May Pieces Of My Mind #1

Spent a cold moonlit night in the shelter at Djupsjön on Sörmlandsleden’s stage 13 near Nykvarn.
  • I’m playing Freeciv and it’s all coming back to me after all these years.
  • It’s a good year for bumblebees in Stockholm. ❤
  • Harbour seals (Sw. knubbsäl) raise their young on the shore. But they descend from a species that did this on snow-covered sea ice. Harbour seal fetuses still grow a coat of white fur, then change colour in the womb.
  • I ignored the simple shaft-hole axes when I studied Bronze Age deposition sites, because the axes look the same in the preceding period and most aren’t from the BA. But here’s a case where one has been deposited in a typical BA location: at the narrows between two lakes. A few km to the north-east is Ekudden with its large and beautiful lakeshore bronze hoard, dating from Per. III, 1330-1100 cal BC.
  • I’ve resumed work on an old paper that I abandoned many years ago because of a book project. And for the first time I’ve found use for the word processor’s outliner. I’ve always kept the headings structure in my head before, but now I found myself with no overview of what I was doing.
  • offers free ebooks that are out of Canadian copyright. Which is more recent books than e.g. in the UK and US. I just got the fifth James Bond novel onto my Kindle.
  • My brain is going full Slavic. I don’t even flinch when presented for the first time with the word zwłaszcza, “especially”.
  • You know the meme pic with the guy whistling after another woman while walking with his girlfriend? That girlfriend is sooo pretty.
  • Sweden starts vaccinating boys as well against HPV! Excellent news for women’s health. Also protects the boys against genital warts.
  • The Sibyl’s Tea and Coffe Shop in Stockholm reports that their business has not collapsed, it has just rearranged itself to a greater proportion of online mail order sales.
  • One morning this week a family member called to me, look at the neighbour rabbit! It’s changed its coat! Turned out that a young hare was hanging out on the back lawn. Two hours later the ginger rabbit was there instead.
  • Tardigrades are multicellular, but just barely. Big ones consist of 40,000 cells.
  • Wen’t hiking for two days near Nykvarn with my boardgaming buddy Markus:


I’m A Polish Research Professor Now


I have just taken up a steady research job at the University of Łódź, Poland’s third-largest city. I can barely believe it as I write those words. (A description of my tediously woeful previous experience on the academic job market is appended below.) For you Americans: there is no tenure system in Europe, but this basically means that I got tenure. It’s been my increasingly frustrated career goal since I was an undergrad almost 30 years ago.

Everyday teaching in Łódź is done in Polish, a language I began learning a few weeks ago. I’m going to continue my Scandinavian research and periodically do fieldwork with Łódź students, mostly working from Stockholm. But there’s a difference from before: I’m going to be even more productive since I no longer spend one day a week editing Fornvännen. And with time I hope to participate in the department’s projects as well.

As the crow flies, the distance from central Stockholm to central Łódź is 845 km (525 miles). This is a long commute for a European academic and would have crossed more than one language border if the Baltic Sea hadn’t been a big part of the distance. But to US scholars, it’s completely in the realm of the expected: roughly the distance between the capitals of the adjacent states Colorado and Oklahoma.

I feel like an extremely impatient sprinter who finally hears the starting gun. Oh, and the English way of spelling Łódź would be “Woodsh”!


Woes on and off the academic job market 2003-19

After finishing my PhD in 2003 it took me nine years of almost constant productive research (on a shoestring budget) before I got my first adjunct teaching job. For one month. In the following five years I had a series of temp jobs on four Swedish campuses and became all too familiar with the almost completely non-meritocratic hiring practices of Scandinavian humanities departments. In late 2017 I was passed over for yet another job in favour of someone who shouldn’t have been a contender, and I decided I’d had enough. Fourteen years on the Scandinavian job market for archaeology PhDs, over 170 publications, and the securest contract I’d had was for one semester at 55% of full time. Ridiculous. I finished the manuscript of my Medieval castles book, quit doing research, quit applying for funding, and went looking for any kind of job.

2018 proved highly varied. I didn’t get a single one of the jobs I applied for, but instead four employers contacted me and I worked more than full time for the entire year. While editing my four last issues of the journal Fornvännen for the Royal Academy of Letters, I first made maps for the Medieval Sweden project at the National Archives, then taught high-school Swedish and English, then worked as a canvasser for the Social Democrats in the election season, and was finally a heritage expert on an EU project at the County Archaeologist’s office in Linköping.

2019 has been less varied and less financially rewarding, partly because I’ve been unemployed for the equivalent of almost two full-time months. I’ve taught high-school Swedish, coordinated canvassing for the EU parliamentary election in May and done admin for the local chapter of my party. And again I haven’t gotten a single job that I’ve applied for except for the teaching gig.

