Three Fortunate Young Oslovians

Oslo colleagues have asked me to give a fuller account of the spring 2017 hiring that I called the most egregious case I’ve seen. This is not because they’re trying to make the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History look good, but because they feel that I unfairly singled out a single hire, when in fact there were three. I’m happy to oblige. For one thing, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the three has no PhD.

Some background. Norway has a strong tradition of research performed at museums. Bergen’s museum, for instance, was doing major science long before there was a university in town. The førsteamanuensis positions at the Oslo museum that I’m discussing here have 40% research time built into them. Hear that, academics everywhere? A full-time, lifetime job with 40% research time. 20 people applied for those three jobs.

I’ve kept stats on who has gotten lectureships and førsteamanuensis positions in Scandy archaeology for the past 14 years. The median age of the hires is 43. Half of the hires are between 40 and 46. The youngest person to get one of these jobs since I started counting in 2003 was 32, at Uni Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, this past spring.

But yes, there were three hires. They’re 32, 35 and 39, that is, all three are exceptionally young. One worked at the museum when the jobs were advertised, another had worked there previously, and one of these two hasn’t got a PhD! A third one had a post-doc position at Uni Oslo’s main campus just across town, where this person had done their PhD (post-doc at your home department, huh!?). This one is also a long-term collaborator on two projects of the hiring committee’s chairman, who is a professor at the museum in accordance with the fine Norwegian rules for these things.

I believe that by the time they reach 45, two of these people will have strongly competitive CVs. (They’re getting paid to do research at 40% of full time, after all, and all three certainly seem bright enough.) My point in bringing them up is that in 2017 none of the three have this. There is nobody under the age of 40 in Scandinavian academic archaeology who can compete in front of a fair and impartial hiring committee with people who have published research voluminously for a quarter century. Because nobody starts publishing research at age 15. So it’s pretty damn egregious the whole thing.

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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 #2 – Hansen

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh's 1885 Norske Oldsager.

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh’s 1885 Norske Oldsager.


Metal detectorist Steffen Hansen has kindly given me permission to show you his tattoo sleeve. He found the strap-end at Øvre Eiker in Buskerud fylke, Norway, and had it tattooed along with other Norwegian examples of the Borre style. I haven’t got a picture of his find, but you can see what they look like in the accompanying picture of a piece from the eponymous find at Borre in nearby Vestfold fylke. The tattoo was done by Mikael “Kula” Jensen of Radich Tattoo in Mjøndalen.

The Borre style is the Viking Period’s second and most long-lived style of relief decoration, c. AD 875-975. Its frontal animal heads, often with Mickey Mouse ears, marks it as animal art and as a descendant of the Gripping Beast style, but the interlace that covers the objects’ surfaces isn’t animals. Instead it’s abstract ring braids with characteristic saw-toothed ridges, mimicking metal filigree or cord passementerie. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson has pointed out in a 2006 paper that the Borre style never occurs on offensive weaponry, but is common on jewellery, belt fittings and mounts for defensive weaponry. Thus she interprets the Borre style as a form of magical protection for the wearer.

Borre itself is a royal site with many major barrows. In all likelihood, the ship burial from c. AD 900 that gave the style its name contained a king of the Vestfold lineage. I was there in 2013, gave a talk and took a lot of pictures.

The previous instalment in our series of metal detectorist tattoos was from Hugo Falck. 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!

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.

Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

The new version of a slab from the Kivik cairn.

The new version of a slab from the Kivik cairn.

Fornvännen 2015:1 is now on-line on Open Access.

Norse Saga About The Buddha

I found something pretty wild in an essay by J.L. Borges this morning. There’s a 13th century Norse saga about the Buddha. And the story has other fine twists as well. This all revolves around a legendary tale of the Buddha’s early life.

In the 6th century BC a son was born to a petty king in what is now Nepal. He was named Siddharta, and it was prophesied shortly after the boy’s birth that he would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father then kept him carefully protected from contact with religion and human suffering, apparently to keep the boy away from the holy-man alternative career path. After 29 years of secluded luxury, Siddharta left his palace for a chariot ride with his driver and immediately confronted an old man (aging!), a sick man (disease!) and a dead man (death!). This freaked him out, but when Siddharta then met an ascetic holy man he took heart from the peaceful look in his eyes and decided to renounce the world.

This story is just a prelude to the part of the Buddha’s life that really interests Buddhists. But let’s fast-forward some centuries. In about the 3rd century AD, Manichaean Persians translate the story into Middle Persian. In the 8th century, Muslims translate that into Arabic. By now the honorific Bodhisattva (“enlightened existence”) of the original text has been misunderstood as the man’s name and rendered first as Budasaf, then Yudasaf, and then Yuzasaf. A Georgian version of the 9th century makes it Iodasaph, a Greek one of the early 11th century makes it Ioasaph, and then in 1048 a Latin version makes it Iosaphat or Josaphat. Along the way, Siddharta’s driver Channa has somehow acquired a more important role and been renamed Barlaam, and the story has been adapted as a Christian tale. This Latin version of “Barlaam and Josaphat” is what King Haakon IV of Norway has translated into Old Norwegian in the 13th century. An 1851 edition is on-line.

Meanwhile, Barlaam and Josaphat have come to be venerated as a pair of Christian saints, celebrated on 27 November in the Western Church. And Borges points out a delicious irony: in 1615 the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto (who lived in India for many years) denounces the heathen Buddhists for believing in a story that is obviously just a garbled version of the legend of Saint Josaphat.

