Mixed Feelings About My First Fieldwork Project

It took 9½ years from the day that I started the PhD programme at Uni Stockholm until the day that I graduated. It was supposed to take 4 years. There were many reasons that it took so long: I had two kids and took some parental leave, I worked 20% as a journal editor for half of the period, I worked one season in contract archaeology, I co-wrote one book and edited another that were not part of the thesis, I wrote lots of journal notes, papers and reviews. But perhaps the overarching reason that encompasses most of this was that I was not given, and indeed fended off, any strong goal-oriented supervision. Nobody knew from one week to another what I was doing or whether it would contribute to getting my thesis finished.

One thing I learned the hard way during grad school, and which I always tell PhD students, is this. Never collect any data of your own. Use under-utilised published or archival data. Leave that kind of work until after you’ve received your doctorate. And above all, do not excavate.

I excavated for two seasons, the first fieldwork I directed myself. Lately I’ve been going back to my archival reports in order to scan them and put them in the online repository of my work that the National Heritage Board’s archivists have created. And I find myself shaking my head in admiration, sadness and sheer disbelief at what this headstrong, independent, dissident, isolated 25-year-old was doing. My fieldwork of 1996-97 was nothing short of Quixotic. (When I say “we” in the following, I mean that this is how I directed my team of students and friends to work. Nobody else was responsible.)

  • Over-documentation: we levelled innumerable points on the ground surface and on stones in these structures. We planned every stone by hand, using folding rule, pencil and grid film. We hatched sandstone on the plans.
  • Under-documentation: we didn’t bring a step ladder or vertical photo tripod, so we couldn’t take any vertical photographs. This would have been much faster and more precise than planning on grid film, and given us much higher resolution. But it would also have introduced a wait, because we had only chemical cameras and the nearest photo lab was far away.
  • Methodological strength & weakness: as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we paid really focused attention to documenting the stratigraphical sequence. But again as orthodox Harris method practitioners, we left no standing section and so could neither draw nor photograph the section. This made it impossible for us determine whether a looting pit in one grave had reached into the top of the burial deposit or not.
  • Semi-pointlessness: neither of the two graves produced any interesting artefact finds. The documentation we created with such care is only useful to someone who studies minute structural details of 1st Millennium burial monuments on Gotland. Over the quarter century since 1997, to my knowledge that has amounted to no-one whatsoever, not even me.
  • Main value: within the local context of my project, we met our stated goal in that both graves yielded enough information to date them both pretty tightly. However, no scholar except me has ever had that locally focused interest in the Barshalder cemetery’s spatial development.

I’m looking at the documentation we made in those two summers, not only of the graves we excavated, but also of test pits, metal detector work and local landowners’ collections of finds. And I see a young fellow who absolutely loves this site, this material, who wants to do right by it, who is enormously ambitious and conscientious but also over-idealistic and unrealistic about what it is all for. He is purposefully, consciously and proudly writing himself into the ATA archive folders, full of material from preceding generations of field archaeologists at Barshalder, that he has just spent two years processing. He is working really hard to avoid the mistakes of some previous excavators who left their careless documentation in such a mess. But he doesn’t seem to realise that though painstaking and time-consuming in its methodology, his documentation has way lower resolution and precision than the vertical photography work that was the standard on Erik Nylén’s Gotland before he was even born.

Ultimately, too, the grave excavations of 1997 were a gamble that didn’t pay off. Since neither of the excavated graves happened to contain anything interesting, all that fieldwork and post-ex work amounted only to a few lines of text in my PhD thesis, and to a footnote in the immensely rich record of burial archaeology on Gotland. It would have been much better for the project not to dig. Like most of my thesis work, it didn’t have a strong rational justification pointing towards a timely viva and a subsequent career. I was simply extremely keen emotionally to excavate at Barshalder and become part of the site’s history, not just to collect and assemble other people’s documentation. I wanted to establish myself as a producer of canonical fieldwork discoveries, not just an analyst or commentator. This I eventually succeeded in doing eight years later, when Howard Williams and I directed the boat-burial dig that carried us into the pages of Medieval Archaeology.

The Stockholm Viking Museum

The Viking Museum in Stockholm (est. 2017) is a good first contact with this period in Scandinavian history. There aren’t many original objects, you hardly see a single name of a find spot or a date within the period. But you do get to see a lot of good replicas of objects and environments, parts of which are as always highly conjectural. And there is a lot of high-quality signage to read, videos to watch, guided tours by highly trained presenters to follow, and there’s a visually arresting narrative theme park ride on the ground floor. A neophyte who spends two hours at the Viking Museum will have fun and learn a lot. You get your money’s worth and more.

