Jes Wienberg Shot Down My Habilitation

Habilitation, docentur, is a symbolic upgrade to your PhD found in Scandinavia and other countries with a strong element of German academic traditions. You can think of it as a boy-scout badge. It confers no salary, but it opens certain doors including that of supervising doctoral candidates. Though formally handed out by the faculty, it’s impossible to get without support from your department, as I learned from my abortive attempt at the University of Stockholm in 2010. If on the other hand you do have the support of your department, it’s impossible to avoid getting your habilitation – a mere formality. Almost impossible to avoid.

After heading freshman archaeology for two years in Umeå, in February of 2015 I applied for habilitation there with the kind support of the department’s ämnesansvarige, professor Thomas B. Larsson. He asked me, as is customary, to suggest a few names for the external reviewer. Trying to be shrewd about it, I picked two people who had written enthusiastically about my work in evaluations for jobs, and then I tried to think of a third person. Somebody senior, somebody impartial, yet vaguely friendly. And I thought of Jes Wienberg.

Wienberg is a professor of Historical Archaeology in Lund. We’ve only met once and have never collaborated. He owed me nothing and I owed him nothing, but we had corresponded amicably for about 15 years. My first memory of contact with him is from 2001/02 when I got his permission to re-print a really good article of his in the skeptical pop-sci journal Folkvett that I co-edited at the time. In 2004/05 he helpfully commented on the manuscript of a pugnacious debate piece of mine that appeared in the journal META, published at his department. He went on to publish in the scholarly journal I co-edit and was always helpful with recommendations when I needed a good reviewer for some new book on Medieval matters. Wienberg was never a big presence in my professional life, but he was a friendly one. Until he accepted the task of reviewing my habilitation application. And delivered his verdict.

The process took more than a year. I wasn’t directed to send my publications to the external reviewer until May 2016. I mailed the hefty stack to Wienberg on 24 May, and then I got the whole thing back on 8 June. Right at the end of the spring semester, when there are so many exams to correct, grades to set and bits of admin to finish, Wienberg spent less than two weeks getting familiar with 846 pages of research into prehistoric archaeology, a field he is not active in. And his verdict was roughly this:

Rundkvist fulfils all formal criteria for habilitation. But I don’t like his methods of research. So I refuse to give him my recommendation.

Those who read Scandy can check here whether the above is a fair summary of Wienberg’s evaluation.

Wienberg’s behaviour caused much consternation at the faculty in Umeå. Nobody ever does this. Habilitation is a ceremonial act. If you’re asked to review work that you absolutely loathe, then you just don’t accept the job. “Sorry, I’m too busy right now.” And Wienberg’s value judgement of my stuff was completely beside the point, because those publications had already passed peer review and been published in high-profile venues. He wasn’t just questioning my work, he was questioning the insight of among others Thomas B. Larsson and two fellow professors at his own department in Lund who had accepted reams of my writing for publication.

But anyway, I never did get habilitated. A friendly old Umeå professor from a neighbouring discipline did his best at the faculty to effect a re-submission opportunity for me, but it came to nothing. Due to flagging student numbers I no longer worked in Umeå, and my support from the departmental staff was lackadaisical. One guy wrote me explicitly that the question of my habilitation was linked to what the playing field would look like the next time a professorship became vacant in Umeå. We climb over each other to reach the top.

And so I learned yet again that a career in academia is never about the formal rules for how stuff should work, never really about qualifications. It’s a tribal system of social patronage. I also learned, belatedly, not to trust Jes Wienberg.

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Three Fortunate Young Oslovians

Oslo colleagues have asked me to give a fuller account of the spring 2017 hiring that I called the most egregious case I’ve seen. This is not because they’re trying to make the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History look good, but because they feel that I unfairly singled out a single hire, when in fact there were three. I’m happy to oblige. For one thing, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the three has no PhD.

Some background. Norway has a strong tradition of research performed at museums. Bergen’s museum, for instance, was doing major science long before there was a university in town. The førsteamanuensis positions at the Oslo museum that I’m discussing here have 40% research time built into them. Hear that, academics everywhere? A full-time, lifetime job with 40% research time. 20 people applied for those three jobs.

