Academic Recruitment in Sweden is a Mess

Academic recruitment procedures in Sweden are a mess. There are at least four strong contradictory forces that impact them.

  • Meritocracy. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to find and employ the most qualified person on the job market, even if it’s just for six months. This is after all the public sector.
  • Labour laws. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to give a steady job to anyone who has worked at your uni for a total of four semesters in the past five years, regardless of their qualifications.
  • Funding. As Head of Department you cannot give anyone a steady job unless you know how to pay them long-term. Else you will have to fire someone soon, which will get you into big trouble both with the Dean and with the labour union.
  • Nepotism. As Head of Department you want to employ your buddy Bengt. He can be a recent home-grown PhD whom you want to give a break. Or he can be an old stalwart that you’d be ashamed to meet in the departmental coffee room if you didn’t help him.

This is coming to a head in a big way. Five years ago it became mandatory to advertise even the shortest academic jobs, the ones that were typically quietly given to Bengt before. At least one Swedish university largely ignored this and has now endured official censure and much bad press. Academic leaders currently don’t seem to know what’s best practice. I’ve asked around with just one of the questions involved, and nobody in charge seems to know quite what the answer is.

Remember, as Head of Department, because of funding constraints you generally cannot allow anyone to pass the labour law’s four-semesters-in-five-years threshold and get automatic steady employment. But when you advertise a short contract, chances are high that the most qualified applicant will be so near the limit that the short contract would effectively mean automatic steady employment. How do you deal with this situation, even ignoring any impact of nepotism?

So far I’ve never seen any department say plainly that “We realise that Berit has by far the strongest qualifications, but because of the labour laws we will instead employ Nisse, despite his weak CV”. I have however seen a case where the department suddenly discovered and described many flaws in Berit that made her an unattractive candidate, despite the fact that they had happily employed her on a series of short contracts up until the day when the labour law’s limit came into sight.

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June Pieces Of My Mind #2

On a whim I searched for my surname in the Sites & Monuments Register and was awarded with a distribution map of fieldwork I have directed

  • Boiled cauliflower is bland and boring. But try slicing it and baking it at a high temperature in the oven with oil and salt. Good stuff!
  • Archaeoscience friends! The other day when I was feeling happy I had the idea that you guys should develop a method to measure lifetime happiness in human bone. Preferably including variability over the life span.
  • Proponents of market capitalism tend to confuse a description of how the market works with a prescription for how we should organise society. It’s basically “Don’t bring an umbrella, it’s supposed to rain!”
  • I got a letter with some apparently irrelevant genealogical info from a DNA relative. She comments, apologetically, “I am 86 years old and I suffer somewhat from dementia.”
  • I had no idea bird baths are such fun. Never get tired of watching our feathered neighbours at their ablutions.
  • Got my WorldCon scheduling today. I’m giving one talk for grown-ups, two for kids and I’m on one panel.
  • Cousin E taught me a piece of Chinese innuendo: “romantic action movie”.
  • I was pleased and surprised to find an uncredited summary of one of my papers in the local history annual on the back label of a beer bottle from the Fisksätra micro brewery.
  • Wednesday evening sailboat mini race. Sunshine, birdsong and barely any wind.
  • I want to live in constant summer.
  • Today’s my 25th anniversary as a professional archaeologist. With the exception of a few months on the dole in 1993 and 2001, I’ve supported myself and two kids exclusively with archaeological work and spent most of that quarter century at research.
  • I’m doing something utterly Lovecraftian today: sending a strangely heavy, black stone (found in the overgrown ruins of an abandoned Medieval castle on an island) to a university professor to learn his professional opinion about it.
  • Copy editing Timo Salminen’s paper for Fornvännen’s October issue, I learned something fun. As late as 1878, Oscar Montelius wasn’t aware of the Pre-Roman Iron Age in agricultural Scandinavia, which is 530 years long. He thought that the Bronze Age ended about AD 1 and was immediately succeeded by the Roman Imperial Period! My guess is that this was because of the PRIA’s notoriously scanty grave furnishings.
  • I just gave some wealthy sponsors of my research a guided tour of the multinational council housing estate where I live. They happily went along and were quite interested.
  • Begonias are named for Michel Bégon (1638-1710), a French official and plant collector.
  • First swim of the year in Lake Lundsjön!
  • 24 applicants for Stockholm U archaeology lectureship, several with exceptional qualifications.