The meaty Wikipedia entry on Barlaam & Josaphat is a good place to start if you want to delve deeper into this story.

Vestfold Barrows and Mead-Halls

The Midgardsenteret visitors’ centre at Borre invited me to give a talk about my Östergötland elite settlement project. This went well, with a sizeable and appreciative audience last night. One gentleman explained that they had all learned Swedish from watching kids’ TV when they were little. Today I went on a royal Late Iron Age binge.

This is Vestfold, home of the Norwegian branch of the Ynglingar dynasty, with sites like Oseberg, Gokstad, Kaupang, Huseby, Gulli – and Borre. The ancient cemetery starts right outside the main entrance to Midgardsenteret with some low mounds of respectable diameter. And then, as you walk down the slow slope towards the shore of Viken, the place goes absolutely nuts with absurdly huge barrows.

One of the largest ones was quarried away for road-building in the 19th century, yielding the first known but poorly preserved major ship burial, dating to the early 10th century. There’s been debate over whether Borre is really the dynastic burial site of the Ynglingar whom Snorri Sturluson tells of in the Heimskringla. I’ll just say this. If that line of Viking Period kings was an historical reality – which no historian seems to question seriously – then there is no way in Hel that they would have allowed anybody else to accumulate a uniquely huge barrow cemetery anywhere west of the Scandinavian mountain range – let alone at Borre, smack bang in the middle of Vestfold. The minute another family tried to build their barrow number two, or a slightly too large barrow number one, their mead hall would be burning merrily and surrounded by the Ynglingar retinue on a cleanup mission, swords in hands. Also, each barrow at Borre presupposes control over huge labour, which equals political power.

I scaled all the major barrows and cairns including the isolated Fiddler’s Barrow to the south, saw the sunken traces of Bjørn Myhre’s 1980s/90s test trenches (no archive report, no publication), saw the tricorn, saw the site of the great hall foundations revealed by GP radar, and looked unhappily at the huge robber trenches in the barrows. I really hope they’re 13th century (and thus evidence for behaviour among people I study) and not 18th century (and thus modern vandalism). Then I checked out the unusually early and unusually oriented church nearby. That’s what the Borre family built after they quit erecting barrows. And finally I was shown the new mead hall reconstruction near Borre, huge and ornately carved in the Oseberg style, with a twelve metre roof and narrative relief panels on the four central roof posts. The tale of Beowulf is illustrated by the same Vendel helmet warrior images as grace Fornvännen’s cover!

After lunch the Midgardsentret’s master blacksmith Hans Johnny Hansen drove me to the Oseberg ship barrow, sitting next to a little stream at the bottom of a wide valley, the least monumental location possible. On past the Traveller’s Barrow to Tønsberg where H.J. showed me the new replica of the Oseberg ship – blew my mind! Also lovely replicas of the smaller Gokstad rowboats and a replica of another mid-size ship. The master smith, who personally made all the thousands of clench nails for the Oseberg replica, pointed at the brass screws holding this latter ship together and made skeptical noises.

I spent my last two hours in Tønsberg at the museum, checking out the Klåstad wreck of a 10th century trading ship, the collection of whale skeletons, finds from the two 12th century battlefields at Re and an exhibition about the resistance against the German occupation in the 40s. I was chilled to read an account by their regional leader of how two young local women were found through phone wire tapping to have taken lovers in the Gestapo. The resistance immediately kidnapped and jailed both women. “We were debating whether to terminate or deport them. But finally we sent them by boat to Sweden, largely because they had made themselves useful in jail, cleaning the place up and cooking for the guards. They later sent Christmas cards from Sweden to their lovers, which we intercepted, but they didn’t seem to abuse their situation over there. So I’m glad we decided to let them live.” After the war, the children born to such women during the occupation were infamously poorly treated.

Talking About Heyerdahl On Norwegian Radio

Here I go again, bad-mouthing Thor Heyerdahl to his countrymen. But note that I’m quoted as saying, “Norway is a country that has produced many great archaeologists. Thor Heyerdahl was not one of them.” Proud Norwegians, your country is great! And its greatness does not hinge upon the posthumous judgment of that guy with the raft.

Hear the audio clip here.

Update same day: Hehe. Some commenters on the NRK website are offended. One feels that I am just a kid with a lot of opinions, which is rather flattering to this balding father of a teen. Another thinks I’m just trying to become famous in Norway by criticising someone who really deserves fame. A third is of the opinion that Heyerdahl’s archaeological credentials are completely irrelevant, and erupts, “Has Rundkvist crossed the Pacific on a raft? … Rundkvist will die as an unknown man. Maybe with a solid scientific legacy, which will collect dust on some bookshelf somewhere.”

Kon Tiki Airport Restaurant

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I’ve written a bit before about Thor Heyerdahl’s hyperdiffusionism and the status as a Norwegian national hero he still enjoys despite being completely discounted as a scientist. Last time I passed through Oslo airport I discovered this Kon Tiki-themed restaurant with a faux Ecuadorian Bolivian stele. I think what Heyerdahl interpreted as a full beard is more likely to depict a decorative face plate hanging from the man’s nose. And anyway, a beard is of course not evidence that a man is a civilisation-bearing Übermensch from Europe.

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