I’ve kept stats on who has gotten lectureships and førsteamanuensis positions in Scandy archaeology for the past 14 years. The median age of the hires is 43. Half of the hires are between 40 and 46. The youngest person to get one of these jobs since I started counting in 2003 was 32, at Uni Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, this past spring.

But yes, there were three hires. They’re 32, 35 and 39, that is, all three are exceptionally young. One worked at the museum when the jobs were advertised, another had worked there previously, and one of these two hasn’t got a PhD! A third one had a post-doc position at Uni Oslo’s main campus just across town, where this person had done their PhD (post-doc at your home department, huh!?). This one is also a long-term collaborator on two projects of the hiring committee’s chairman, who is a professor at the museum in accordance with the fine Norwegian rules for these things.

I believe that by the time they reach 45, two of these people will have strongly competitive CVs. (They’re getting paid to do research at 40% of full time, after all, and all three certainly seem bright enough.) My point in bringing them up is that in 2017 none of the three have this. There is nobody under the age of 40 in Scandinavian academic archaeology who can compete in front of a fair and impartial hiring committee with people who have published research voluminously for a quarter century. Because nobody starts publishing research at age 15. So it’s pretty damn egregious the whole thing.

Update 30 November: What about the other members of the hiring committee? I got interviewed by one of them for a job in Trondheim recently, and I call him Stony-face. In the recent case, the hiring committee (not including Stony-face himself) had ranked me #1. But the guy refused to even let me give a test lecture. And whaddaya know — in 2015, Stony-face co-wrote a book with the 32-y-o mentioned above.

Yeah, Screw You Too, Academia

I recently received a long-awaited verdict on an official complaint I had filed: there was in fact nothing formally wrong with the decision by the Dept of Historical Studies in Gothenburg to hire Zeppo Begonia. Since the verdict didn’t go my way, as planned I am now turning my back on academic archaeology. The reason is that qualifications don’t count in Scandyland.

Being friends with people inside, and preferably being a local product, is what gets you academic jobs here. I need to cut my losses and move on. I would call this post a burning of bridges if there were any to burn, but there are none. Fourteen years on this joke of a job “market” have demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whom I piss off now: there won’t be a steady job for me either way.

I’ve been applying for academic jobs all over Scandinavia since 2003. The longest employment I’ve been able to secure was a 6-month temp lectureship at 55% of full time – during one of three happy years when I headed freshman archaeology in remote Umeå. But time and time again, I’ve seen jobs given to dramatically less qualified colleagues.

Norwegian university recruitment is particularly ugly. There, rules stipulate that the “external” hiring committee has to be chaired by a senior faculty member from the hiring department itself – with predictable results. The most egregious case I’ve seen was not long ago at the University of Oslo’s archaeological museum, where a [uniquely young] recent [University of Oslo] PhD with hardly any publications at all got a steady research lectureship. She had been working closely with a professor at the museum. Who chaired the hiring committee. And who was once, prior to this, super angry with me when I complained about the Norwegian system on Facebook, haha! I’ve seen the same thing at the Oslo uni department and at NTNU in Trondheim recently. Local people with poor qualifications who could never compete anywhere else get permanent positions.

Denmark’s system is completely non-transparent. You don’t get a list of who applied and you don’t get to read their evaluations, like you do in Sweden and Norway. What tends to happen in my experience is that you get a glowingly enthusiastic evaluation, which feels super nice, and then they hire some Dane. The country has only two archaeology departments that produce these strangely employable Danes.

Finland’s university humanities used to be poorly funded. To boot they have recently been radically de-funded from that prior low level. The Finns understandably never advertise any jobs at all.

Sweden is no better than its neighbours. Our hiring committees for steady jobs are fully external, so that’s good. But you get steady jobs on the strength of your temping experience. And temp teachers are hired with no external involvement at all, like in the recent case of Zeppo Begonia in Gothenburg. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. The Faculty of Humanities at this university, let me remind you, was severely censured by the Swedish Higher Education Authority back in May for many years of gross misconduct in their hiring practices. Local favouritism is the deal here.

There are quite a few people in Scandy academic archaeology whom I’d like to see driving a bus for a living. Zeppo Begonia is not one of them. He is a solid empiricist prehistorian of Central European origin whose work I respect and admire. If you ask me who should get research funding, I will reply “Zeppo Begonia”. I would like to see many more Zeppoes in my discipline. I think we should import them to replace some of our own shoddy products. But look at our respective qualifications for this measly one-year temp lectureship at 60%.

