Checking in with some co-students from 1996

The archaeology department at Uni Stockholm published the anthology series Aktuell Arkeologi with eight volumes from 1979 to 2004. The series editor was Åke Hyenstrand. To be precise, he edited the first volume while working at the National Heritage Board’s Stockholm headquarters, and then presided over vols 2-8 after he became Chair of Archaeology at the university in 1987. The last volume appeared the year after Hyenstrand’s retirement.

(The title means ”Current Archaeology”, and since 1993 there has been an English-language annual titled Current Swedish Archaeology. It is nominally published by the Swedish Antiquarian Association, but that organisation has no physical office and all of its editors have been affiliated with Uni Stockholm.)

Aktuell Arkeologi was mainly a venue for the department’s most active PhD students to present their projects and gain some publishing experience. Up until a 1998 reform of higher education, humanities and social sciences departments would have lots of unfunded PhD students whose status as actual candidates was often hazy. The ones who published in Aktuell Arkeologi were more committed than most.

Let’s look at what happened to the nine scholars (including me) who contributed to vol. V in 1996.

  • Only four have achieved a doctorate. Of the other five, two died young.
  • Only one has achieved a steady academic job comparable to US tenure (not me).
  • Only three have more than 35 publications in our main bibliographic database, VITALIS. None of them has tenure. One of these productive writers didn’t graduate from the PhD programme, but he has been a contract archaeologist and his ”grey literature” excavation reports are also in the database.
  • Only three have published in the past five years. All have ”PhD” after their names.

30 Years as a Professional Archaeologist

Today I celebrate 30 years as a professional archaeologist! I hope to work another 20. A normal career in Swedish archaeology is only 40 years, from age 25 to 65. This is one of several ways in which my career has not proved normal.

Most people who study archaeology in Sweden never find sustained employment in the discipline. The supply of trained people is vastly greater than the demand. I was offered a steady job in contract archaeology at age 21 and stupidly turned it down. Instead I have spent most of these 30 years doing research on small grants. Over this period I’ve had four steady jobs: one for three years at 100% as a PhD candidate, one for 20 years at 25% as managing editor of Fornvännen, one for a few months at 80% as site manager in contract archaeology (after which I received a grant and left again, stupidly), and for the past 2½ years at 100% as associate professor in Łódź.

I haven’t had many years of steady full-time employment. But I’ve applied for 95 archaeological jobs, mainly in academia. At first the people who got them had better qualifications than me. As my qualifications improved though (I have almost 200 publications today in my discipline), I realised that the academic labour market in Scandinavian archaeology is not the meritocracy it claims to be. It’s a system of feudal fealty to professors, where formal qualifications don’t mean much. I have done very little to cultivate relationships of patronage, and quite a lot to antagonise professors. Because (stupidly) I’ve always spoken my mind. It’s a high priority for me to be able to do that. I have concluded that you don’t even have to disagree with an academic potentate to scare them off, it’s enough to speak out at all and not seek patronage.

I’m a lot like my dad. He used to have endless trouble with his bosses, while inspiring great enthusiasm in his subordinates. His career was a series of well-paid jobs in industry middle management, usually ending in conflict with the upstairs. I’ve never had much problems with my bosses. Because I’ve rarely had a boss. Or a job. Instead I’ve had the aforementioned grants and an inexpensive lifestyle. Over these decades I’ve raised two children together with their moms and only run out of cash to pay my half once and briefly — when I had excavated too many High Medieval iron objects and couldn’t pay the finds conservation bill on time, haha.

I haven’t made much money, I haven’t had much job security, I’ve never had a desk of my own on a campus, I’ve been blocked from habilitation twice by hostile professors, I don’t have a retirement fund worth mentioning. But I’ve had a lot of fun over these 30 years! I’ve lived under unassuming yet comfortable circumstances, I’ve been a present and available husband and dad, I’ve excavated at some amazing sites with some great teams, I’ve published a pretty solid body of work, I’ve spoken my mind, and some would say that I’ve made a name for myself. So, within the parameters of my own game, I count these 30 years as success. Looking forward to 20 more!

