Social Ancestry

Looked at my family history to get a sense of what my social ancestry is like. I’m a first-generation PhD and my parents are first-generation university graduates. But now I’ve gone back four generations and looked at the men’s professions around 1900. The women among my ancestors didn’t have any recorded professions at the time. These eight men were born between 1816 and 1862.

  • Three were farmers: two farm owners, one hereditary tenant farmer on crown land. Of the three, one later became a building contractor.
  • One was a sailor and had a smallholding.
  • One was a soldier and had a smallholding.
  • One was a foreman at a gunpowder factory.
  • One was a caretaker at a military hospital.
  • One was a rural merchant.

These are fairly humble folks. Neither a desperate proletariat nor any kind of national-level elite. Everyone except the merchant is involved in farming and/or the army. As far as I can reconstruct it, what happened to produce me, a middle-class academic, was the following.

  • A daughter of the merchant (with a bit of money and centuries of bourgeois heritage) married a bright son of one of the farm owners (with a lot of bookish talent), who became a well-connected journalist.
  • Their bookish son became an auditor with frustrated academic ambitions.
  • His daughter got a university degree as part of the great 1960s expansion of higher education, and convinced her smart but completely non-bookish boyfriend to do the same.
  • They got married and had me, she recognised my bookish streak and drove me to the library once a week.

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.

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!

A Memory On Men’s Day

On International Men’s Day I recall an occasion when my masculinity was, not exactly questioned, but asked to explain itself. Me and my first wife were at a lecture for expectant parents. The speaker kept talking to us future dads as if we were one solid block of people who would rather go down to the pub with our mates, have a few beers and watch some footie.

Eventually I put up my hand and said “Excuse me, there are men here who never drink beer, watch footie or go down the pub with their mates. Your assumptions about masculinity are kind of clichéd.” The speaker mumbled something I didn’t catch in reply, and then went on. Overall it was a good lecture apart from this bit.

First wife told me afterward that what the speaker had mumbled was “So where is your masculinity at, then?” And every time I think about this, I know what I would have liked to reply: “I usually keep it in my undies”.

Immigrant Child, Bilingual Household

My wife and I are a pretty obvious match: two bookish middle-class people of the same age. The big difference is that she was an immigrant child, arriving in Sweden with her parents and sibs at age 7. But this has been more of a boon than a problem for our relationship: we keep a bilingual household even though I’m not an immigrant. I’m not. Wait a minute, am I?

Long-term Aard readers know that I advocate multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism and have little regard for nationalism or patriotism. I grew up reading scifi about galactic federations, so narrow tribalism dividing some small part of Earth has never been my thing. I’m a little embarrassed though that it’s taken so long for me to realise that there may be a little more psychological conditioning behind my attitude than that.

Right around my 4th birthday we moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and I was plonked down into Kindergarten. There I learned to speak English and understand the ways of New England children by the sink-or-swim method. I remember trying to figure out rules for how to remodel a Swedish word into an English one that people around me would understand. I was an immigrant child for two years.

For part of our stay in the US a live-in nanny took care of me and my brother. This excellent, warm-hearted young woman came from a local Connecticut family, and when we returned to Sweden she came along, living with us for several years until my brother was old enough. One big reason that our nanny moved with us was to keep speaking English with us. I spent a big chunk of my childhood in a bilingual household. Our current one is in fact the second I’ve lived in.

So as I said, my wife and I are a pretty obvious match. In more ways than I have really appreciated until now.

Wolf Hound and Dachshund

We interrupt this transmission for some adolescent self-examination.

My high school Swedish teacher – I’ve forgotten her name – played the saxophone and kept an Irish wolf hound. They’re pretty wussy creatures as a rule, but my teacher’s pet was extreme. She explained that though big as a calf, the dog had been brought up by a dachshund bitch, thought it was a dachshund and was afraid of anything larger than a dachshund.

I’m a bit the same. I keep getting these hints that people see me as way meaner, taller, more critical and better-looking than I see myself. To me, anybody above 170 cm looks disproportionately tall. When I think I’m asking a polite question or making a friendly joke at an academic event people often react defensively as if what I’d really said was “You’re full of shit and you know it”. During my brief inter-marriage dating period in the 90s I was surprised when this one fine woman told me “You’re unusual for me, I’ve hardly ever dated handsome men”.

Me and other people are in agreement though that I am loud and confident. And I can kind of perceive that if a person has the mistaken idea that I am mean, tall, critical and good-looking, then this will add up with the loud self-confidence to the image of quite an overbearing person. But in actual fact, of course, I’m a dachshund and I’m afraid of anything larger than a dachshund. Everybody should be able to see that.

