Three Swedish Archaeology Programs Warned

On 16 April I wrote about an evaluation of archaeology programs offered at Swedish universities and colleges. Now Aard regular Åsa reports at the Ting & Tankar blog on the results of in-depth evaluations of certain programs that were judged to be of iffy quality (source1, source2).

Three programs have been issued warnings by the National Agency for Higher Education:

  • The Mediterranean archaeology PhD program in Gothenburg

  • The osteology PhD program in Lund
  • The osteology MA program in Visby

All the warnings are due to inadequate quantity and quality of teaching staff per student. Two PhD programs, egyptology in Uppsala and osteology in Stockholm, escaped warnings because they have been voluntarily closed for application “until the situation improves”.


Alan Sokal Speaks In Stockholm


An issue that has followed me through my career is the fight against pretentious jargon and extreme epistemological relativism in the humanities. The latter is an old idea from the sociology of science which holds that scientific knowledge does not approximate truth about the world, but is instead a kind of agreement among scientists: knowledge is “socially constructed”. As a very young and angry grad student, during Scandy archaeology’s worst infatuation with this mode of thought, I was heartened to learn about physicist Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax upon the hip post-modernist journal Social Text. He got them to print a bogus paper full of impenetrable jargon where he argued among other things that gravity is a social construct. Then he revealed the prank, arguing that the journal editors published the drivel not because they thought he was right, but because they agreed with his politics. The Left, argued Sokal, can’t afford that kind of science hostility, because that means an unwillingness to face reality. He has since gone on to write excellent books on the subject.

And now Alan Sokal is coming to Stockholm where I live! He’s speaking twice under the heading “What is Science and Why Should We Care?”.

  • Tuesday 26 May. 18:00. ABF Stockholm, Sveavägen 41. 50 kronor entry fee.
  • Wednesday 27 May, 18:00. Royal Academy of Sciences, Lilla Frescativägen 4 A. Free for all, but you need to register beforehand. I’ll see you there!

Photograph taken by Sven Klinge last February, from the Zoonomian blog.

Unforeseen Pleasures of Boat Hill


Moving into a house has conferred a number of unforeseen advantages. The first one I discovered was that I now have a continuing relationship with the sky again, something I really only had before during my scant two years in student housing during my late teens. I see the stars and moon in the evenings, I see the sunset, I perceive the weather much more clearly. I’m looking forward to borrowing a telescope from Jonathan or Pat, come autumn.

The second advantage is a closer relationship with the vegetation. There is now fresh greenery outside the windows where recently I saw only bare branches. Every week the flower beds in the yard bring a new surprise as each new plant flowers. We have the loveliest view across the park and playground from our kitchen window.

I enjoyed the third unforeseen advantage this morning. Wearing only dressing gown, sunglasses and slippers, I took my tea cup, the new issue of Current Archaeology and our second-crappiest laptop and stepped out into the yard. We had a box-like balcony at the old place, but it had sunshine in the afternoons and evenings and got really hot in the summers, so we rarely sat there.

I type these words sitting at the garden table, sunshine in my face, a soft wind in my chest hair, a budding little lilac tree in front of me, and I see that it is all good. There is some birdsong, the drone of a bumblebee nearby and intermittently the distant swishing sound of cars passing by on the highway. But mostly it’s quiet.

Talking to Publishers

I just started investigating publishing options for my book manuscript and got my first rejection letter. That is, I apparently hadn’t described the book very well, and the publisher rejected a manuscript I’m not in fact writing.

Said I, “The book’s about elite settlements in late-1st Millennium Scandinavia and its working title is ‘Mead-Halls of the Eastern Geats'”.

Said they, “No thanks, we mainly publish prehistoric archaeology, not Medieval history, and not much about Scandinavia”.

Replied I, “Err, actually, the 1st Millennium is Prehistory. In Scandinavia, that is. We don’t have any written sources. So my book’s an archaeological study, and relevant to that same period in your part of the world.”

Update 16 May: Come autumn, I hope to be able to submit the manuscript here for blog-based peer review.

Inga Clendinnen: Dancing with Strangers

From my Australian friend Ian I got a good book, Inga Clendinnen‘s 2003 Dancing with Strangers. It’s an account of one of world history’s most absurd situations.

Imagine a tropical continent inhabited exclusively by fisher-hunter-gatherers at a low population density for tens of thousands of years. They’re isolated from the rest of humanity. There is not a single permanent building on the continent. Nobody ever wears clothes. Nobody has ever heard of agriculture or stock breeding. Now watch a fleet of colonisation ships from an early industrial society arrive at the continent’s south-east coast and unload a thousand men and women at a place they’ve named Sydney Cove. It’s January 1788.

The two societies are almost mutually incomprehensible to start with, and comprehension becomes even harder when both societies in the Sydney region almost immediately go into crisis. Half of the Native Australian population is wiped out by smallpox. The British colony soon begins to starve. And the colonists are not a thousand optimistic volunteer settlers: it’s a penal colony consisting of convicted urban criminals, soldiers to guard them and a small number of colonial administrators. Naval discipline is upheld, with flogging and hangings commonplace. Clendinnen’s book is a look mainly at the first five years of this mess, focusing on the relationship between the two cultures.