I’ve been working professionally off and on with the period for 30 years. I am definitely not the target demographic. Still, I’d like to comment on the main thing that made me go “WTF!?”. The theme park ride: it centres on a narrative conflict that I believe almost all Viking Period scholars would identify as wildly ahistorical.

An affluent couple owns a manorial farm that has come down to the wife by inheritance. The husband suffers from alcoholism. This for some reason means that they have to either marry their daughter off to an older man or get a large sum in silver together in order to keep the farm. How did that happen? Does the scriptwriter believe that there was a banking system with mortgage credit in AD 960s Sweden? This is straight out of a 19th century novel about the demise of the landed nobility!

So how can these people get the silver? Couldn’t they sell one of their other farms? No, the only way is to organise a trading expedition on the rivers of Eastern Europe, selling commodities borrowed from the wife’s cousin. It is going to take two years.

The expedition runs into various trouble but is ultimately successful in bringing home the silver. In the middle of it, though, we get a ridiculously melodramatic little scene where the wife and daughter are lying around their giant mead hall starving and calling out for Papa to save them!? On a major agricultural property!? Does the scriptwriter believe that food was bought with silver at a market in AD 960s Sweden? Does s/he believe that agriculture went on indefinite hold when your husband travelled abroad?

All in all though I was prepared for a much weaker overall production. If you’re in Stockholm, you’ve already seen the warship Vasa and taken a boat ride out into the archipelago, and you’d like to learn a bit about those Vikings you’ve heard of, then definitely come here.

But if you already know stuff, then head up to the Swedish History Museum instead. They’ve got 2,500 original objects on display only in the Viking Period section. You’ll find me in the library on Wednesday afternoons.

Has Teutoburg AD 9 No Correlate In Archaeological Chronology?

An archaeological period or phase is defined by a list of artefact types that usually occur together in e.g. graves and sacrificial depositions. Archaeology finds it fairly easy to identify such periods and order them in a correct relative sequence. It is harder to put correct absolute dates to the start and end of a period. Over the decades though, most of the absolute dates we accept make smaller and smaller jumps. For instance, the start of the Vendel Period was first placed at AD 600, then 550, and now for a very long time 536-540. It is extremely unlikely that the students of my students will decide that the typical objects of the Early Vendel Period where first made in 620.

Period shifts can be big and small. A small change in jewellery fashions can be seen just as spontaneous drift over the generations. But a big period shift where many radically new designs show up must be interpreted as a sign of a larger social change. In parts of the world with good written sources, such a change can often be understood with reference to a single political or economic event. Returning to the start of the Vendel Period, it is extremely unlikely that it had nothing to do with the catastrophic climate event of AD 536.

There was a big period shift in agricultural Scandinavia somewhere around AD 1, plus-minus a couple of decades. (It had nothing to do with any birth in a Levantine stable.) In the currently accepted chronology, it is set to AD 1. But eight years later there is an event of enormous political and economic import in northern Europe: the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, where Roman northward expansion was permanently checked. As the chronology currently stands, this event had no visible correlate in material culture, which had instead undergone an unrelated major shift a few years before.

Here’s my challenge to colleagues who work with the chronology of this period in Denmark and Scania. Rounded to the closest decade as we usually do, can you really demonstrate that phase B1 started closer to AD 1 than to AD 10? I’m aware of only one scholar who has set this period shift to AD 10, and that was Jerzy Wielowiejski (1922-2006) in a 1970 work.

Fencing In A Napoleonic Era Invalid Cemetery

Ulriksdal Invalid Cemetery, projected layout by Nyrén Architects

The Swedish National Property Board has done something pretty clever and unusual with geophysics near the royal country manor (”castle”) of Ulriksdal outside Stockholm.

In 1821 the King allocated the manor for the use of a care home for destitute war veterans, “invalids”. Soon a cemetery was laid out nearby since the residents understandably had a pretty high mortality rate. About 200 people were buried there over the following quarter century, before the invalid home was closed down in 1849. Sweden had (and still has) not been in a state of war since 1814, so there were no longer any military invalids to care for.

In 1884 the cemetery was refurbished, and got a new fence. Rather than fence the whole thing in, the decision was made to fence only about a sixth of the former cemetery including some high-status burials. The rest was allowed to revert to forest.

Now the cemetery is scheduled for refurbishing again. The Property Board has decided that all of those veterans of our country’s last wars deserve a tidy cemetery environment. They commissioned Lars Winroth and Anna Andreasson Sjögren to survey selected areas with ground-penetrating radar to check the distribution of grave cuts. Not in order to excavate them, but to fence them in! And now the GPR results are included on the new design plan from Nyrén Architects.