From a scholarly viewpoint though, 2019 has been a good year. My Medieval castles book appeared in March, I’ve translated it into Swedish and that version will appear in February. I’ve also translated Nils Mattsson Kiöping into English and annotated his writings, a project that is almost completed and which I hope to see published this year.

Contract archaeology has had no work for me in these two years, partly because there hasn’t been a major infrastructure project near Stockholm. But also because my profile is off. I’m 47, I’ve headed years of fieldwork for research purposes, but I’ve only worked for three seasons total in contract archaeology. Two employers have told me that you can’t get into that business on the fifth floor. You have to enter at street level and walk up the stairs one season at a time. They can’t hire someone with my CV as a rank-and-file digger. And they recruit their site & project managers in-house. One fellow told me there would be mutiny among his tried-and-true hopefuls if he gave those jobs to unfamiliar research eggheads.

Samples of Roger Wikell’s Work

kvarts juli 2016
We were lucky enough to be visited by three renowned Mesolithic specialists at Birgittas udde in July 2016: Lars Larsson, Fredrik Molin and Roger Wikell. Lucky, because the little Medieval stronghold we excavated had turned out to sit on a Late Mesolithic settlement site.

Roger Wikell (1965-2019) was particularly interested in three fields of research. Here is one paper for each field, all from Fornvännen because most of Roger’s Open Access work is found there. All are in Swedish with abstract and summary in English. Plus an obit written by Roger.

And below are some blog entries of mine reporting on Roger’s and Mattias’s et al. work. Apologies for the missing pictures: they were lost in a blog migration.

Roger Wikell 1965-2019

Roger visiting a runic inscription near his home in Sorunda (Sö 231) on 1 June 2019. Photo by Andreas Forsgren.

My dear colleague Roger Wikell died yesterday at age 54, from a heart attack while walking in the woods. Reading that sentence feels absurd. Roger was timeless, a tireless and ever-enthusiastic lover of archaeology, a hugely productive scholar. In addition to the human cost of a middle-aged family man with many friends falling away so abruptly, it is a major blow to Swedish archaeology. Because while other contributors to our discipline like to secure funding first and only then do research, Roger made constant empirical discoveries and wrote voluminously in his favourite fields regardless of whether he had any funding or not.

His main fields were Bronze Age rock art, Stone Age settlement sites with their knapped lithics, and Viking Period rune stones. But with contract archaeology as his main source of income, Roger excavated and wrote archive reports on all kinds of sites from every period of the past. There are 159 pieces of work to his name in VITALIS, the main bibliographical database for Swedish archaeology. I have about half of that, and I’m known to publish a lot.

When I got to know Roger in the early 00s he and his research partner of many years Mattias Pettersson were collaborating with a couple of scholars with PhDs. As I understood these collaborations, they were not on equal terms. Roger, Mattias and others provided huge amounts of new data from skilful field surveying, but they were diffident about writing their own analyses and sending them off to journals. They had preferred to be credited as collaborators by scholars with academic credentials. But this arrangement had started to chafe after 2000. The rate of output was too slow for Roger’s taste, and he wasn’t getting his ideas into print.

I am proud to say that Roger would later repeatedly credit me with telling him and Mattias to cut out the middle man and become independent researchers, PhD or no PhD. He liked to quote me saying that if you want funding, it’s more important to vara nypubbad, to have a recent publication to show, than to have letters after your name.

Looking at the VITALIS data, here’s how Roger’s output grew over time. (The figures include collaborations.)

1987-89: 3
1990-94: 2
1995-99: 7
2000-04: 6
2005-09: 46
2010-14: 68
2015 through May 2019: 28

This pointless cardiovascular accident in the woods has robbed us not only of a good man, a loving husband and father, and a friend of many. It has also most likely robbed the research discipline that Roger loved of over a hundred solid contributions.

Should Farmers Fear Archaeology?

Paul Hounam asks more interesting questions about how archaeology is legislated in Sweden.

Almost all farmers I talk to are terrified of archaeology. I was chatting to one at the weekend who found burning pits when building a barn but kept quiet. … To quote the farmers wife. “We don’t want to find anything and them show up with their diggers. Then we have to pay for it”. Another I spoke to last autumn said all the farmers around here (Southern Skåne) have found stone tools, but they’re all too afraid to tell LS and risk huge fees to fund excavations.

This is all misunderstood. The farmers Paul has spoken to have probably never actually come into contact with the current archaeological planning process. This may be because unlike other property owners, farmers are allowed to build stuff around the farm without a building permit. This means that there’s no automatic way for the County Archaeologist to help them get things straight.