White Linen Granny


Certain experiences during my mid-teens a quarter of a century ago left me with this strong Pavlovian reaction to a ladies’ perfume called White Linen. It’s not very popular any more, and not at all among young women. So imagine my moment of confusion when without warning a whiff of White Linen hits me at George Best airport, making me automatically prick up my ears — and I find that the wearer is a stout 65ish grandmotherly lady in a floral print dress.


Teaching 20-year-olds for the past term has begun to make me feel a little avuncular. But yesterday I had this sudden surge in my avuncularity. First, in the morning I finally took the step of shaving the sparse fuzz remaining on my forehead all the way up to the coronal suture. (That’s the lateral seam in your skull that you feel if you put three fingertips between your eyebrows and slide them up to the top of your head.) To salvage a little dignity, I’ve always been one step ahead of the male pattern baldness.

Then I talked to the heat pump repairman (31) about what it’ll be like for him to have his first baby in a few weeks (my first kid arrived in ’98 and is currently 6′ tall and counting). Then I ran into the new neighbour (28) and talked to him about how three out of four members of his mini-commune are vegans or vegetarians. And finally my 20-y-o niece showed up.

I should buy a cardigan and a briar-root pipe and start practicing my kindly guffaw.

Postcard from Hazor

My cousin Annika kindly forwarded me this postcard from a budding archaeologist just out of high school and on his first dig. I translate:


Hazor-Haglilit July 15th, 1990, 12:05 [Sunday]


Mainly I’m digging. At the same time we exchange some language teaching – my new Israeli acquaintances call each other “whitstevell” in passing [Sw. skitstövel, “shit boot”] (think about it and you’ll get it…), and I’ve learned things like makush (hoe), makushon (small hoe), benga benga (work, work!), yalla (faster!), malofofon (cucumber), and ma-eem (water).

I’ve got today off, and I have the typical travel anxiety, “Gotta see as much as possible now that I’m here!”. But I can’t be bothered. Not today, not with the heat. Instead I remain in the closed-for-summer Torah school where we are housed, washing (without visible result) my grimy clothes, writing a little, and I’m planning on finishing the book about Hazor I started reading yesterday (when I didn’t have the stamina to travel around either).

Hope your version of July is equally pleasurable!



What I find striking about this is that my hand writing and thought processes are pretty much still the same after 22 years.

Birthday Party Speech

For forty years I’ve been one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever heard of.

Starting from the global perspective, there is of course hardly a single country on Earth where people live under such good conditions as in Sweden. This goes for all of us here tonight. If we had ended up somewhere else, ourselves and our loved ones would in all likelihood have had to endure illiteracy, slavery, tyranny, torture, famine, war, severe illness and a very early demise.

With my slightly odd professional perspective I’m also acutely aware of how lucky I am to have plopped down not just where I am, but when. From an archaeological perspective there is no other period in time when people have been able to live so well as we do now. And you don’t have to be very pessimistic to believe that this is as good as it will ever get. Our great grand-children will in all likelihood see even worse environmental troubles than we do, even greater overpopulation – and they will have no fossil fuels to keep the wheels turning.

But OK, let’s ignore this greater perspective and pretend that Sweden today is a completely normal historical environment for people to live in. Then I am still one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever heard of. One of the luckiest of the lucky, as it were.

I have good health and a healthy family. I have a nice house in a verdant area. I have almost never had to do anything boring or exhausting to support myself. I have almost never had to obey orders from a boss. Since my mandatory schooling ended, when I was 15, I have told society, “This is what I want to do”. And with very few exceptions, society has replied, “OK, go ahead, here’s your livelihood, do what you want”.

With such an hedonist and individualist attitude, you might think that I would be a pretty lonely person. But I am lucky on that account as well. For all of my life I have been swimming in love and friendship. I am thinking particularly about my wife and kids. And you, dear people around me, have happily accepted my love and my friendship.

A flattersome listener might interrupt me here and say that my good relationships with people and my comparative professional success are due to good characteristics in me. But I haven’t earned those characteristics. I’m the way I am because I pulled a series of winning lottery tickets from the urn. I was born with a friendly and energetic disposition and found myself with loving parents who commanded rather ample and varied resources. Dumb luck.

If I live as long as my maternal grandfather did, then I have come almost half-way now. Living half a life the way I have is extremely lucky. But I’m optimistic about my future as well. People are commonly divided into those who see their glass as half full and those who see it as half empty. I belong to neither group. I tend to see my glass as 75% full. And so I raise this glass, dear friends, and suggest a toast to good luck, lots of fun and lots of love for us all as we travel on into the future.