Towards a Social Theory of Sites We Haven't Found

Jean François Revel once wrote, "Let there be no discussion about methods except by those who make discoveries".

As may have become apparent at one time or another on this blog, I don't share a number of the ideals prevalent in current academic archaeology in Sweden. Post-modernism has become unfashionable, so my resistance to that movement is no longer very controversial. But my disdain for "theoretical archaeology" is still something that sets me apart from many university-based colleagues. Now, most archaeologists are not university-based, so my opinions are in fact in tune with the majority view in my profession. Indeed, I'm not university-based myself, being instead a kind of threadbare gentleman scholar working outside the system on grants from private foundations.

My opposition to theoretical archaeology is most likely a contributing reason for why I have not been able to secure a university position since completing my PhD four years ago. (The main reason is probably my tender age: I'm 35, and the average age of archaeologists who get university jobs in Scandinavia is 41, with very little spread to either side of that value.) This is illustrated by a letter from the Swedish Research Council that was waiting for me when I returned from China. The message fills me with a mixture of disappointment and defiance.

I had applied for Research Council funding to finish my on-going project on late 1st millennium central places in the Swedish bread-box province of Östergötland. I started work on it in 2003 and have made it the main focus of my studies since 2005. In the course of the project, and in collaboration with Drs Williams, Olsson, Trinks and many other good people, I have excavated a Viking Period boat grave, dated a great barrow, metal-detected thirteen sites and located a 6th century aristocratic farmstead with extremely unusual finds. This site is the first known aristocratic settlement of the period in the entire province, and I have recently had it mapped by magnetometry. I have read through the relevant literature and collected a large database of relevant finds and sites from libraries, archives and museum collections. In outward communication, I have published a number of journal papers, on-line articles and blog entries, and given numerous talks about my work.

I think it's fair to say that the project, though only half-completed, has already added substantially to our knowledge of Östergötland's ancient political geography. However, it was rated rather low by the Research Council's anonymous referee: it scored 2 out of 5, meaning "good research worth funding if there is any money left", and there wasn't any. Here's why:

"The project description lacks social-theory anchorage that illuminates the period's social organisation, structure and political situation, which makes it reasonable to start from the hypothesis about aristocratic sites in Östergötland. [...] The project should develop a social-theory perspective, where Östergötland's central places are related to other similar ones in South Scandinavia, to become more worthwhile and interesting for Scandinavian Iron Age research."

To my mind this is just a case of diverging tastes. The senior colleague who refereed my application feels that there should be more social theory in archaeology. I believe that there is too much, that most of it is just cosmetics, and that it's neither worthwhile nor interesting. Dear anonymous colleague: you may not think much of my work, but you see, this sentiment is most likely mutual. The important difference between us is just that you're the one sitting on a bag of money.

As for the suggestion that the very existence of aristocratic sites of the later 1st millennium would be a hypothesis in need of verbose theoretical support, it makes me wonder whether my colleague has read any research into the period published since the discovery of the Helgö sites half a century ago. The sites are there: metal detect a dozen likely candidates and you'll find one, as I have shown. A province in southern Scandinavia without any known Helgö sites is an anomaly these days. And before you've found and dug them, you can't relate them to similar sites elsewhere -- only in theory.

So, no Research Council money for me this time. I guess I could fake some theoretical blithering in my next application, but the thought fills me with disgust. I'm doing well and I'm staying my course.

Oh, right, who did get money this time? Out of 1300 applicants in the humanities and social sciences, 131 got something. Only two of them are archaeologists: both productive scholars with an interest in social theory who have worked at universities for years. One is 41, the other 47. Go figure.

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I'm all for interpretations of social structures, but...

I would have imagined that digging first and forming the theories later (you know, once you have some actual evidence) would be the reasonable order of doing things.

In fact, forming a specific theory and only then digging sounds like a perfect recipe for extra portions of bias.

By Johan Lundstrom (not verified) on 05 Nov 2007 #permalink

Too bad, Martin! Well, maybe I did the right thing when I stoped hoping to ever become a PhD or working on a university. Not that it is easier here on the museums education side, not by far, but well, at least I feel I got some chance when a post is announced.

But I could write the social theory for you! :D My work as museums teacher and writer for bookclubs has made me quite dextrous with the pen! I just need to catch up on the latest buzzwords and trend and should be able to blurt out something!

By Mattias Niord (not verified) on 05 Nov 2007 #permalink

It's tempting to write a spoof application full of theoretical jargon, and then, when you got a grant, tell the Research Council it was all just a joke.

To me, as a complete amateur, social theories are far more instrumental in forming societies and social interactions, than to actually produce an intellectually honest understanding of past events. This is especially true of such an elusive period as late 1st millenium scandinavia. Once the vikings were the wagnerian bruts of a monarchial order. Then heroes of democratic society, to become champions of gender-equality and anti-racism. I figure they are now fast moving into the realm queer-theory...

The Viking Period is special as there is a large body of source-critically poor written material about it (including the Icelandic literature). This invites all manner of speculation. I'm not much into that sort of thing: I think it's wiser for an archaeologist to stick to her own source material (the stuff you dig out of the ground) and interpret it cautiously. Speculative interpretation in archaeology is just a way to produce uncommonly boring historical fiction.

To much power is in the hand of the social theoretical types. I propose that we who like our archaeology a little more down to earth form ourselves some good network and start some lobbying so that we will come into possesion of money and power.


Weeell... Theoretical archeology is done as a main occupation by a minority among academic archaeologists, and academic archaeology in itself is a very small part of archaeology as a whole. Almost all jobs in archaeology and almost all the funding for it is in contract archaeology, where theoretical scribblings are not much admired.

But I agree, there should be less theorising, more excavations and more work with museum collections in academic archaeology. Academic archaeologists may be few and poorly funded, but they get to dig wherever they like, while contract archaeologists only get to dig where the road engineers tell them to dig.

The important difference between us is just that you're the one sitting on a bag of money.

A charming ad hominem that may help explain your relative status.

By truth machine (not verified) on 06 Nov 2007 #permalink

You mean I'd be more likely to receive support if I refrained from insulting people with power? Probably true from a pragmatic point of view, but I wouldn't be interested in playing the game under such circumstances. This person anonymously insulted my work.

My academic M.O. has always been to speak my mind loudly and humourously. So far my funding shows no signs of drying up -- quite the contrary. And I believe that one reason is that for each enemy I've made, I've also made ten friends.

A charming ad hominem

That's not an ad hominem. Why can't people ever get this right?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 06 Nov 2007 #permalink

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."
-- Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

The prevalence of "social theory" in my upper-division archaeology classes was largely responsible for my deciding to abandon the whole glorious archaeological career altogether. I just couldn't see how coming up with potential meanings for things we hadn't found yet was in any way preferable to going out and actually finding things.

Good luck, Martin--I hope you may accidentally stumble across a generously-sized bag of money of your own.

Thanks Molly! When I do get control of that bag, I won't be ashamed to allocate its contents according to my personal tastes in science.

sad to hear that, but I can´t say that I´m surprised. Other friends with a PhD has told me similar stories. There seems to be alot of politics in the researchworld..