Fig 1. The excavation at Torsburgen, 1982. Photo Johan Hegardt

Fig 1. The excavation at Torsburgen, 1982. Photo Johan Hegardt

Essays Missing people, missing times: The Internet, archaeology, and the spectacular

We are, as my examples show, tricked into believing that archaeological research, museum practices, and the digitalization of museum objects, archived material, and so on will make a secret world more open and transparent and that this will be positive for the public, democracy, and for the scientific community. The real world is, however, much more dynamic and diverse but always out of reach for the public because of our naïve desire for the Internet. Archive and museum activities are a practice done in reality, not on the Internet, and so is research.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 94-100
Published on on December 30, 2019

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In the third chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens writes about secrets of the city — the blocks, the houses, the apartments, and the hearts of the inhabitants. Why this focus, if secrets were not important? In his book In the Swarm, Byung-Chul Han concludes that no secrets can exist on the Internet. Instead, the key word is, according to Han, transparency, which of course is very good in many situations, but not always. With no secrets, there can be no surprises. Thus through the Internet we are drawn to the spectacular.

This essay takes its point of departure in two excavations I carried out on the island of Gotland between 1988 and 1989 and between 2001 and 2005 as well as on a boosted excavationonducted at Sandby Borg on Öland in the present. The question asked in this essay is if there is a difference between archaeology done prior the digital age and archaeology done in the present, and if there is a difference in terms what impact this has on our understanding of missing people and missing times. I use the word “missing” here because archaeology is in search of a missing past that it needs for its narrative about the coming-into-being of the present.

Missing people, missing times

Archaeology literally means “words of the past” — “arché” being the past and “logos” being words. Today “archaeology” is used in different contexts. There is “media archaeology” or something rather contradictory such as “contemporary archaeology” as well as the archaeology of Foucault (the archive) or Freud (the brain). But there are other more conventional forms of archaeology, for example, Mediterranean archaeology dealing with Greek or Roman history or medieval archaeology dealing with the medieval past.

Archaeology is the study of materiality and its relationship to time, and chronology is crucial if objects are to be separated from each other in time. In archaeology, time is serial. It has a beginning and it moves forward in a straight line into the future. By understanding time like this, time will always produce new remains for archaeologists to excavate and new forms of heritage for us to debate and fight over.

Time is ordered according to two concepts — prehistory and history. History includes written sources, which prehistory does not. Time has been divided by two abbreviations, BC and AD, but these two abbreviations have been questioned. The argument is that by using Christ for dating, a large part of the world is excluded. Instead, the abbreviation BP has come into use, which stands for “Before Present”, meaning before 1950 because it was in the 1950s that radiocarbon dating was invented. BP is understood as a more neutral dating standard than BC and AD. Some have argued that instead of “Before Present” we should talk about “Before Physics” because after the start of nuclear weapons testing carbon isotopes in the atmosphere have been artificially altered making radiocarbon dating after that unreliable. It has also been suggested that the abbreviation BCE, meaning Before Common Era, should be used. What all these abbreviations have in common is that they aim to be as neutral as possible.

Missing time is re-articulated into chronological boxes placed on top of each other. These boxes contain smaller chronological boxes placed on top of each other. There can exist many parallel series of small boxes in the large boxes. Each small box contains the findings of archaeology, or rather, the findings from missing people (today also the life-like reconstructions of missing people). Archaeological museums are usually ordered by placing one of the larger boxes in one room and the other large boxes follow suit in a chronological order in the coming rooms. In these rooms or through other forms of communication, archaeology tells the stories of missing time and missing people. The ordering of a missing time and of missing objects and structures is thus explained through narratives with a focus on missing people.

The first excavation, 1988 to 1989

It is the spring of 1982, my class of archaeology students from Uppsala University is excavating Torsburgen, a huge prehistoric so-called hill-fort in Kräklingbo parish on the east side of Gotland. We are here to learn the craftsmanship of archaeological excavations. I could have used this excavation as one of my examples discussed in this text if it was not for the lack of information and memory. A few photographs and a few, some embarrassing, memories are all that I have left from those days. Had it been today, there would have been an immense amount of information on the Internet. Yet, how much of that information would still exist after 36 years, a colossal lump of time in the age of the digital? It is in fact, when I write this in 2018, only 20 years since Google was introduced. Four years later Facebook was established. The first Apple smartphone reached the market in 2007.

