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.

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

Meal Remains From Castles: 2016 Osteology Reports

Supported by a grant from the King Gustavus Adolphus VI Foundation For Swedish Culture, osteologist Lena Nilsson has analysed the bones we collected during excavations last year at two Medieval strongholds. Two weeks with 19 fieldworkers at Birgittas udde produced only 0.4 kg of bones, because the site has no culture layers to speak of and the sandy ground has been unkind. But from the following two weeks at Skällvik Castle we brought home 32.7 kg of bones! And now Lena has looked at them all. Here are her reports:

The reports are in Swedish, but the species names and anatomical terms are given in Latin. Birgittas udde was occupied briefly in the 1270s but then seems to have been vacant, though kept in repair long into the following century. Skällvik Castle was occupied from 1330 to 1356 or shortly thereafter.

Lena is available for more work, and I’ll be happy to help readers get in contact with this seasoned osteologist.

Update 29 May: And here’s Lena’s report on the bones from Landsjö Castle 2015.

Underwater Burial Cairn In Huskvarna Bay

Archaeological sites in Lake Vättern off Huskvarna

The latest inland ice was 3 km thick and its weight left a big dent in Scandinavia. Since deglaciation (which is, on the geological time scale, a current event) the dent has been straightening out. This causes land uplift. But just outside the edge of the dent, it causes the land to sink. Southernmost Scandinavia is losing land to the sea, not gaining it.

The fulcrum of this see-saw crosses Lake Vättern right at its southernmost point. The lake is receding at one end and encroaching at the other. This is why there is an Early Bronze Age burial cairn (Raä 140:3) and sacrificial bog (Raä 140:4) on the lake bottom off the town of Huskvarna . The cairn was originally built about 1400 cal BC on a hilltop above the lakeshore, in a location where it would be widely visible from boats. It didn’t turn out that way.

Later the cairn was joined on the lake bottom by Sanda parish’s Medieval church.

I’ve written before about Huskvarna on the subject of the substance abuse epidemic that decimated two generations of the town’s industrial workers in the 20th century.

Update following day: my knowledgeable colleagues Staffan von Arbin and Claes Pettersson point out that only one cairn is actually known at present, not several as I implied in the original wording.

Viking Imagery Contested On Pizza Box

A buddy & colleague of mine took this picture in an Eslöv pizza place, commenting drily that it’s a fine example of how the cultural heritage can be used. We’ve got Thor’s hammer, we’ve got two cartoon Vikings, we’ve got Swedish flags, and note the three yellow crowns on a blue background: the arms of the Kingdom of Sweden, a strong nationalist statement.

Rural Eslöv municipality is one of the anti-immigration Swedish Hate Party’s strongholds, with 22% of the vote in the last election. Vikings and Scandinavian Paganism are of course much beloved by the extreme Right, and stylewise the logo’s design is straight out of white supremacy iconography.

But, but, but. Naples’ priceless gift to world cuisine, the pizza, was completely unknown in Sweden before the 1960s. And Pizzeria Viking, as is the rule with Swedish pizza places, is owned and staffed by non-Italian immigrants. The proprietor Idris Husein is from Mardin in Turkish Kurdistan, not far from Diyarbakır. Mr. Husein and his family has been running restaurants in Sweden för 20 years. And when I look at their company logo, I get the feeling that they have a both a fine sense of humour and a keen eye for political imagery.

Fornvännen’s Summer Issue On-Line

Fornvännen 2016:2 is now on-line on Open Access.

Nerman’s Weaponry

Professors tend to have a few pet issues that they emphasise time and again over their careers as researchers and supervisors. This is quite clear with two 1960s-70s professors in my field. In Bertil Almgren’s case, one such pet issue was the source-critical quality of archaeological information. In Mats Malmer’s case, one was clear and exact verbal definitions of terms.

I agree with both of these imperatives. But there’s one case where an adherence to Almgren’s priorities over Malmer’s was clearly not the right way to go.

Birger Nerman’s monumental folio-format work Die Vendelzeit Gotlands, about portable objects from Gotland in the period AD 550-800, appeared in two parts. The illustrations in 1969, two years before Nerman died. The text in 1975, four years after he died, with heavy input from his daughter Agneta Lundström. The two books place every well-preserved object found before 1969 in one of five phases.

In 1983, Bo Annuswer wrote his third-term paper in Uppsala about a part of Nerman’s work, with Almgren as his supervisor. Annuswer looked at all the find combinations with weaponry in them, and classified them according to source-critical quality. He concluded that the weapon chronology with its five phases has extremely weak source-critical footing.

You can criticise Annuswer for not using all available sources of information. A good deal of the find combinations are not at all as poorly supported by archival information as he claimed. The whole thing was a bit of a hatchet job on Nerman, written to flatter Almgren’s source-critical agenda. But that’s not my main issue with Annuswer’s paper.

The thing with Nerman’s weaponry chronology from a malmerian perspective is that it doesn’t properly speaking exist at all. There are no type definitions, no seriation, no identification of diagnostic types. It’s really just a lot of pictures divided into five sections and some extremely brief supporting text from Nerman’s posthumous editor. Die Vendelzeit Gotlands analyses nothing, it just postulates a chronology out of the blue.

You don’t have to spend weeks examining the source quality to take a hatchet to Nerman’s weaponry chronology. Because there never was a scientifically argued chronology to begin with.

Fornvännen’s Spring Issue On-Line

Fornvännen 2016:1 is now on-line on Open Access.

Uneven Sites & Monuments Attention

The Swedish national register of archaeological sites is one of the best in the world. But if you ever consider using it for any kind of research purpose, have a look first at the register’s map of sites just west of Örkelljunga in Scania. The diagonal line is the parish boundary between Tåssjö and Rya. Tåssjö has undergone intensive survey for forest sites, most of which derive from Early Modern resource extraction. Rya has not.