Almost all contract archaeology is done because of highway and railroad projects, paid for with tax money by the Swedish Transport Administration. The amount of fieldwork done because of new farm buildings is minuscule. In order not to run into problems with archaeology, the wise farmer will buy an affordable archaeological evaluation of the building plot before renting a bulldozer. With half a day’s work, the archaeologist can tell if it’s a safe place to build or suggest a better alternative on adjoining land.

As for finding stone tools, South Skåne is completely solid with them. Finding more does not in itself occasion any archaeological fieldwork. If an archaeologist becomes curious enough about a site with stone tools to want to dig there, then the landowner pays nothing unless s/he is going to build something there. Landowners are not even under any obligation to allow archaeologists to dig on their land for research purposes. The County Archaeologist issues no excavation permit unless the landowner has already given their permission.

Is it not true that a construction company building a new road must halt work (creating more cost) and pay for the archaeological work carried out?

Firstly, construction companies do not pay for Swedish roads. The Swedish Transport Administration does, that is, us tax payers. As for getting unpleasantly surprised by archaeology and having to halt the project, that’s how it used to work until about 1985 in Sweden. Then evaluations became the norm.

These days, road engineers are instructed by the County Archaeologist to buy an eval map from a contract archaeological firm before they start even planning the road. The map has red spots on it. To the archaeologists, the spots mean “Cool stuff, dig here”. The engineers, however, design the road to slalom around the red spots for two very good reasons. One is that the Swedish Transport Administration is not intended as an archaeological funding body. The other is that the cultural resource legislation makes it a duty of all citizens to preserve our cultural heritage. We shouldn’t bulldoze the best bits if we can avoid it.

So if you want to build a new barn, e-mail the County Archaeologist and ask him to recommend a good archaeology firm that can do a dependable, affordable evaluation of your intended site. It’s not free, but it’s not super expensive either, it’s a tax deductible business expense, and it’s your legal duty as a land developer.

What Can A Research-Minded Metal Detectorist Do In Sweden?

Paul Hounam asked some interesting questions in a closed discussion group on Facebook. I decided to take the discussion here because it is of wider interest.

How difficult is it as an archaeologist to obtain permission (and funding) for a metal detecting survey of a site here in Sweden? As far as I understand the problem is funding the preservation and recording of finds? But what if people were willing to donate their own time (and b72) to help with such a project? Has it been tried before?

I am an archaeologist by trade and spent the years 1994-2017 mainly doing research. I have lost count of the times I’ve done what Paul asks about. I do know that for my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats, myself and my detectorist friends investigated 17 sites.

For a research archaeologist with a PhD, to get a permit of this kind from the County Archaeologist you need two things: a plausible research agenda beyond “I think there’s cool stuff there”, and a plausible finds conservation budget. Conserving one piece of copper alloy currently costs SEK 2000 = $ 208 = € 185 = £ 160. Conserving iron is way, way more expensive. My usual M.O. has been to tell the County Archaologist the following.

“We will not dig on iron signals. We will re-bury everything we can date to after (e.g.) 1700. We have SEK 20 000, which means that we will stop metal detecting and go home when we have found 10 datable objects from before 1700.”

As for funding, if you are a productive scholar it is not difficult to get SEK 20 000 for such a project. And detectorists are super happy to help. I have the sites and permits. They have the skill and time. (Almost no professional archaeologists are as good at using a metal detector as a reasonably committed hobby detectorist, simply because we use our machines way less often.) It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Usually I just pay for simple lodging and breakfasts. And I make very sure to credit detectorists by name in my publications.

Hypothetically.. say I knew of an area rich in artefacts… Would it be possible that Länsstyrelsen would allow a team of self-funded / volunteer archaeologists to do a detecting survey on the site? With help from SMF, university students etc? Who ultimately makes that decision?

This can only happen if you have a respected professional archaeologist to head the fieldwork, a plausible research agenda and a plausible finds conservation budget. The County Archaeologist’ office (länsantikvarien) decides.

I quite often hear from detectorists who offer to collaborate with me on projects like these. I used to reply “Sorry, I can’t take research time to metal-detect your Late Iron Age site in Västergötland, because my current book project is about the Bronze Age in Södermanland”. Now that I am no longer subsisting on grants outside of society’s safety net, I simply reply “Certainly, just get me a lectureship at your region’s university and we will hit those fields like a swarm of locusts.” Sadly no detectorist has yet been able to endow an academic chair for me.

Overall, there seems to be a common misunderstanding among detectorists about why archaeologists do fieldwork, with or without metal detectors. We never go out to find random old stuff for fun. Mostly we go into the field to document and remove sites that are going to be bulldozed for a railway project. If we are among the lucky few who can do fieldwork just for research purposes (and aren’t busy writing theoretical fad verbiage instead), we target sites that can answer our project questions. A couple of times I’ve halted work on productive sites because the stuff that was popping out was irrelevant to my research yet was eating my conservation budget. The detectorists weren’t super happy. So if you have a super cool site full of delicious evidence for 15th century trade, then you need to find a funded scholar who works with 15th century trade. Or endow a chair for someone who’s willing to change their specialisation.

