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.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #5 – Klee

René Lund Klee's tattoo
René Lund Klee’s tattoo

In our series of metal detectorist tattoos, where people put pictures of their best finds on themselves — usually on their detector arms — we now pay a visit to René Lund Klee. His tattoo depicts an Urnes brooch that he found on the Danish island of Lolland. The needlework was done there by Sandra’s Ink in Nakskov.

Urnes brooch from Lolland
Urnes brooch from Lolland

The Urnes style of c. AD 1050-1125 forms the end of the Scandinavian animal art tradition, which produced astonishing artistic riches during the Late Iron Age (c. 375-1125). Named for a Norwegian wooden church from the 1070s, the Urnes style is certainly no degenerate afterthought, but is instead like the final, spare and lucid collection of verse from an old poet who never lost the touch. René’s brooch, which dates from about AD 1100, show’s the art tradition’s centuried main motif: the great beast. Sadly it is missing its head.

The Urnes style is also known as the Runestone style because it coincides with the great final bloom of the runestone tradition in Uppland and on Gotland. It has emphatic Christian connotations and usually occurs along with crosses and runic prayers. Yet everyone must have understood that this was the same distinctively Scandinavian art tradition that had been part of paganism until just a few generations previously. After Urnes comes a local version of a pan-European style: Romanesque art with its beautiful architecture, its murals, its woodwork, and, in Scandinavia, a school of charmingly inept figural sculpture.

The words next to the image on René’s arm read “Life Is History”. I think it’s a good example of how keen and interested many detectorists are about the past. Thank you René! And any detectorist who would like me to feature a tattoo of a find — please get in touch!

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #4 – Mortensen

Jan Mortensen's tattoo
Jan Mortensen’s tattoo

Another metal detectorist tattoo! This time it’s Jan Mortensen who has decorated the arm with which he brandishes the detector. The object is a 10th century trefoil brooch that Jan found in Holbæk municipality, northern Zealand. Hugo Tattoo in Holbæk did the needlework.

Trefoil brooches were worn by South Scandinavian women as a third brooch, to close their cloaks. But the overall shape descended from high-end acanthus-decorated silver mounts for the bandoliers worn by Charlemagne’s vassals around AD 800. Their trefoils joined the strap from the scabbard to the ends of the strap worn over your shoulder. Viking Period art and design is eclectic in its influences.

10th century trefoil brooch from Holbæk municipality, Zealand
10th century trefoil brooch from Holbæk municipality, Zealand

I’ve discussed 123 metal detectorist tattoos here before.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #3 – Thomsen

Torben Thomsen's tattoo
Torben Thomsen’s tattoo

Torben Thomsen found this relief-decorated and gilded pendant in Hjørring municipality, northernmost Jutland. It was his first really old piece. Knight Ink Tattoo in Frederikshavn did the tattoo work on Torben’s lower left leg. Torben’s pendant is missing its loop, but his workmate Daniel Bach Morville has found the complete piece below at a nearby site.

The motif is a pair of antithetical sea horses. To date them, let’s look at the animal art — the two objects, not the tattoo. The tattoo artist has classicised the motif and gotten rid of a lot of specifically Scandy detail. Considering the shoulder spiral, the cross-hatched body and the scythe-like element across the neck of each sea-horse, I want to place these things in the Jelling/Mammen phase in the late 10th century, and in a very high-status environment. So that’s my bid: these are Middle Viking Period pendants, and damn fine ones too.

Big thanks to Torben and Daniel for allowing me to show their photographs on the blog. The previous instalment in our series of metal detectorist tattoos was from Steffen Hansen. Us archaeologists love to see people engage with the archaeological heritage, and you don’t really get more personal about it than this. Dear Reader, have you got a tattoo of an artefact that you’ve found? I’d love to show it here!

A similar pendant, also from Hjørring
A similar pendant, also from Hjørring

Viking Crucifix

Viking Period crucifix found at Aunslev on Funen in March 2016. 10th century.

Metal detectorist Dennis Fabricius Holm made a pretty sweet find yesterday: the third known Birka crucifix.

These little wonders of 10th century goldsmith work are named for the first find, made in 1879 when Hjalmar Stolpe excavated in the cemeteries of Birka near Stockholm. In addition to the crucifix grave 660 contained, among other things, two other fine silver filigree pendants and a bronze-capped iron wand that may have served pagan religious purposes.

Crucifix from grave 660 at Birka, Uppland, Sweden.
Crucifix from grave 660 at Birka, Uppland, Sweden.