While much of the motivations of the British were explicit and recorded in writing, throughout Clendinnen tries to understand Native Australian motivations on the basis of British accounts of their behaviour. The British were generally baffled by the “savages'” erratic and enigmatic acts. Clendinnen argues that all or most of it should be explained by an underlying coherent system of cultural assumptions and values. I don’t know how much of her model of this system is generally accepted by social anthropologists, but she suggests that

  • Though nomadic, the Native Australians were strongly territorial (against the assumptions of the British), and thus regarded British encroachment as a wrong that called for compensation,
  • The Native Australians practiced clan-based justice, where if I kill a man then his clan can be expected to wreak vengeance not just on me but all my clan including women and children,
  • Native Australian male dignity was a highly fragile thing that would frequently demand acts of display and aggression to be upheld.

Could it be that Native Australian society was, in the absence of writing and formal institutions, in fact not quite so structured and homogeneous, but to an appreciable extent rather random in its workings? I don’t know. Anyway, what the first British colonists recorded was a system experiencing a catastrophic breakdown, so we can’t really know how the machine worked before the arrival of the First Fleet threw a spanner into it.

Clendinnen writes a beautifully effortless prose and is respectful throughout to the people she’s discussing. Her attitude to the relationship between the sexes is curious: on the one hand she is refreshingly sex-friendly, wryly and matter-of-factly recounting the dalliances and mutual desires of men and women, British and Native Australian. On the other she is in my opinion a bit too unperturbed about the rampant wife-beating and wife-murder that was an ingrained part of Native Australian masculinity. Here she takes cultural relativism too far, in my opinion. There were many aspects of British culture that stank. But Native Australian wife-beating was second to none of them. Whacking your pregnant wife repeatedly in the head with a stout wooden club is in no way excused by the fact that you both belong to a “traditional culture”.

A central message in the book is that although things thereafter quickly did became pretty bleak for the Native Australians, the first five years of the Sydney colony under Arthur Phillip‘s governorship cannot be seen as an oppressive or murderous regime. The colony was struggling, but Phillips put a lot of scarce resources into an sustained attempt at peaceful coexistence with the natives.

W.E.H. Stanner has called the Australians ‘a high-spirited and militant people’, and it is as a high-spirited, militant people they leap from the eighteenth-century page. They should be honoured not only for their ingenious adaptation to life on this, the least manipulable continent on earth, but also for their inventive resourcefulness in dealing with the strangers. The men of the First Fleet deserve honour too, for their openness, their courage, and their stubborn curiosity. In the end, it was the depth of cultural division which defeated them, not any lack of energy, intelligence or good will.” (p. 286)

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Age of Spawning — Results


On 30 April I asked, “Dear Reader, how old was your parent with the same sex as you when they had their first kid? How old were you when you had your first kid? Is the length of your education significantly different from that of the parent in question?” As of 7 May, I had 20 responses that covered all three parameters I asked for.

  • Proportion of respondents who have a significantly longer education than their parent: 55%
  • Median difference of age at first child for the entire population: 5 years
  • Median difference of age at first child for respondents whose education is significantly longer/shorter than their parent’s: 5 years
  • Median difference of age at first child for respondents whose education is about the same as their parent’s: 4 years

Boldly generalising from our tiny sample, I find that Aard’s readers are not closely emulating their parents’ life decisions, and that you guys are spawning regardless of whether you are in the middle of your studies or not.

An error source is that I have only looked at today’s completed education levels. If I ask the same people the same questions ten years from now, some of them may have completed a significantly longer education.

Another important factor is that people can’t go on spawning forever. All the reported first child births took place at age 39 and lower.

Also, note that women haven’t been getting long educations for very long. So men reporting on their dad’s age at first child are more likely to have a highly educated parent than are women giving data on their moms.

Ancient Power Nodes

Anglophones find it really funny that one of Sweden’s oldest towns is named Sick Tuna — spelled Sigtuna. However, -tuna has nothing to do with fish, being instead a cognate of Eng. town and Ge. Zaun. It has something to do with enclosed areas. As a reply to a question from my friend Per Vikstrand, here’s a snippet about these place names from the Migration Period chapter of my book manuscript about political geography in 1st Millennium Östergötland.

Of the place-name categories in Östergötland suggested as indicating a status above the ordinary, only one is likely to have been productive as early as the Migration Period: the -tuna names. There are eight of them, and when juxtaposed with the Migration Period’s elite indicators they do not correlate well. Only one is inside a Migration Period elite cluster, coinciding with one of the period’s three best candidates for an elite settlement site: Sättuna in Kaga. Surprisingly, the -tuna names correlate better (but overall not very strongly) with Late Roman Period elite indicators, coinciding closely at Tuna in Heda, Luntan/Luntuna in Viby and Tuna in Östra Husby. As we shall see in the next chapter, in the context of political geography the -tuna farmsteads of Östergötland as a group are mainly relevant to the Vendel Period, when four of them coincide closely with elite indicators. But regardless of their later fate, it appears that four of the eight were already important places before the end of the Migration Period. I would suggest that at least these four were named Tuna at the time, and that the name type was productive over several centuries.

In the Viking Period, all eight appear unimportant. We should note that three of them do not coincide closely with any elite indicators whatsoever from the period AD 150-1000. But five out of eight over a period of 650 years does support the long-established notion that there is something unusual about Tuna.