June Pieces Of My Mind #1

Poppies along our fence

  • My wife receives her second university degree today. In addition to her 15 years in journalism, she is now also a trained psychologist. Go YuSie!!!
  • I assume 45’s lawyers cleared the covfefe tweet?
  • Small but very satisfying discovery. In 1902 a Medieval coin is found at Skällvik Castle. The finder makes a detailed drawing of the coin and sends coin & drawing to the authorities, who promptly lose track of the coin. Gone. In 1954 a list is drawn up of twelve Medieval coins found at nearby Stegeborg Castle. In 1983 the list is published — and suddenly there are thirteen coins on it. And the additional coin has a completely unexpected date, for Stegeborg, which was ruinous at the time. And the coin looks identical to the one that went missing in 1902…
  • Chinese prime minister offers voice of reason on climate, unlike POTUS. Yay, Republicans. Go you. /-:
  • Jrette comes home from first pop gig without parents. Describes ace female guitarist+bassist.
  • Whew, a final close call. The Johan & Jakob Söderberg Foundation comes through and saves my bacon for the last seven months that I plan to subsist on grants. Ample time to finish my castles book. Ask for me a year from now, and you shall most likely find me a contract archaeology man.
  • 18th anniversary with YuSie! And tea, and sunshine!
  • The HPV vaccine is already putting a big dent in the cancer statistics! And remember: here’s something young men can do to improve the health of future grandmothers. And to keep their penises wart-free.
  • In Jrette’s opinion, I’m pretty frenetic.
  • Almost bought Turkish bulgur. Then I remembered Erdogan and his rural power base. “Too bad, politically deluded durum wheat farmers”, said I, and bought wheat from Västergötland instead.
  • I like novellas, 120-150 pp. Very few multihundredpage novels are worth the time.
  • Cousin E beat me big at Patchwork again. Seems that with the summer approaching, the threat of having to sleep in the yard is no longer very effective.
  • I think it’s pretty neat that the designer of a game is often not a particularly strong player of that game. Inventing something with emergent properties that others discover.
  • The Wow Signal: it was a comet that hadn’t been discovered at the time.
  • “Squamous” means “scaly”.
  • “Rugose” means “has a folded/wrinkled surface” and is cognate with “corrugated”.
  • “Gibbous” describes the moon when it’s between half and full, and descends from the Latin word for hump.
  • Sorry to see the Tories get ahead of Labour in the UK elections. Right now it’s 47 to 40%. Some consolation though that UKIP has been wiped out entirely.
  • Someone plz explain how the UK election result represents any diminished Tory ability to get stuff through Parliament! *confused*
  • Haha, now I get it. Brits are super confused to have what us Swedes call “a normal coalition government”.
  • Before coming into a song, a bass player will often do this little slide along a string, “bwoing”, to announce her presence. What’s that called?
  • Here’s a piece of good news. During the past three summers’ fieldwork at Medieval castles, we dry-screened the dirt through 4 mm mesh. We also collected soil samples, a selection of which palaeobotanist Jennie Andersson has checked for carbonised plant remains. Jennie also found lots of tiny bones in the soil samples. Now osteologist Lena Nilsson has analysed the bones that Jennie found. And good news, as I said: no new animal species. If we had wet-screened the dirt through sub-4-mm mesh, we would certainly have found a greater number of bone fragments. But it would have been enormously costly in terms of money and labour. And it seems likely that we would not have identified additional animal species.
  • I found my hair! It’s currently on my chest, below my navel and in an amazing profusion on the small of my back. Really been wondering where it had gone to.
  • Listening attentively to the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” for the first time. What a strange & interesting production! It’s so dense and distant, kind of indistinct with no air in it. Like you’re underwater. Or nodding off on heroin, I imagine.

Paleobotany Of Four Medieval Strongholds

Palaeobotanist Jennie Andersson has analysed four soil samples for me, all from floor layers inside buildings at Medieval strongholds that me and my team have excavated in recent years. There’s one each from Stensö, Landsjö, Skällvik and Birgittas udde. Results were sadly not very informative.

