The Mystery of the Empty Rum Bottles

I pick up a lot of litter along paths and roads. In recent weeks I’ve found ~15 empty bottles of Captain Morgan’s Dark Rum along the road I cycle into town, the scenic bit where kids go with take-out food for the view. I couldn’t come up with a story to explain a) how someone ends up with 15 identical empty rum bottles at one time, and b) how that person comes to strew them along a scenic piece of seaside road.

But librarian and Wikipedian Einar Spetz understood immediately.

“Is there a yacht club nearby? Everyone I know who does night-watch duty at yacht clubs drinks Morgan all the time.”

I found the bottles just across the road from the Morningside Marina. Has somebody there told a lazy teenager to get rid of the empty rum bottles that have accumulated over the years? I don’t think the night watchers themselves, who are often senior citizens, would litter like this.

Hello C

Hello C,

I was astonished when you came up to me and wanted to chat the other day.

Do you remember the way you treated me a couple of years ago when Prof. S. did some corrupt internal recruitment? You were on the review board. You people unanimously gave those lectureships to his local project members, to people who barely had any publications. One of them didn’t even have a PhD.

This was obviously a good way for you to cultivate good relations with S.

Let me tell you though, it was not great for your relations with us who would have gotten the jobs if the recruitment hadn’t been rigged.

You’re a cowardly collaborator in a corrupt system. You kicked me in the balls to be friends with a chaired professor. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.



My Cancelled or Postponed Events

A dynamically updated list of cancelled or postponed events where I was planning on participating.

  • Nacka district court’s layman judge association, annual business meeting & lecture.
  • Fantastika scifi convention. I was on two panels and was giving a talk about NMK.
  • Game night.
  • Royal Armoury’s appointment-only library, research visit.
  • Nacka Social Democrats, annual business meeting.
  • Wikimedia Sweden, annual business meeting and seminar.
  • Östergötland County Museum’s friends association, me speaking about my Viking Halls project.
  • Continued training for layman judges.
  • Local school administration and education board politicians, seminar.
  • Kai’s 54th birthday party. With alleged waffles.
  • Municipal school board’s monthly meeting.
  • LinCon 2020 gaming convention. I was supposed to give a talk on NMK.
  • 2020 Sachsensymposium in Castricum-Alkmaar. I was giving a talk on Aska in Hagebyhöga.
  • Colloquium in Prag on rulers’ residences of the period AD 1000-1150. I was giving a talk.

When I asked about husband and children she burst into tears

I often use a give-stuff-away web site to get rid of things we don’t need and that aren’t worth enough money for me to try to sell them. Today a visitor found her way to our house through the web site, and it turned out quite a touching encounter.

Let’s call her Aisha. She came to Sweden from Northern Africa a few years ago, an educated middle-aged person who’s had good office jobs and remained single past 40. When I asked about husband and children she burst into tears. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to behave like he did!” And she told me her story.

Aisha married an older man who lived in Sweden, someone who spoke her language and shared her faith. They talked on the phone for some time, then met and shortly got married. It turned sour fast. He wouldn’t quit using the dating app. He just sat around with his phone or watching TV. He cheated on her, beat her, spat at her, while she did all the housework. After a few years a women’s shelter group helped her find somewhere to live and get a divorce.

But this is by no means a broken woman. Aisha speaks functional Swedish and English plus fluent French and Arabic. She works as temp staff with special needs kids in school. She takes night classes in Swedish and aims to qualify as an assistant accountant. And she loves books. So she dried her eyes, filled her wheeled suitcase with non-fic and dictionaries in Swedish, and I accompanied her back to the commuter train. We are welcome to her place for tagine and cous-cous any time.

Eskilstuna Knife Renovation

20190624_112025Somebody gave my dad a knife when he was maybe 11, in about 1954. It’s from the Pontus Holmberg factory in Eskilstuna, Sweden’s one-time knife-smith capital. When they made my dad’s knife they had less than ten years left in the business. Eskilstuna once had about 200 knife factories, but only EKA-knivar (est. 1882) and Knivsmedjan survive.

My dad used his knife to whittle pine-bark boats and gut fish. Eventually he had sons of his own and gave the knife to me, the older, in the early 80s. My first knife! Sadly, by this time the leather of the sheath was brittle and something soon went wrong with the grip. A repair attempt ended up bending the grip, and the sheath could no longer be hung from my belt. So my parents gave me a new knife for my hiking-club activities, from Frost in Mora. I kept the old messed-up knife though, out of respect for its age and association with my dad.

Recently I started to think about the old Holmberg knife when I was planning a mountain hike. 1st Millennium AD swords were often taken apart, their grips re-used, the parts juggled and recombined. This was important to elite masculinity and patrilineal ideology. Maybe I could get my dad’s knife renovated and start using it again?

Some googling and correspondence with Torbjörn Eriksson of the web site led me to the aforementioned Knivsmedjan in Eskilstuna, Jan Hammar’s business. He has renovated countless Eskilstuna knives, and readily took on my dad’s. Now, just look at that work! Every single piece is original except for the little brass nut at the butt end and one of the thin red vulcanised fiber slices in the grip. I am so very pleased, and I look forward to bringing the Holmberg knife on many future hikes!


Teaching High School

barge window
My office is on a barge.

I just started a new job, teaching high school Swedish and English. These are two of my favourite subjects!

In order to teach my favourite subject of all, Scandinavian Prehistory, I had to do a PhD and travel to campuses hundreds of kilometres from my home. In 14 years of trying, I never got a longer gig than six months at 55%.

Now I’m going to teach high school at 80% for an open-ended number of months or years. It took me less than two weeks to get this gig. The commute is one hour. And converting all to full time, the salary is nearly the same as what they paid me at those universities.

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.

Academic Recruitment in Sweden is a Mess

Academic recruitment procedures in Sweden are a mess. There are at least four strong contradictory forces that impact them.

  • Meritocracy. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to find and employ the most qualified person on the job market, even if it’s just for six months. This is after all the public sector.
  • Labour laws. As Head of Department you are legally obliged to give a steady job to anyone who has worked at your uni for a total of four semesters in the past five years, regardless of their qualifications.
  • Funding. As Head of Department you cannot give anyone a steady job unless you know how to pay them long-term. Else you will have to fire someone soon, which will get you into big trouble both with the Dean and with the labour union.
  • Nepotism. As Head of Department you want to employ your buddy Bengt. He can be a recent home-grown PhD whom you want to give a break. Or he can be an old stalwart that you’d be ashamed to meet in the departmental coffee room if you didn’t help him.

This is coming to a head in a big way. Five years ago it became mandatory to advertise even the shortest academic jobs, the ones that were typically quietly given to Bengt before. At least one Swedish university largely ignored this and has now endured official censure and much bad press. Academic leaders currently don’t seem to know what’s best practice. I’ve asked around with just one of the questions involved, and nobody in charge seems to know quite what the answer is.

Remember, as Head of Department, because of funding constraints you generally cannot allow anyone to pass the labour law’s four-semesters-in-five-years threshold and get automatic steady employment. But when you advertise a short contract, chances are high that the most qualified applicant will be so near the limit that the short contract would effectively mean automatic steady employment. How do you deal with this situation, even ignoring any impact of nepotism?

So far I’ve never seen any department say plainly that “We realise that Berit has by far the strongest qualifications, but because of the labour laws we will instead employ Nisse, despite his weak CV”. I have however seen a case where the department suddenly discovered and described many flaws in Berit that made her an unattractive candidate, despite the fact that they had happily employed her on a series of short contracts up until the day when the labour law’s limit came into sight.

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.