  • The ad specified that you needed solid knowledge of Scandy archaeology to do the job. I’m 45 and I’ve worked full time in Scandy archaeology for 25 years. Zeppo is 39 and started working and publishing here four years ago.
  • I have published five academic books. Zeppo has published one.
  • I have published 45 journal papers and book chapters in a wide range of respected outlets. Zeppo has published 23.
  • Zeppo and I have both been temp teachers for some percentage of four academic years.
  • I have published 29 pieces of pop-sci, including one book, plus eleven years of this blog. Zeppo has published no pop-sci.
  • Out of Zeppo’s research output, little deals with Scandy archaeology, but several of these pieces are co-authored with senior figures in archaeology at the University of Gothenburg. Hint, hint.

This, as you can see, is just ridiculous. And there is no legal recourse unless you are discriminated against on grounds of race, gender etc. The appeals board has proved to ignore qualification issues. Believe me, I’ve tried.

To finish off, a few words for my colleagues at Scandinavian archaeology departments. Have you published five academic books and 45 journal papers? Are you extremely popular with the students? Have you worked in Scandinavian archaeology for at least 25 years? Have you got other heavy qualifications, like an 18-year stint as managing editor of a major journal and 11 years of keeping one of the world’s biggest archaeology blogs? If your answer to any of these questions is no, then I would have your job if Scandy academic archaeology were a meritocracy.

The head of department, Helène Whittaker, has declined to comment on the case of Zeppo Begonia. I use this pseudonym for him to emphasise that he has done nothing wrong. He just applied for a job.

A Female Viking Warrior Interred at Birka

In archaeology, we distinguish osteological sex from artefact gender. Osteo-sex is with very few exceptions (odd chromosomal setups) the same thing as what your genitals are like. Artefact gender is the material correlate of a role you play according to the conventions of your time: e.g. whether you keep your genitals in Y-fronts or lacy knickers. We judge these two parameters from separate source materials. Your skeleton can’t tell us anything about your gender, and your grave goods can’t tell us anything about your osteo-sex. They are in principle able to vary independently.

Nevertheless, 1st millennium Scandinavians seem to have been quite conventional about this: mismatches between osteo-sex and artefact gender are extremely rare. The graves are clearly divided into osteo-female jewellery graves and osteo-male weapon graves. If you exclude cremated bones and poorly preserved inhumations that can cause misdeterminations, the number of mismatches shrinks even more. And when you do see a mismatch it’s typically partial: e.g. a male skeleton buried with a full set of weaponry and horse gear, plus a single ladylike brooch. I was until recently not aware of any well-preserved and richly furnished Scandy inhumation of the 1st millennium with a complete mismatch between osteo-sex and artefact gender. But now we have one.

Birka’s grave 581 is one of the famous chamber inhumation graves where this Swedish Viking town’s 10th century elite buried their dead. It has loads of high-quality weaponry and two horses. It has no hint of any female attire. And it has the skeleton of a person whose funny bent position suggests that, like in many other chamber graves, the individual was buried sitting on a chair and then keeled over inside the chamber.

In the 1970s, the skeleton had become disassociated from the artefact finds, and an osteologist (sadly uncredited in the paper discussed below) quietly identified it as female. In 2014 osteologist Anna Kjellström identified the bones as belonging to Bj 581, the famous weapon burial, and agreed that the skeleton is female. Certain archaeologists have replied that they don’t believe this because of the weapons. Others have suggested more diplomatically that maybe the bones represent two individuals, or that a male body was removed while still articulated. Others again have simply dismissed the whole issue with reference to 19th century sloppiness in keeping the Birka bones correctly labelled grave by grave.

Now a team of researchers, of whom I am proud to count half as my professional buddies, have sequenced the genomes of the bones. Yes, plural. To test if the skull and one arm are from the same person. There is only one person there, and just as Kjellström said, she’s biologically a woman. I am extremely happy with this investigation, because it gives us our first real female Viking, and it shows that osteologists can indeed judge osteo-sex correctly on well-preserved ancient skeletons. Very commendably, the paper is available online in full for free: Open Access.

Here’s a few notes.