Comments Jennie:

“Overall the fossil and carbonised botanical material in the samples, as well as the recent unburnt material, is meagre … No carbonised cereals were found. Three of the four samples did however contain rather large amounts of unburnt bones and scales from fish plus jurpa, a blanket term för amorphous burnt organic material which may represent bread, burnt food, cooking waste or animal fat. Both the fish bones and the cooking waste probably originate in household cooking and waste management … The presence of burnt weeds such as goosefoot, bedstraw, smartweed and clover (Chenopodium album, Galium spp., Persicaria lapathifolia, Trifolium spp.), all of which thrive on nutrient-rich, sometimes slightly damp and open ground and around farms, tally well with what we may imagine would have been common in a castle bailey or around a farm yard where livestock and people tread about every day and share space.”

Report in Swedish here.

Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy

After almost 14 mostly dismal years on the academic job market, I find it a consolation to read an opinion piece in Times Higher Education under the headline “Swedish Academia Is No Meritocracy“. In my experience this is also true for Denmark, Norway and Finland. In Norway, for instance, the referee board that evaluates job applications isn’t external to the department: it is headed by a senior employee of the department itself. With predictable results.

At Scandinavian universities, people who didn’t get their jobs in fair competition are often handing out jobs to their buddies without any fair competition. But I see encouraging signs that the PR disaster that recently befell Gothenburg University’s philosophy department may have put a scare into the whole sad business. At least temporarily. Meanwhile, I’m finishing my sixth archaeological monograph. Never having had a longer contract than 28% of one academic year.

May Pieces Of My Mind #3

In the time of the lilacs, in the month of laburnum

  • I didn’t like any of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels, so I’ll be voting ”No award” there. But the short-story category really has me confused. The novels aren’t great, but most of them are certainly science fiction. Only one of the six shorts though is scifi as opposed to fantasy. Is there no longer a difference between the genre remits of the Nebulas and the Hugos? I thought the Hugos were strictly sf.
  • Today a number of contract archaeologists and metal detectorists have treated me like someone with valuable skills and knowledge. I really need that. Thank you guys!
  • I’ve realised that I’m not into games of the type “let’s all play our own game of solitaire and occasionally glance at each other”, so I’m selling off Race for the Galaxy and Glass Road.
  • Spoke to a physicist at the gaming convention. “I like mathematicians a lot. Won’t hear one bad word about them. I think everyone should own one!”
  • Gekkoes in Ullared
  • The summer weather and three days at cons have severed me from the everyday. I’m confused about going back to work.
  • Junior has received his final high school grades. They’re better than mine were. He’s set to move out from his mom and start studying computer science at Jönköping University come September.
  • Once 45 is ousted, hope his voters will realise they aren’t really equipped to make political choices. Better abstain for the common good.

LinCon & SweCon 2017

Ascension with its four days off is shaping up to be the geekiest time of the year. This time I had three big events to choose from: the LinCon gaming convention, the Kontur/SweCon scifi convention and the 45th anniversary of the Tolkien Society. Tolkienians do things in nines.

I decided to spend two days at LinCon on the Linköping University campus and one day at Kontur/SweCon in an Uppsala hotel, saving the Sunday for family pastimes.

Here are the games I played at LinCon. And I had lots of free Nepalese tea from the tea bar!

  • Through the Ages II (2015). This update of a 2006 civilisation builder is currently rated second-best game on the planet on Boardgame Geek. I enjoyed playing it though I found it too fiddly and counter-intuitive. Also it took six hours for three players including rules run-down and a lunch break. So it’s not for me.
  • Biblios (2007). This is a short and sweet abstract game with cards, colours and numbers. The theme, about Medieval monks copying books, is thinly but prettily painted onto the mechanics.
  • Innovation (2010). Another civilisation builder, though short and abstract. I taught this favourite of mine to noobs and got beaten twice even though I’ve played the game nearly 40 times.
  • Lovecraftesque RPG (2015). In this interesting short-session role-playing game, the group improvises a horror story in the tradition from H.P. Lovecraft using cards. Participants serve as game master, protagonist and assistant game master(s). After each scene, these functions shift one step clockwise around the table, so that last scene’s protagonist becomes the game master, (one of) the assistant game master(s) becomes the protagonist, etc. We got a really good creepy story together about inheriting a closed-down Civil War veteran’s hospital that has more recently served as a mental asylum. Check it out! The PDF is only £10. Also check out the games designed by Simon Pettersson with whom I played!
  • Star Realms (2014). Space battle deck-building game. Fun!
  • Forbidden Island (2010). Beautifully illustrated re-make of the Pandemic co-op game aimed at kids.