Where The Road Paving Ends

We make a really strict mental distinction between paved roads and walking paths these days. But if a paved road ends in a cul-de-sac or has a really sharp bend, there is almost always a walking path that continues in the same direction. And if you look closely at the path, it often has a pretty serious road bank. It shows that a lot of work has been put into the path, and it used to be wider than the 40 cm or so that walkers are using today. Following the path, you’ll often find the foundation of a small-holding and surviving garden plants.

These are signs that prior to cars and paved roads, the entire road plus walking path were originally just one unpaved road. The cul-de-sac or the sharp bend is just the point where modern planners decided to stop paving the road. 120 years ago our current distinction between the road and the path did not exist.

Närke’s Elite AD 150-1100

In 2011 I published a survey* of elite indicators in Östergötland province from AD 150 to 1000. Now I’ve completed a similar one for the adjacent province of Närke, which additionally includes the period 1001-1100.

Orange: Late Roman 150-380 (n=7)
Yellow: Migration 380-540 (n=16)
Blue w dot: Vendel 540-790 (n=20)
Blue w star: Tuna place-names (n=4)
Red: Viking 790-1100 (n=75)

The indicators correlate strongly with agricultural land and 1st millennium place names. Note the cluster in Glanshammar parish top right! It’s partly a result of recent collaboration between my employer Örebro County Museum and the Swedish Metal Detector Association. Five outliers are outside this map, all from the Migration and Viking Periods.

* Available online for free.

Pagan Arabic Inscriptions Found in a Swedish Garden

Dear Reader, let me tell you about some pagan Arabic inscriptions found in a private garden near where I grew up.

In 1920 an engineer who lived in Saltsjöbaden, a leafy affluent suburb of Stockholm, donated almost a hundred pieces of inscribed stone to a museum in town. They had formed a decorative rockery in his garden. And the previous owner of the property was a famous elderly Orientalist named Count Carlo de Landberg (1849-1924).

The stones had been broken out of the living rock at a site in southern Yemen, probably in the Wadi Ar Ruqub near Aden. Count Landberg acquired them in 1898 during a scientific expedition organised by the Imperial Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Count however came into conflict with the rest of the expedition leadership and abandoned the project shortly after they arrived in Yemen. And subsequently he refused to submit the materials he brought home. The inscribed stones ended up in his garden instead.

The inscriptions are religious dedications written in Old South Arabian using the Ancient South Arabian script. They date from about 600 BC to 200 BC and invoke a god named cAmm, that is, “Uncle”. He ruled the moon and the weather and was head of the pantheon in the Kingdom of Qataban.

So if the weather is particularly fine in Saltsjöbaden, and if the moon shines particularly brightly there, then perhaps people there should thank Uncle cAmm.

My old friend Jan Peder Lamm described the find circumstances and Count Landberg in Fornvännen 1993. And Jan Retsö analysed the inscriptions.

Anglo-Saxon Frisia

Map from

After the departure of the Roman state administration in AD 409, England saw the arrival of numerous Germanic-speaking migrants during the 5th century. They brought with them a foreign language (Old English), a foreign religion (Scandinavian paganism), foreign social organisation (non-urban, decentralised), foreign material culture (south Scandinavian), and their genetics have been shown to survive in English people to this day.

These people later believed that they had originated in Angeln, Saxony and Jutland, the area around the mouth of the River Elbe. Therefore we call them Anglo-Saxons.* But linguistic and genetic data don’t point to that kind of origin.

The closest documented linguistic relative of Old English is Old Frisian, whose home was closer to the mouth of the River Rhine, west of Angeln and Sachsen. The closest genetic matches to Anglo-Saxon skeletons are also found in Frisia.

So was these people’s origin story erroneous? I’ve wondered about this for years, and I just learned something that suggests no. I’m at a conference in the Netherlands, and my colleagues here explain that parts of Frisia have very little 5th century settlement at all. This seems to have been due to over-exploitation of coastal peatland in the Late Roman era. People drained the peat for agriculture, it got compacted by gravity and microbial action, the ground level sank sharply, and the sea moved in, rendering the land useless to agriculture. And when eventually people re-colonised these areas… they were using pottery that my colleagues describe as Anglo-Saxon.