In the spring of 1986, a friend and I are traveling on bicycles from his summer residence in Grötlingbo parish to the huge Bronze Age cairn Uggarde Rojr situated in Rone parish in the south east of Gotland. I have recently finished a student paper about the cairns on the island. The Bronze Age is one of three prehistoric chronological boxes. The other two are the Stone Age and the Iron Age. This three-age system was introduced in 1836 by the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788—1865). His system did not have any clear dating. The Bronze Age was, however, dated to 1700—500 BC (or 3650—2000 BP) by the Swedish antiquarian Oscar Montelius (1843—1921) in the late 19th century. Cairns are monumental burial mounds from the older Bronze Age and are built with stones piled upon each other. The one we are on our way to is the largest on Gotland, with a height of 7 meters and a diameter of 50 meters. In the surrounding area there are seven to eight more, but they are smaller.

When standing on the top of the cairn, my friend unfolds a map over the area. Looking closer we discover a ring-fort marked on the map. Its name is Gudings slott and it is not far from where we are standing. We follow the map towards the fort.

Prehistoric forts on Gotland can sit on top of limestone cliffs (hill-forts), but they can also be situated on flat land and are called ring-forts. Being prehistoric, the stones are not held together by any binder or cement. Instead the stones in the walls are neatly piled upon each other, but have during the course of time slipped off each other. I will not go into details here, but we notice that the ring-fort has a strange construction. We also find some graves in one part of the structure. Because stones from the wall had been used when organizing the graves and one grave had even been placed on top of the now very low wall, it is obvious that the graves are much younger than the fort. The graves are not more than a meter high, and with a maximum diameter of four to five meters.


That’s it. We do nothing more. We return to our bicycles and go back to my friends place to do other things. Had it been today, we would have communicated our findings to friends and colleagues. We would even have checked the Internet for information. When searching the Internet when writing this essay, I find out that an excavation has been going on at Gudings slott since the summer of 2018.

But we did none of this, of course. Instead I went back to my department at Uppsala University and talked to my colleagues about the place. I tried to find information about Gudings slott in the University library, but there was not much information to be found. Together with my colleagues we formulated a research question. Hill-forts and ring-forts are difficult to date because the walls usually don’t hold findings, but if the small graves on the fort could be dated we would be able to give the fort at least a relative date. When the graves were put in place, we argued, the fort must have been completely out of use. This also implied that it must be much older than the graves, and with some luck we would be able to connect the fort with the Bronze Age cairns in the surrounding area.

The first thing I had to do if I wanted to excavate the ring-fort was to contact the landowner. Through phone enquiries, I got his name and phone number. He agreed. After that, the University contacted the authorities on Gotland and informed them that a representative from Uppsala University would be excavating at Gudings slott the coming summer. That was it. But I needed a place to live, and something that could transport me from my living space to the site. I was in luck. An old nonconformist church was available, but it had no running water and no radio or television and, of course, no Internet. I would be alone and cut off from the world, and I was on the island of Gotland, not in some remote jungle in some far away country. I had two options if I wanted to communicate. I could go to the farmers from whom I rented the church or walk up to a street corner close to the old medieval stone church where there was a phone booth.

Every morning I rode down to the site on a bicycle. I had my lunch with me. I worked alone moving stones, some too heavy to be lifted, and soil. The only help I had was my friend’s father who arrived randomly with his car. During the two months that I excavated, I had only a handful of visitors — local people finding an interest in my work and a few friends from Stockholm.

In the late afternoons, it was amazingly suggestive excavating an old grave all alone and far away from any house, any main road, and any farm or people. I was in the middle of my own world, with my own thoughts. It was completely quiet except for some birds and insects in the trees around me, small lizards here and there, or the sound of a tractor far away. And I could not communicate with anyone. Nothing was distracting me from my work. In the evenings, alone in the old nonconformist church, I read books, for example, Charles Bukowski’s Women (maybe not recommended today).


To begin with, I recovered parts of a human skeleton scattered around the stones in the trench. Shortly afterwards I found some objects. One of the objects blew the hypothesis that we had worked out at the University. It was a fibula from the Viking Age, the last stage in Swedish prehistory. The fibula has the shape of an animal head and is in Swedish called a “djurhuvudformat spänne” (animal-head brooch). It was very typical for Viking Age Gotland and was dated to the beginning of the 11th century AD (or 1950 BP).