At the convention auction I sold Glass Road, Great Dalmuti, Province, Race For The Galaxy, Space Cadets Dice Duel, Spank The Monkey and Yahtzee. Instead I bought Sid Meier’s Civilization and The Castles Of Mad King Ludwig.

At Kontur/SweCon I chatted with loads of acquaintances, old and new. I also heard interesting interviews with Guests of Honour Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie and Siri Pettersson. Saladin Ahmed couldn’t come as planned but had sent clips of himself answering questions from con goers, which were interesting to listen to. Good academic talks too: Josefine Wälivaara about the relative absence of queer themes in scifi movies and television, and Jesper Stage about the economics of colonialism in scifi. And I bought a Lois McMaster Bujold paperback from the Alvar Appeltofft Foundation’s huge travelling used-books store.

My next con will be nothing less than the Scifi WorldCon 75 in August, in Helsinki! I learned from its organisers in Uppsala that I’m very likely to be giving a talk about Scandinavian pseudo-archaeology at the WorldCon, and I’ll probably also be on some panels. Everyone around the Baltic, you need to go to Helsinki! Not because of me, but because this is an extremely rare event for geeks in the region, pretty much like the Geek Olympics coming to your home town.

2017 was my fifth LinCon and the second one without my kids — see 2016.

May Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • I don’t know what “the winter of 1473” means. January and February? November and December?
  • Just got home from a sunny bike ride that was also incidentally my least successful geocaching expedition ever. I was in Hammarby Sjöstad, a recently built and densely populated urban area. The only way a geocache survives in such an environment is by extreme stealth. And GPS navigators do really poorly between tall buildings. I simply couldn’t find the little fuckers.
  • Cousin E has taught us the popular old Maoist card game “Fight the Landowner”.
  • Translationale Magnetresonanztomographie. Betriebswirtschaftslehre. Unternehmensbesteuerung.
  • I’m hoping that voters around Europe are paying attention to US news and learning a thing or two about what happens when you elect poorly educated and inexperienced anti-establishment candidates to high office.
  • The Wallenberg/SEB banking family founded Saltsjöbaden in 1892. Now they’re closing their branch office at the little local mall, est. 1969. I haven’t been to a bank office in years.
  • Saw an ad for equity release. I assume that it means mutual orgasm. I’m strongly pro.
  • Almost every one of the 40 participants at the Social Democrat intro course I attended today was either the child of an immigrant, the spouse of an immigrant or an immigrant. A lot of well educated and articulate people. Encouraging both for the party and for society at large.
  • I hate pre-installed apps that can’t be uninstalled.
  • I judge books by their first 50 pages, whether to continue reading. Now I looked at The Lord of the Rings in this way. In its first 50 pp you learn what the Ring really is. Oh yeah.

Dungeons & Archaeologists

Dungeon map by Tim Hartin (paratime.ca)

The original roleplaying game, 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons, set the template for a hugely popular genre that persists to this day as RPGs, boardgames (such as Descent) and video games (such as World of Warcraft). The core activity in these games is to enter underground complexes of rooms and tunnels (dungeons), defeat their various inhabitants (dragons, if you’re out of luck) and steal their treasure. The player characters who do this are termed adventurers – or, by some these days, murder hobos.

As you may have noticed, there are very few dungeon-like sites in the real world, and real people who behave like D&D adventurers tend to have extremely short careers. Let’s ignore the murder hobos and look at dungeons from an archaeological perspective, to investigate why they are never seen on Earth.

A typical D&D dungeon is located just beyond the edge of a tract of wilderness, at a convenient commuting distance from a friendly settlement such as a semi-isolated farming hamlet. The first question for an archaeologist is whether the dungeon is inhabited by sentient living creatures. If not, it is either an animal warren (basically a very large anthill) or a tomb.

Apart from magpies, animals aren’t interested in collecting treasures. So let’s look at a tomb. A dungeon is always full of treasure when the player characters reach it, which means that the tomb must be extremely well hidden and unknown to the locals. Why else would the treasure still be there? Tutankhamun’s tomb survived almost untouched because it soon got covered by the backfill from a later, much grander tomb – which was robbed at an early date. And it certainly wasn’t possible for a few adventurers to wander into King Tut’s tomb guided by a map they bought from an old fellah at the coffee house. Carter had to employ a large team of farm workers to shift dirt for months opportunistically before they found the entrance.