In 2012 Silke Eisenschmidt identified fragments of a second Birka crucifix among the finds from a wagon burial at Ketting, excavated by Jens Raben in 1927. This is on the island of Als on the south-east coast of Jutland, just across the sound from Funen, and the new find is from Nyborg municipality on the east coast of that island. (I was there for a castle conference last August.) The two Danish sites are less than a day’s sailing and rowing from the town of Hedeby, which suggests to me that this is where all three crucifixes were made. They’re too similar for more than one or two people to have been making them. Birka and Hedeby seems to have shared an itinerant population of craftspeople and traders.

Fragmentary crucifix from a wagon burial at Ketting on Als, Denmark.
Fragmentary crucifix from a wagon burial at Ketting on Als, Denmark.

Many thanks to Dennis for letting me publish his photographs! Note that by not cleaning the find thoroughly, Dennis is doing the right thing: this is a job for the finds conservator.

The reverse of the newly found crucifix.
The reverse of the newly found Aunslev crucifix.

Update 13 March: My friend and collaborator Tobias Bondesson alerted me to a piece of filigreed hack silver from the Omø hoard that looks a lot like the right hand of a fourth Birka crucifix. It’s different from its siblings in being decorated on the reverse and having no thumb, but to my eye there’s little else this fragment could be from. The hoard was buried during the reign of Sweyn Forkbeard, 986–1014. It was found by detectorist Robert Hemming Poulsen in September of 2015. Omø is a small island between Funen and Zealand, not far across the water from Nyborg, which neatly reinforces the distribution we have begun to discern for the type.

Fragment of a Birka-type crucifix from the Omø hoard.
Fragment of a Birka-type crucifix from the Omø hoard.

Racist Detectorists

In countries with a big metal detector hobby, the stereotypical participant is an anorak-wearing, rural, poorly educated, underemployed male. I don’t know how true this cliché image is. But apart from the anorak, it’s certainly an accurate description of the core voter demographic behind the rise of racist right-wing populist parties. These people have trouble finding jobs, and they have trouble seeing through the racist propaganda that tells them they would have jobs and girlfriends if it weren’t for the bloody furriners.

I’m known as a detectorist-friendly archaeologist. I’ve made many friends in the little Swedish hobby over the past twelve years. These people are overwhelmingly urban professionals, often with university degrees and pretty solid incomes. I’m talking a banker, a school teacher, a newspaper editor, a businessman, a scientist, a software company CEO. I’ve never known them to make racist remarks, live or online. Sweden’s laws regarding amateur metal detector use are hopelessly restrictive, so when not collaborating with researchers like myself, most of our few detectorists spend their free time collecting last year’s coins and finger rings on beaches.

But now I’ve gotten involved in Danish and Norwegian detectorist groups on Facebook. Those countries have more liberal laws and bigger hobbies. Many of their detectorists have added me as Fb buddies. And suddenly I’ve got several rural Danes and Norwegians in my Fb feed who will post nine pictures of interesting new archaeological finds, then a piece of racist propaganda, followed by nine more finds, etc. I’m just appalled. It’s so far from my Swedish experience.

Let me be clear and fair here. Most of my Danish & Norwegian detectorist contacts on Fb never post racist stuff. But the only people who do post that shit in my feed are Danish & Norwegian detectorists. I wonder if the main detectorist associations of Denmark and Norway have taken a public stand against racism, for instance by welcoming immigrants as members.

Danish Castle Road Trip

I spent last week in Denmark at a friendly, informative and rather unusual conference. The thirteenth Castella Maris Baltici conference (“castles of the Baltic Sea”) was a moveable feast. In five days we slept in three different towns on Zealand and Funen and spent a sum of only two days presenting our research indoors. The rest of the time we rode a bus around the area and looked at castle sites and at fortifications, secular buildings, churches and a monastery in four towns. Our Danish hosts had planned all of this so well that the schedule never broke down. Add to this that the food and accommodation were excellent, and the price very humane, and you will understand that I was very happy with the conference.

This was my second CMB. Last year in May I attended the twelfth one in Lodz, Poland. It’s an excellent education for me as I delve into High Medieval castle studies with my ongoing project about castles in Östergötland.

You might think that within such a specialised field there would be lots of debate at the conference, but actually participants present work that is mainly of local or national relevance. Your audience takes a polite interest in what you’re doing, but nobody presents any results or methods that change the game for everybody else. I imagine that this has to do with written history’s specificity. These scholars aren’t dealing with large generalised prehistoric cultural categories. They’re dealing with specific people and events at specific castle sites. If someone has found out new stuff about the architectural phasing of a certain castle in Lithuania, then this will not change the way someone in south Jutland thinks about her subject much. But every specific case presented, and every site visited, offers a wealth of details that add up to help castle scholars contextualise their work at home.

