Archaeological Fist Fights in Lund

This year’s issue of the Lund Archaeological Review reached me last week. It’s the volume for 2005-2006, and most of the papers are dated 2005. Such a delay is no big deal in archaeology: our knowledge growth doesn’t progress at the rate typical of the natural sciences.

What caught my attention in the new issue was three polemic pieces at the back of the volume. First there’s another salvo in the war between my buddy Påvel Nicklasson and his erstwhile colleagues at the Jönköping County Museum. To the extent that I understand the conflict, what seems to have happened is that Dr. Nicklasson, a highly qualified research scholar with poor diplomatic skills, got a job at a small museum and decided that the contract archaeologists there weren’t so hot on the research side. A big fight ensued and reached print in a condescending book and a very angry journal paper in 2005.

In the new paper, Påvel’s co-author is another buddy of mine, professor Lars Larsson, who holds the chair in archaeology in Lund and once supervised Påvel’s PhD research. It seems Lars is involved mainly because the Jönköping people suggested that Påvel’s book about their area a) should not have been published by the Lund department, b) should be withdrawn and destroyed. In their reply, Nicklasson & Larsson allude to fascist book bonfires and conclude with the words “Shame — double shame on you!!” (yes, there are two exclamation marks). A messy business, and frankly one that doesn’t show any of the people involved from their best side.

The following two pieces are baffling in another way, and I have to check the literature before I take sides. Last year I wrote appreciatively about a paper in the previous issue of LAR. Anders Berntsson argued among other things that, due to a simple miscalculation, Henrik Thrane’s commonly quoted estimation of the amount of work involved in building a Bronze Age barrow is four times too high. In the new LAR issue, productive Bronze Age scholar Joakim Goldhahn has a piece where he claims that Berntsson

  • a) misread the estimation he criticised,
  • b) was disrespectful to Thrane, and
  • c) has a simplistic, functionalistic perspective.

Goldhahn, rather snarkily in my view, rattles off a long list of literature on Bronze Age ritual that he thinks Berntsson should have referenced.

So, how does Berntsson reply? He says that

  • a) he has not misread Thrane, Goldhahn has misread Berntsson,
  • b) Thrane was Berntsson’s thesis supervisor and happily approved the LAR manuscript where he pointed out the miscalculation,
  • c) it should be possible to discuss labour estimates without referencing the literature on rituals.

I don’t understand this. Either Goldhahn is right about Thrane’s figures, and if so then I don’t understand how Berntsson can contradict him. Or Goldhahn is wrong, and then I don’t understand why he allowed his piece to be published. I mean, it makes him look really silly. Can it be that the LAR editors didn’t offer Goldhahn a retraction after they’d read Berntsson’s reply? Hasn’t Goldhahn seen the reply before it was printed?

We had a similar case at Fornvännen last year, and when we showed the “aggressor” what the defendant had written, the former realised that he had been proven wrong and quietly withdrew his piece. Scholarship isn’t helped by us publishing muddled bickering like that.

Anyway, I’ll be back with an update once I’ve checked what Thrane actually wrote in his 1984 book about Lusehøj.

Update same day: Good grief, Goldhahn tells me that he hasn’t seen Berntsson’s reply! The LAR editors published his piece without doing anything about the elementary yet crucial error that Berntsson had pointed out to them.

Update 26 June: Now I’ve checked the literature. Berntsson was right. Here’s a paraphrase of the entire exchange.

  1. Thrane 1984: “Building a barrow of Lusehøj’s size took about 12,900 person-days of ten hours each”.

  2. Berntsson 2006: “Thrane says it took about 129,000 person-hours. In fact, he has made a simple miscalculation. Given Thrane’s own data and arguments, the correct number is 32,900 person-hours.”
  3. Goldhahn 2007: “Berntsson has misquoted Thrane: he says that Thrane said that building a barrow of Lusehøj’s size took about 129,000 person-days of ten hours each!”
  4. Berntsson 2007: “No, what I said was actually that Thrane’s figure was 129,000 person-hours.”

[More blog entries about , , ; , , , .]

Comments

  1. #1 Lars L
    May 29, 2007

    I will quit reading War history. It´s better to study the atrocities within academic arhaeology! :-)

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 29, 2007

    I hear some really insane stuff is written when people are fighting for a professor’s chair. Almgren’s and Malmer’s battle for the Uppsala chair is legendary.

  3. #3 Lars L
    May 29, 2007

    Yes, it all came down to counting how many letters each has produced in scientific papers!? Some people really goes medieval…

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 29, 2007

    Almgren is reputed to have made a really smug (intranslatable) pun: Det är inte antalet nedslag som räknas, utan antalet uppslag.

  5. #5 Cornelius Holtorf
    June 1, 2007

    Martin, I think you are entirely right and I am glad you wrote your comments above because I felt exactly the same after I had read LAR. I have brought your entry to the attention of the LAR editors, urging them to take steps to prevent such poor practice in the future – in the interest of LAR’s and our Department’s academic reputation.

    Cornelius (Dept of Arch and Anc. Hist, University of Lund)

  6. #6 Martin R
    June 1, 2007

    Thanks, man!

  7. #7 Effinator
    November 5, 2007

    I bet Lund #500 was involved in this.