Bronze Age Cemeteries As Comic Books

Vertical photos of untidy cairn-like structures at the cemeteries of Påljungshage in Helgona and Rogsta in Tystberga.

Cemeteries of the period 1000-300 cal BC around Lake Mälaren display a bewildering variety of ugly, damaged, diffuse stone structures. They usually contain multiple small depositions of potsherds and burnt bones that often do not represent a whole person, and sometimes there’s even just part of an animal. Closed finds are frustratingly rare here, when archaeologists often look to cemeteries to find out about chronology and social roles.

I’ve been reading Anna Röst’s 2016 PhD thesis where she’s drilled down for hundreds of pages into the minutiae of two of these sites. She has a really interesting perspective on them.

Röst suggests that her sites were not governed by the idea of permanent burial that we see so often in eras before and after her study period — including our own. Instead, they were intended for long convoluted multistage ritual processes where people would mess around with the bones, metalwork, stone structures, pottery, fire and animals. The great variation among the structures that we excavate and document now is partly due to varying ideas about the correct script for such a chain of ritual events: two structures may look different today because they were never intended to look the same. But in other cases the variation may be due to a single ritual script being interrupted on different pages: two structures may look different today because they were abandoned at different points along the timeline of a single process.

This recalls Fleming Kaul’s interpretation of the imagery engraved on period bronze razors: he considers each razor to be a panel in the same comic book about sun-ship mythology. You can’t understand a whole comic from one panel. Nor can you understand what people where doing and intending at a Late Bronze Age cemetery in Södermanland by looking at a single structure.

But there’s a big difference between the burials and the razor iconography. We never find a razor with a half-drawn scene on it. If Röst is right, then almost every one of the structures we document today at her kind of cemetery is a half-drawn scene, intended for an audience who were interested in the act of drawing, not in reading the finished comic book.

Röst, Anna. 2016. Fragmenterade platser, ting och människor. Stenkonstruktioner och depositioner på två gravfältslokaler i Södermanland ca 1000-300 f Kr. Stockholm University. [Full text available online]

Farewell to Fornvännen

Yesterday was my last day as Managing Editor for Fornvännen, Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research (est. 1906). I started in April of 1999 and so I’ve been involved in 20 annual volumes of the quarterly, almost 80 issues. It’s been fun, and a great education!

From the start I purposely grabbed as much responsibility as I could. A main reason was sheer careerism: I needed a better platform in academic archaeology than the shaky one I had as a PhD student. Another reason was that originally I was paid by the hour, so the more work the better. Fornvännen has been my one steady source of income for all these years. The Royal Academy of Letters is a very good employer and takes care of its people.

The Fornvännen editorship was the one big occasion where academic nepotism worked for me rather than against me. My thesis supervisor got me the job when I was only 27. As for being an academic platform, it certainly gave me more professional recognition and expanded my contact network enormously. But through the years I found that academic job application referees didn’t value the editorship very highly.

An unexpected drawback was that good editors make enemies in their line of daily work. One influential professor apparently became my sworn Nemesis after I turned down an exceptionally bad debate piece of hers. I guess it’s give and take: without the editorship far fewer colleagues would know who I am today, but fewer would also bear a grudge against me.

Still, the editorship was fun and valuable to me through the years, just in itself. But I always also saw it as a means to an end: tenure. In 2016-17 I finally came to accept how little meritocracy there is on the massively over-populated academic labour market in the Scandinavian Humanities, how gross the nepotism is there. I abandoned all ambition in that direction. And I’ve grown quite tired of copy editing and proofreading. So in February I told my co-editor friends that I’d do the four issues for 2018 and then resign on November 30.

I look forward to seeing what my highly qualified successor Dr. Peter Carelli, Editor-in-Chief Prof. Mats Roslund and the other eminent members of the editorial board will do with the journal. I wish Peter a long, happy editorship!


The Bass of an Ancient King

Bill Black, the bass and the King

In 1995 the surviving three Beatles recorded “Real Love“, a song that Lennon had written and recorded in 1979. They used his vocal takes on the new recording and sang harmony with him. McCartney played a vintage double bass once owned by Bill Black who played the bass in Elvis’s original mid-1950s trio.

This choice of instrument is what archaeologists call symbolic re-use. It’s when runestones are found built into the walls of later churches. Or when Napoleon’s imperial coronation outfit referenced designs from the tomb of Childeric I. People reach back in time to take part of the essence of great ancestors.

“Real Love” is a pretty decent Beatles song, certainly not one of their weakest outings.