  • The grave was selected for analysis because of the controversy over its osteo-sex. It is not a randomly chosen weapon burial that happened to prove female. If you pick a random Birka inhumation, this is not the result you are likely to get.
  • Assuming that burial furnishings speak directly about a person’s role in life (which is always debatable), we don’t know if the dead person was perceived as a cross-dressing woman, or just as a man. In other words, we have no way to tell if she was “out”. There are examples of both from later centuries, where for instance Joan of Arc never tried to pass as a man despite wearing armour and commanding an army.
  • The plan of the grave shows which bones were well preserved. This should be enough to counter the charge that maybe the skeleton currently labelled Bj 581 is not in fact the one found in this weapon grave. This the authors should have written a few sentences about. I take their silence to mean that having already published her arguments about this elsewhere, Kjellström considers the issue uncontroversial.
  • We still can’t rule out the early removal of an articulated male body. But such an argument ex silentio would demand that we place similar female bodies in all other weapon graves as well. We can’t just create the bodies we want in order for the material to look neat.

The “Discussion” section hasn’t been properly copy-edited.

  • I don’t know what “The archaeological material provides a reference for the Viking Age” means.
  • Because of the odd phrasing, I don’t know what the authors are trying to say about earlier scholarship here: “Although not possible to rule out, previous arguments have likely neglected intersectional perspectives where the social status of the individual was considered of greater importance than biological sex. This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female.”
  • “Grave Bj 581 is one of three known examples where *the* individual has been treated in accordance with prevailing warrior ideals lacking all associations with the female gender” : “The” here should be “a female”.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte et al. 2017. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2017. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23308

I discussed the issue of shield maidens in 2013, the year before Anna Kjellström went public with her identification of the female skeleton with Bj 581.

The Director General Responds

It seems that my comments yesterday on the small issue of signage at Ales stenar touched a nerve regarding something bigger, having to do with the National Heritage Board’s overall societal role in relationship to archaeology and public outreach. Lars Amréus is the Board’s Director General, an archaeologist and Qaisar Mahmood’s boss. He has kindly written a guest entry in response to mine. My comments will follow in a later entry.

—–

I’m a regular follower of Dr. Rundkvist’s blog. I often find it both interesting and engaging. Above all, I appreciate that Dr. Rundkvist is an ardent advocate for knowledge, fact and scientific method, which I believe is hugely important in our times of “fake news” and “fact resistance”.
Therefore, I was surprised to read Dr. Rundkvist’s blog entry about the archaeological site Ales stenar, since it contains several errors, some of which could easily have been avoided with some simple googling.
The entry has been written out of the assumption that the Swedish National Heritage Board (RAÄ) owns or manages the site. This is not true. For some time now, this has been the responsibility of the Swedish National Property Board, a government agency whose primary purpose is to manage and disseminate information about historic buildings, landscapes and ancient monuments of Swedish national importance. Consequently, there is no RAÄ staff working at the site, and RAÄ is not responsible for the information presented at the site.
The County Administrative Board of Skåne has decided that a sign presenting what might be described as “alternative facts” about the site should be allowed to be displayed. Dr. Rundkvist criticizes RAÄ for not appealing this decision to court. However, the fact of the matter is that there is simply no legal ground for RAÄ to appeal.
As an archaeologist, it is sometimes frustrating to see how archaeological sites are used for various purposes: political, personal and otherwise. But perhaps we need to remind ourselves that in the other end of the scales lays Freedom of Speech. In an open and democratic society people do have the right to say many things; even incorrect, stupid or repulsive.
Some of us may be surprised, and perhaps even saddened, by the decision of the County Administrative Board to allow “alternative facts” to be presented at Ales stenar. But until proven otherwise, it must be considered as a decision that rests on Swedish law.
Regardless of what some may believe, it is not the responsibility of RAÄ to be the judge of which interpretations are correct, incorrect or perhaps partly correct when it comes to archaeological sites in general. The information presented at each site is the responsibility of the owner/site-manager, in practice often in co-operation with the County Administrative Board. As far as I know, there is no formal way of bringing on-site information to scrutiny by a national expert authority.
The wider discussion of the interpretation of archaeological sites lies, of course, with the scientific community as a whole. It would be highly inappropriate, and indeed impossible, for a government agency such as RAÄ to act as a judge in matters of academia.
Finally, I strongly resent that Dr. Rundkvist implies that decisions at RAÄ are made (by a named official) based on (his claimed – not proven) political preferences. RAÄ is an agency under the Swedish government and by the rule of Swedish law. Dr. Rundkvist presents no evidence to suggest decisions have been made outside the mandate given to the Board. Given the main purpose of his blog, he should stay clear of presenting such theories without evidence to support it.