Thanks to my friend Magnus Reuterdahl of the Property Board for information and plans.

“Nuv staket” = current fence. The purple rectangles outside it are GPR survey areas.

A Response to a Young Conservative Archaeologist

Unherd is a London-based web site for Conservative opinion journalism that started in 2017. It’s mission statement includes:

“We want to … identify those things that have been lost, as well as gained, by the liberal world order … instinctively believe … a shift of emphasis: towards community not just individualism, towards responsibilities as well as Rights, and towards meaning and virtue over shallow materialism.”

This statement is actual old-school business-hostile Tolkienian Conservatism, not crypto-Nazism or slash-and-burn capitalist Libertarianism. But the site has many contributors and of course they don’t agree about everything. Glancing over the headlines I found some anti-veganism, attacks on the trans movement and Families First rhetoric, but not much to indicate that this is a web site for the crazy aggro Extreme Right.


My online buddy the philosophy lecturer asked me to comment on an Unherd article from 3 December 2022 by a new contributor. “Is this a correct description of the state of things?”

The man writing as Stone Age Herbalist introduces himself as an archaeologist, as a junior researcher or PhD dropout, and as the author of the book Berserkers, Cannibals & Shamans: Essays in Dissident Anthropology. He has self-published the book and it has only 20 reviews on Amazon. (Its sub-title suggests that SAH might be an American, because in Europe the discipline of archaeology is not organised under the umbrella term “anthropology” like in the US.)

Before I comment on SAH’s claims, note firstly that archaeology is not a unified global discipline. It’s a patchwork quilt of regional and chronological specialisms that share a lot of methods but that have very few shared goals and largely ignore each other. In my research into 1st millennium AD Sweden I ignore Japanese archaeology completely. I also ignore all work on pre-agricultural Sweden itself.

Note secondly that the US political climate is alien to European academia. For instance, there was a ridiculous flap a few years ago where some Americans had discovered that UK scholars used the term “Anglo-Saxon” and thought this could somehow be equated with how American Neo-Nazis use the term.


The article’s sub header (which may not be his own writing) is a fair summary of SAH’s main message: “Censorship is driving dissident researchers underground”. SAH writes:

“… for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious* confines of modern academia.”

SAH, then, describes himself as a “dissident anthropologist” in his book’s sub-title. In this piece he claims that important archaeological matters cannot be discussed openly at universities. Yet SAH repeatedly describes his own views as common sense that is obviously true to the public.

Much of the text summarises recent DNA-based advances in ancient population history. SAH does not say that it’s impossible to pursue or discuss such research: after all, all of it comes out of mainstream academia. But he quotes one archaeologist who opposes simplistic interpretations of the results, and one elderly historian who comments on archaeological matters from a clearly poorly informed position. SAH offers no evidence that theirs are majority concerns or that these two have the power to silence anyone.

Where then are these oppressive universities? Remember, academia has no single discussion about archaeology that can be silenced or moderated “censoriously”. SAH doesn’t name any, but the scholars he quotes disapprovingly are at Cambridge, Nottingham, Freiburg, Turku, Uppsala and Stockholm. Six people in four European countries make for a pretty slim thought police force.

From the discussion of ancient population genetics, the piece just devolves into aggro far right rhetoric:

“… not a week seems to go by without some new claim that today’s morality has always been the norm. For the British public, perhaps no single phenomenon better demonstrates this than the ‘discoveries’ of black people in British history and prehistory.”

“… these discoveries … are weaponised for supporters of mass immigration to make the rhetorical claim that ‘Britain has always been a nation of immigrants’.”

But really, to my mind SAH is baring his heart here as a lonely young man who hasn’t been able to fit in, and who consoles himself by imagining a worldwide “censorious” Liberal hegemony operating against him:

“A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether.”


Finally, note that most archaeologists simply don’t deal with the brief events where one pottery style (and sometimes one set of genetic haplotypes) replaced another in a region. Even fewer pursue “grand narratives of conquest or expansion”. And even among those who do, you need to be really invested in the idea of national identity, like SAH seems to be, to respond emotionally one way or another to the research findings.

I’m one of SAH’s anti-nationalist Leftie bugbears in academia, and I love ancient DNA. I’m completely fine with the fact that both the arrival of agriculture in Sweden and the much later arrival of the Corded Ware culture coincided with radical changes in the population genetics. Because like almost all archaeologists, I seek scientific truth in my work, not validation of my political beliefs. The facts of what society was like 2000 years ago can argue neither for nor against what I would want society to be like tomorrow.

* Censorious: this adjective goes together with the verb ‘to censure’, to express severe disapproval. Not with censorship, as SAH seems to hint.

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.