The presentation that I found the most interesting was Christofer Herrmann’s and Felix Biermann’s about recent fieldwork at Barczewko / Alt-Wartenburg in northern Poland. This wooded area, Warmia, saw a planned colonisation effort sponsored by German lords in the 14th century. Written sources document that a settlement was founded at Barczewko in 1326 and razed to the ground by Lithuanian raiders in 1354. Attracted by a long-known but undated defensive bank-and-moat, my colleagues have now mapped the site with geophys and excavated key buildings. The geophys showed a neatly planned mini-town, with a main street, a town square and a town hall. The cellars are still full of the debris from the fires set by the attackers, on top of the goods stored in the cellars, and a few bodies of murdered inhabitants. Almost a little Pompeii, and very painstakingly excavated. The pottery is dominated by Silesian designs (from the south-west part of modern Poland), giving an idea of whence the colonists came.

And Yet Another Gold Foil Figure Die from Zealand

Photo by H.H. Hansen.Guldgubbar are tiny pieces of gold foil with (usually) embossed motifs. They most commonly depict single men, then embracing couples, then single women, all in fine clothing. They date from the Vendel Period (540-790) and seem to have been religious artefacts. Usually they are found in the remains of elite residences, concentrating in and around roof-bearing postholes in the main hall. They form this gold-poor period’s continuation of the Migration Period’s gold bractate pendants and other sumptuous goldwork.

Gold foil figures weren’t necessarily made where they are found. They are eminently portable, and identical ones have been found at multiple sites. But if you find the copper-alloy dies they were stamped on, then you’ve probably located a production site. And unlike the tiny foils themselves, the dies can be located in the ploughsoil by means of a metal detector. We know of fewer than 25 such dies. In 2007 I was lucky enough to direct fieldwork where Niklas Krantz found the northernmost one known to archaeology: at Sättuna in Kaga outside of Linköping. The Sättuna die (below) shows a single woman seen in profile, opening her mouth to speak or sing and lifting her hand in an imperious gesture.

On 23 February Danish metal detectorist Dennis Maigaard found a closely similar die while working with a county museum. It has the Sättuna lady’s sideways displaced feet that suggest she’s sitting down, it has the great disc-on-bow-brooch under her jawline, but it hasn’t got the raised hand. The site is a known elite one at Boeslunde on SW Zealand that has yielded at least one die before. I wish Swedish archaeology would collaborate more with people like Dennis instead of putting destructive legal obstacles in their way!

I’ve covered dies from Zealand before: here and here. Thanks to Hans Henrik Hansen for the photograph and to Tobias Bondesson for information.

i-b78adb174b3a9c8b5e54a79156bc2638-Kagadamen renritn lores.jpg

Bornholm’s Golden Acrobat Girl

Smørenge is one of the sites on Bornholm that keeps yielding mid-1st-millennium gold mini-figurines. But in addition to the 2D representations on embossed gold foil known as guldgubber, an artisan employed by the magnate family at Smørenge also made nude 3D figurines. The fifth of these was found by one of the island’s famously skilful metal detectorists in May, and she’s quite a revelation. Because representations of women are far less common than of men in Iron Age art, and nude women are almost unknown.

The Smørenge woman is wearing only a hatched belt. She has the prominent “seer’s thumbs” common in the era’s art, and all the female anatomy we know and love is clearly modelled. Lines depicting long hair are incised onto her head and neck. Notches on her upper arms suggest that she is intended to be tied with a piece of wire or thread. Her body’s overall curvature and her outstretched feet suggest that she is performing a back-flip, a motif known e.g. from the closely coeval Söderby bracteate hoard where a bearded man is seen doing acrobatics. She is 42 mm long and weighs 3 g.

The thing that commentators are wondering about is the odd cogged ridge along her spine. My guess is that she is simply a skinny acrobat whose vertebrae are visible as a line of bumps along her back.

René Laursen has a short presentation of the find at the Bornholm Museum web site, and a more detailed one in Skalk 2013:3 (June).

Another Gold Foil Figure Die from Zealand

Another one of the rare production dies for 6/7/8th century gold foil figures has come to light, again on Zealand! This is an unusual design depicting a lady from the front. She’s wearing a long dress, a cloak and two bead strings. She seems to be cupping her hands around a ring at her abdomen. The rings on her dress hem are quite odd. Parallels to the general motif and design are known from Eketorp on Öland (a foil) and Sättuna in Östergötland (a die). Congratulations to detectorist Hans, and thanks for doing other folks with an interest in the past a big favour!

Update 4 Feb: Aard regular Kevin points out that this Vendel Period lady looks just like a Dutch Christmas cookie! Image from 123RF.

A Dutch speculaas cookie.
A Dutch speculaas cookie.