A fibula of the kind that I had found points to a woman’s grave. Today we might dispute that because we state that things never can be taken for granted and because we believe that things never are as they look, but at the time, before the Internet, things were much easier and straight forward — a fibula is a brooch and therefore attributed to women.

What I had found meant that the fort could have been built a thousand years after the construction of the Bronze Age cairns and still be old enough and out of use when the graves that I was excavating were put in place. But I had started and I needed to proceed. Before I left, I had to finish the whole trench and found a second burial.

If the first burial had been disturbed, the second one was in situ (in place), but did not hold any objects. Osteological studies could, however, show that it was a man.


I agree that this is a very romanticized description of an archaeological excavation, and that is and was also the point. I understood that things were changing in archaeology and wanted to test how it once was done. Archaeology on Gotland developed in the early 20th century, and soon the island became one of the most important places for archaeological research in Sweden and Northern Europe. Things were done slowly, and many times the archaeologist used a bicycle for transportation. The island was quiet and not many tourists visited it. When the more organized surveys started, archaeologists had never before explored most places. My excavation done between 1988 and 1989 would show that this history was coming to an end. New theories, methods, regulations, and so on were on the way.

But I did excavate in 1989, too. Having only been able to finish half of the grave, I needed to finish the second half. In May 1989, I brought with me four students in archaeology and we excavated two more burials inside the same grave, both with findings pointing to women. When not excavating and with no Internet to disturb us, we travelled the island, this time in a rented car, visiting other archaeological sites. In 1991, I published my theories and my findings in a journal that was connected to the Department of Archaeology at Uppsala University. The journal does not exist any more, but the publication does and can be found in libraries.

The objects are stored with the Swedish History Museum as are the remains of those once buried in the grave. For something like 989 years, these people rested in peace in their graves, except one, that had been disturbed, probably by looters, before I arrived. I have many times asked myself what I was up to. What needs and desires did I have? Why use dead people only for the purpose to test a hypothesis or to have my own romantic needs pleased? However, remember what I wrote above, that archaeology is about missing time, chronology, and the separation of objects and humans into small boxes inside larger boxes. What I did was the right thing. The romantic part had, of course, nothing to do with the scientific archaeological part, or maybe it did?

The second excavation, 2001 to 2005

I was right; things did change and I took an active part in it. In 2000, I received, together with two colleagues, a four-year research grant from the Faculty of Arts at Uppsala University. I also received a grant from Helge Ax:son Johnsons Foundation, which enabled me to buy the first version of the MacBook Pro and a Sony digital film camera. We were going digital and we were throwing ourselves into a new form of archaeology with many names, which should be both democratic and transparent — public archaeology, communal archaeology, and local archaeology. Post-colonialism and post-structuralism had reshaped archaeology. I was now very far away from my previous excavation, leaving a rather closed and even secret world behind me for a new open and transparent world. The excavation we did within the project was only a small part of the overall research that was done.

The place of choice had its own history, which meant that I knew the landowner. Including him and his family in the excavation was crucial. A second step was to include the local community. We were now on the most southern part of Gotland. The local community here consists of two different populations, those that live on the island all year, mostly farmers and their families, and the summer population. This second category is mainly rich families from Stockholm who own old farms or new luxurious houses for their summer vacation. We wanted visitors and we got visitors.

We excavated the remains of a 1,500-year-old (500 AD, or 1450 BP) building situated at the end of a long dirt road. By placing a trench in the middle of the ruin, crossing its stonewall and ending some four meters beyond the wall (Fig. 6), we hoped that we would not find any objects of importance. In my previous excavation I found many objects, which could be conserved at the department at Uppsala University and sent to the Swedish History Museum to be stored there, but during my second excavations things had changed. If I did find things, they should be sent to the museum in Visby and I had to pay for the conservation. Not knowing what one might find, conservation can be expensive (we did find two spectacular objects that would put me in an extremely problematic situation and take years to solve, but that’s another story). Therefore we were looking for construction structures. But the excavation was also an alibi for another investigation. By including people, we wanted to explore how they understood the past and archaeology. There was no social media or smartphones to make use of. All we could do was to create a home page on the Internet. But this was a complicated thing, not creating the page, but concluding what it should contain and with whom we should communicate. There was also another issue, maybe the most important, namely the question of scientific accuracy. If we were to work scientifically, was the Internet the best place to present our findings? Could the public understand our scientific explanations, and how could the scientific community value them? If we could not answer these questions, what was the alternative? We concluded that we needed to create a new form of language that had the image of being scientific, but was not at all scientific, but pseudo-scientific, fooling people — through the spectacular — into believing that what they read and took part in was actually the outcome of scientific research. This was of course a huge problem and an issue that I will look closer into in the following. It goes without saying that whatever we did publish on the Internet is now gone forever.

