Magnus Alkarp defended his PhD thesis in Uppsala on 21 November. I just read the book, and my opinion is that Alkarp definitely deserves his PhD. In fact, I believe that he probably deserves two such degrees: one in the history of ideas for the present book, and one in archaeology for his as yet unpublished gazetteer of archaeological features and known interventions into the earth at Old Uppsala. But his book was accepted as a PhD thesis by the Department of Archaeology in Uppsala, and the Department of the History of Ideas is unlikely to be equally forthcoming with a manuscript on archaeology. Most disciplines value their academic distinctiveness higher than many Swedish archaeology departments currently do theirs. So by submitting the book where he did, Alkarp has sadly closed his road to a double doctorate, at least until he’s written another big book on the history of ideas.
The book covers the history of scholarship and general ideas about Old Uppsala, largest village of Uppland in the Middle Ages, 12th century archepiscopal seat and the Lake MÃ¤laren area’s main assembly and pagan cult site during the Viking Period. If Sweden has a historical heart, which is debatable, then this is it. More exactly, the book concentrates on the two craziest periods in the site’s history of scholarship, the 17th century and then the 19th-20th centuries, leaving the comparatively rationalistic 18th century out.
Though endlessly fascinating to someone with my interests, the book does have its weaknesses. Most irksome is a tendency in the early chapters to knowledge relativism. I really hate it when a historian of ideas is so aloof to the issues people have discussed that you get the feeling that the historian in question doesn’t think there are any correct answers to questions scholars once debated and still debate. But this tendency soon passes, and for most of the book Alkarp comes across as a rationalist and realist. Then I must say that I find the man’s flippant tone, his wobbly Swedish (orsaken till varfÃ¶r det hÃ¤nde, man var intresserade etc.) and his tendency to lose himself briefly in irrelevant anecdotes to be significant blemishes on the work. But still, this is one of the few real page-turners I’ve come across in Swedish archaeology. It’s 450 pages of painstakingly annotated and contextualised gossip about big-name colleagues and famous debates, many of which are still in living memory.
And it’s not just a compilation of earlier writers. Alkarp examines the motivations and relationships of all the main characters, their enmities and friendships, their political leanings and the ways that all this influenced their work. He offers major new discoveries about people like Olaus Rudbeckius Sr. and Sune Lindqvist (one of them reported to the Swedish Secret Service on Nazi activities and hid Jewish students in his basement), and brings unbelievably exotic archive records and newspaper clippings to the discussion.
I am in awe. If the guy had only had a copy editor. And someone to make an alphabetical index!
Alkarp, Magnus. 2009. Det Gamla Uppsala: BerÃ¤ttelser & Metamorfoser. Occasional papers in archaeology 49. Dept of Archaeology, University of Uppsala. ISBN 978-91-506-2095-5.
Update 5 December: With Magnus Alkarp’s permission, I publish the book’s English summary under the fold. It concentrates on issues that the book’s Swedish main text adresses only obliquely. Not how scholars have thought about Old Uppsala in later centuries, but what happened there during the Viking Period.