for Anne to expect Jenny to pay for the book. Anne should pay. Indeed, anything else would mean that Anne abdicated from the status of dependable adult, and should be ashamed of herself.

I once ran this question by a group of Swedish on-line acquaintances and found that the ones who agreed with me were a) somewhat in the minority, b) on the whole less likeable than the rest from my point of view. Dear Reader, what’s your take on the issue?

Update 2 April: In addition to many thoughtful comments below by readers, Janet over at Adventures in Ethics and Science kindly devotes an entire blog entry to this highly controversial issue.