Nordic Classics

Classical scholarship in the Nordic countries has gone through some volatile times lately and there are further alarming developments in sight.


In Sweden and Denmark there has been a special relationship between the royal houses and archaeological community, mainly through the activities of King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and the archaeology degree by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Nevertheless, the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes almost lost their governmental funding in 2014 and only an international uproar, partly through social media, restored the normality and raised the profiles of the institutes.

Staff show relief as the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes survives.

In the past there have been discussions at Oslo in Norway on the sensibility of maintaining a research institute in Rome. In my native Finland the existing lectureship in classical archaeology at Oulu disappeared in the university restructurings and the one at Helsinki was left unfilled.


Even the learned Society for Classical Archaeology of Finland wrapped up. In Denmark the lively Aarhus department probably is safe, but at Copenhagen there are rumours of cuts facing different Humanities.


I am myself an archaeologist, with a degree originally in Nordic archaeology, but I wrote my PhD at Cambridge on central Italian settlement archaeology and Geographic Information System, basically looking at the settlement patterns with computerised methods. In Finland I read classical archaeology, cultural history and Latin as minors and wrote a dissertation on the building programme of Emperor Trajan and the atrium Vestae. I did this at the University of Turku, where classical archaeology as a minor still hangs on. However, I worked at Oulu as postgraduate researcher in 2005–2008 and at Stockholm in Sweden as a researcher in 2013–2019 and have thus experiences in studying and working within classical disciplines from two different countries.


These two countries have different traditions when it comes to the classical scholarship. In Finland classical archaeology is normally teamed with Classics, except at Oulu where it was taught at the Archaeology Department. In Sweden Classics is separate and exists as a discipline of its own, Antikens Kultur och Samhällsliv (AKS), most commonly translated as classical archaeology and ancient history; taught as part of the same discipline. This discipline does exist in four different Universities, Gothenburg, Lund, Stockholm and Uppsala.


There exists also a tradition of biennial disciplinary conferences where the representatives and salaried researchers meet each other and discuss different questions within discipline.


The research funding situation in the countries is slightly different. In Finland most of the PhD funding comes as grants from different foundations whereas in Sweden it is nowadays unusual to write a thesis without a salaried post.


Different institutions announce open PhD posts depending on the success of the previous candidates and the departmental funding. Thus the position of the PhD candidates is much better with regular salaried pension contributions and clear benefits and responsibilities.


As can be imagined, the most vulnerable moment comes at the very end when the four years are up and the thesis should be ready: then there is often the finalising period with more uncertain grants and potential part-time teaching, administration or library positions.

Entry to the Pompeii exhibition in Stockholm, in 2014.

However, in Sweden like in other countries the value of studying classical subjects is questioned and the students can see it difficult to see future with only four professorships and small number of tenured lectureships or honorary professorships, not exceeding eleven.


Even if there is more funding than in Finland, the normal tenure of a research project is between three and five years. Regardless, Sweden is a destination for many Finns like me at some point; the current professor at Stockholm, Arja Karivieri, is my fellow countrywoman.


AKS is a very international discipline with most scientific publications in English. The only popular title in Sweden, Medusa, is in Swedish. In Finland the specialist newsletter in classical archaeology died with The Society for Classical Archaeology of Finland.


Non-international writings come out in either archaeology or history journals.


A common publication forum is the multidisciplinary conference proceedings for the Late Antique and Medieval studies at Tampere and honorary volumes for valued researchers or professors.


The best part of working in Sweden was the research community. At Stockholm there are weekly or bi-weekly research seminars where PhD students and researchers present their texts and research projects.


Sometimes people visit the seminar of the nearby university or join other university’s seminar via Zoom. There are close contacts between the departments at Stockholm and Uppsala on the one hand and Gothenburg and Lund on the other, due to the geographic closeness.

Ulla gives a seminar at Lund.

The salaries are relatively good and the family leaves phenomenal.


However, the career is - for most - uncertain and there are a number of scholars from aristocratic or famous families, who are perhaps freer to study than most. Nevertheless, anybody can study classical scholarship in Sweden in some form, if they want to.


There is a relatively flourishing evening class scene. Those who do not wish to study classical subjects as their major or minor, can participate into classes. These are also popular with retired persons. Some of the people have later switched to proper university degree courses and started or continued their classics career.





Ulla Rajala is a landscape archaeologist and co-editor of the scholarly journal of the Archaeological Society of Finland.

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