Another possibility is that everyone around knows where the tomb is, but that it is tightly guarded, either by the authorities or by supernatural (possibly undead) beings. Since the treasure is still there, we may infer (again) that these guards make it too difficult for a few adventurers to wander into the tomb. You need an army. Archaeologists very occasionally do find treasures in unguarded tombs, and in every single case this comes as a surprise to us. Because if anyone had remembered the location of the treasure, they would have removed it a long time ago.

If instead there are sentient beings living in the dungeon, then to an archaeologist it is simply a settlement site, same in principle as the nearby farming hamlet I mentioned. Archaeologists don’t classify sentients into people and monsters, into good and evil. It isn’t clear to us upon arrival whether we can in better conscience raid the hamlet, the dungeon or more likely neither. We are simply dealing with paired settlements on either side of an ecological boundary. One practices agriculture and has few other riches, the other one does not produce much food but possesses great riches. Being so close to each other, the two communities must be aware of each other and in contact. We can see that any conflicts between them haven’t wiped either of them out so far, so most likely they are economically interdependent. The hamlet probably sells food to the dungeon inhabitants in exchange for treasure. Both communities are in all likelihood highly averse to the other getting wiped out by murder hobos. Such an equilibrium proves the farmers to be too weak to rob the dungeon dwellers and the dungeon dwellers unable or unwilling to farm the land. To an archaeologist, this setup is indistinguishable from a hamlet with a nearby stronghold or monastery.

If instead the dungeon’s inhabitants have only very recently settled there, it becomes difficult to explain why there is treasure in the dungeon. Did the new inhabitants bring it? Or did they defeat a group of strong tomb guardians? Either way, the dungeon is now basically an army encampment, and so again, not a place that four hobos can walk into.

There is also the issue of the underground spaces themselves. Most designers of D&D dungeons have a poor understanding of their physical characteristics. Are the underground passages largely natural caves? Then they will have quite a distinct morphology that differs depending on whether it’s a limestone karst system where a stream has eroded the rock away over millennia, a talus cave where fallen stone blocks have stacked on top of each other and left spaces under and between them, or lava tubes in a volcano. Such morphology is hardly ever recognisable on dungeon maps. Instead the spaces typically seem to have been excavated by means of mining technology, which demands enormous amounts of labour and produces spoil dumps nearby whose volume is about twice that of the dungeon or mine itself. Dungeon designers rarely pay much attention to the difference between natural rock sheets left standing in the dungeon, masonry walls and wooden walls.

Finally the issue of structural longevity. Archaeologists hardly ever encounter underground spaces that haven’t filled up with dirt or rubble. But there is often a sense in D&D that the dungeon is old. Since it is an open volume of air full of functioning doors and traps and hasn’t been flooded by groundwater, there must be magic at work unless someone is there to do continual upkeep and drainage work. And if, as seems to be the rule, the passages are artificial, then the integrity of the ceiling supports is of paramount importance. This is particularly true if the dungeon has been burrowed into earth or forms the basement of a masonry building. The basement of a ruinous castle quickly fills up with rubble unless masonry vaulting has been put in, and then the vaulting is likely groaning under the weight of rubble on the ground floor for which the structure was never engineered.

As you can see, studying archaeology is a pretty effective way to lose the ability to enjoy fantasy literature and roleplaying games not written and designed by archaeologists. But I believe that there are nevertheless pieces of archaeological information that can be used to add verisimilitude to your game scenarios, without making them hopelessly mundane.

Activities and Roles at the Castle

I’m writing an interdisciplinary book about lifestyles at Medieval strongholds in Östergötland province, Sweden. The central chapter “Activities and roles” is currently 8,900 words. Here are the section headers.

  • Agriculture at arm’s length
  • Baking bread
  • Brewing
  • Animal husbandry and the eating of meat
  • Hunting and the eating of game and wildfowl
  • Fishing and the eating of fish
  • Cooking
  • Dining and drinking
  • Waste disposal
  • Relieving oneself
  • Lighting
  • Keeping warm
  • Healthcare and personal grooming
  • Fashion and jewellery
  • Ladyship
  • Chivalry and horsemanship
  • Love affairs
  • Weddings
  • Growing up
  • Religion
  • Music
  • Gambling and boardgames
  • Writing
  • Taxation, customs collection, rent collection
  • Trade and other coin use
  • Soldiering
  • Imprisonment
  • Slavery
  • Keeping pets
  • Smithwork
  • Crafts in perishable materials
  • Fur production
  • Shipbuilding