Lars Amréus
Director-General
Swedish National Heritage Board

 

National Heritage Board Abdicates Again At Ales Stenar

Bob Lind has yet again managed to get the National Heritage Board to abdicate its responsibility at Ales Stenar, a beautiful 7th century AD burial monument near Ystad in southern Sweden. Bob has self-published odd interpretations of the site that have found no traction among professional archaeologists. He has kept vigil at Ales stenar for decades, lecturing to visitors, ranting at the municipal guides and occasionally attacking them. He has a very large sign on site, next to the National Heritage Board’s, with permission from the County Archaeologist. My colleague Björn Wallebom has criticised this, and the local paper ran a critical article yesterday, quoting myself and others.

In 2007 the National Heritage Board’s representative Ewa Bergdahl said on this subject,

There isn’t just one single truth. This place is so incredibly more complex than previously believed, … You have no privileged position with us just because you do research at a university

And this tiresome old post-modernist anti-science relativism persists at the Board. This time it’s Qaisar Mahmood, my buddy from Leftie and refugee volunteering circles, who says stupid things to the press without the benefit of any archaeological training.

Our responsibility is to present the image we think is right. It would be wrong if we took measures to exclude other images. … We have seen no reason to file a complaint against the County Archaeologist’s decision. We take responsibility for what is ours. Just because we don’t file a complaint it doesn’t mean that we support or open the door to other versions.

—–

Vårt ansvar ligger i att ge den bild vi tycker är rätt. Det är fel om vi skulle gå in och utesluta andra bilder. … Vi har inte sett något behov att överklaga länsstyrelsens beslut. Vi tar ansvar för det som är vårt. Bara för att vi inte överklagar betyder det inte att vi står bakom eller släpper fram andra versioner.

1. The National Heritage Board’s responsibility is to present the image that scientific consensus thinks is right. Nobody else’s. Certainly not its non-archaeological office staff’s.

2. The Board owns this property. Its staff are not taking responsibility for what is theirs.

3. The fact that the Board doesn’t file a complaint does mean that it supports and opens the door to other versions.

4. If someone wanted to post an equally pseudo-scientific sign about Odin that contained hints of extreme-right propaganda, then the Board would not allow it.

5. When the National Heritage Board allows a sign with a discredited interpretation at a high-profile archaeological site that it owns, then it is equivalent to public hospitals allowing faith healers to roam the corridors, tending to patients.

Qaisar, archaeology is a science. I do not get to speak for medicine, Latvian studies or meteorology. You do not get to speak for archaeology. Scholarly consensus is the arbiter of truth in these matters.

Update same day: Qaisar Mahmood and the Board’s Custodian Lars Amreus have responded briefly on Facebook and Twitter to my criticism. If I understand them correctly, their line is that the Board of National Antiquities does not in fact own Ales stenar, they recently handed it over to the National Property Board. This organisation has never made any claim to archaeological authority. And it creates the question, why then does Qaisar Mahmood of National Heritage talk to the press about Ales stenar? As I said, this is an abdication of responsibility.

And another update: Qaisar has given me a long public reply on Fb, and I’ll try to summarise it fairly here. He’s saying that my expectations of what role the National Heritage Board is supposed to play in Swedish archaeology are no longer supported by its directives from the Ministry of Culture. The Board has in fact not abdicated from any position of archaeological authority in the case of Ales stenar. It can’t abdicate, because it no longer makes any claim to such a position. Those are not its orders from our elected officials. I’m sure Qaisar knows what he’s talking about. I just shake my head and wonder, will the real Board of National Antiquities please stand up?

Signage at Ales stenar. Left: two copies of a sign from Ystad municipality and the National Heritage Board. Right: Bob Lind’s signs.

My blogging about Bob’s antics has grown voluminous over the years. Read it all here with a new category tag.

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.

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.