So the reason that the English immigrants’ language and genetics look Frisian is probably that both England and Frisia were colonised by the same people. Or possibly even, that Frisia was repopulated from A-S England.

* I am not interested in what this term means today to US right-wing hate groups.

Mats P. Malmer 100 Years

Mats Peterson Malmer (1921-2007) would have been 100 years old on 18 October. If I had to pick just one archaeological hero, I’d pick Mats. It’s his clarity of thinking and writing. It’s his insistence on objective observation. It’s his uncompromising willingness to process enormously large volumes of material. It’s his wide thematic range. Mats’s 1984 debate piece “Arkeologisk positivism” was enormously important to me in grad school ten years later when I was surrounded by an evangelising post-modernist relativist orthodoxy.

In the Malmer retrospective reader volume Archaeology as Fact and Fiction (in English, 2016), Stig Welinder comments on Mats’s radically stringent and explicit typological methodology from 1962. It never become the subject of much debate: archaeology simply recognised it as sound and adopted it wholesale. The 2016 volume is an excellent entry point into Malmer’s wide-ranging work. It’s available on-line for free.

Mats has been proven wrong in some of his interpretations, most importantly regarding the arrival of agriculture in Sweden. Archaeogenetics have recently documented a large immigration wave at the time that would have surprised Mats if he had lived. But as a lifelong friend of the natural sciences, he would calmly have accepted the evidence.

In Tim Murray’s big 1999 collection of archaeologist’s biographies, there are only two Swedish names. One is Oscar Montelius, our most fruitful thinker and writer of the 19th century. The other is his 20th century counterpart, Mats P. Malmer.

What I wanted to do when I grew up

When I was seven I wrote a micro-essay in school about what I wanted to do when I grew up. “I want to be an archaeologist. I want to dig in the trench, not just sit on the edge and point. But I won’t mind if people call me ‘professor'”.

(People did call me ‘professor’ at the time. Bookish child who liked to answer questions in school.)

And now I usually do sit on the edge of the trench. Mainly because I get interrupted all the time by diggers and visitors. It can be hard for me to keep track of which context a given bucket of dirt belongs to, and if I get interrupted at the soil screen I block the work flow. Also I’m too lazy to remove turf and topsoil these days.

And this summer some of the Polish students called me ‘professor’ again.

Final Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Andreas Viberg analysed the geophysics, I directed the excavation, Lotta Feldt did the GPS survey, Jon Lundin presented the survey data, Cheyenne Olander took the drone photograph and combined all the data in this picture.
  • 3½ days of digging, ½ day of backfilling and re-turfing, ½ day of house cleaning before we said goodbye at noon on Friday.
  • Found a blue glass bead and a bronze wire spiral bead near the hall’s NE entrance. Both would fit well on a bead string that broke in AD 700-750.
  • Signs suggest the swapping out of some structural posts around the entrance.
  • Structural ironwork found on top of a roof-bearing posthole’s fill suggests that similar objects found in the topsoil last year had been redeposited there by 19th century diggers, and are in fact old.
  • Svante Hagsten of Aska Maskinstation Ltd did a beautiful job of backfilling our trenches. I wish I had had the sense to ask him last year! Then the students re-turfed.
  • Another de-stressing innovation is that I will return the equipment to the county museum storage on Monday, after everybody’s gone home.
Bead from the NE entrance area. Photo Cheyenne Olander.

Third Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Drone photo by the excellent Cheyenne Olander, north to the right
  • Finished the north trench with the high seat & foil figure concentration, started backfilling.
  • Emptied the recent refuse pits in the south trench, uncovered and sectioned the south wall line and four buttress postholes outside it.
  • Opened a third trench over the hall’s north-east gate.
  • Few artefact finds, of which the most interesting is our second 13/1400s crossbow bolt.
  • I’ve had an idea about what happened to the platform after the mead hall was torn down in the later 900s. We have wondered why there is no sign of activity or damage between 1000 and 1800. Aska was probably the härad assembly site in the 1000s and 1100s. Was the platform maintained as a thing mound?