Gudings slott revisited

As mentioned, exactly thirty years after my excavation at Gudings slott started in 1988, the graves and the “fort” are again being excavated under the leadership of Dan Carlsson, who is a well known archaeologist and an expert on the island’s prehistory. I have not been able to find any official web page, which is good, but the excavation is covered in the media. The focus is on one particular burial were a calf has been found buried on top of a woman. A photograph is also being circulated, showing a group of people excavating. The media do not mention anything about Carlsson’s broader and important research questions. Instead, the focus is on the spectacular burial, and this is repeated on the Riksantikvarieämbetet (RAÄ) — Swedish National Heritage Board — web page. What this suggests is that the public, through the media and the Internet, is only served the spectacular parts, even repeated by RAÄ, of a much wider and complex research project, and they are tricked through the spectacular to believe that they know what is going on and therefore become followers.

Narrating Sandby Borg

When referring to a web page, we always write out the date of our visit. The reason for this is that a web page can change at any time. This implies that a web page is only reliable at the moment we visit it. A printed text will always be the same even though we might read it differently from time to time. It is the readers who change the meaning of the text, not the author. On the Internet, it is the opposite.

When visiting the official web page for the excavation at Sandby Borg, the first thing I meet is a text encouraging me to visit Facebook and Instagram. The excavation has a blog, is uploaded to YouTube, and can be followed on Twitter and Facebook. The project, which has had research funding since 2015, has been going on since 2011 and has been crowed-funded and is also financed by numerous organizations. The project is briefly explained on the website: “The scientific project deals with the Iron Age ring-fort of Sandby borg on Öland where previous investigations suggest a violent massacre in the late 5th century AD. The victims were not buried, but were left lying where they fell. This has created very unusual archaeological material providing a unique insight into the life histories and death of individuals, as well as people’s social organization and material culture during the middle Iron Age.” However, it is emphasized that the excavation is only a small part of the work done by an archaeologist. The important part starts when the excavation is over.

The hype surrounding the project is a consequence of the spectacular findings of the people who were killed there. Had they not been there, the excavation would hardly have been noticed. The web page contains no references to published material, except for five reports. Instead, I search for published material on The Swedish libraries search service (LIBRIS). Out of 22 “publications” listed by LIBRIS, I find three different categories — references to media publications, for example, television programs; the five mentioned reports; and two publications that can be seen as scientific. (Reports from excavations must be published through RAÄ and have no scientific importance.)

There is a lot of information on the Internet surrounding the Sandby Borg project, but there are only two scientific publications so far, namely a licentiate paper and a peer-reviewed publication. Both texts can be found as open access, but are not mentioned on the web page, as far as I can see. Furthermore, I have not been able to find any references to conference participation nor information related to university seminars. The focus is obviously on Internet-based communication with the public. The point is, of course, to promote the excavation and the project leaders and to spread information to the public, but as I stated above, what we have here is pseudo-science, tricking the public into believing that they are taking part in a research project, something even emphasized by the project leaders when they state that the real research starts when the excavation is over.

Some day the excavation will come to an end. The web page will be closed, and all the information once on the Internet will disappear. Depending on the entity involved, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter might still be holding some information, but after some time this too will become irrelevant.

Sweden has many prehistoric hill-forts and ring-forts, but for future research such Internet communication is without any meaning at all, as it will all be gone. The only things that will survive are the scientific publications that a project can produce. The question is if they will have the time, even though they have research money, to produce these important texts, focused as they are on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and media coverage.

Joakim Carlsson and the Swedish History Museum

On October 17, 2018, the leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter published a fascinating article by Joakim Carlsson, who used to be a social media communicator at the Swedish History Museum. Translated into English, the title of the article reads: “Hi Facebook, I resign”. Carlsson not only left Facebook, he also left the museum for a new job that had nothing to do with social media.

Everything is digitalized in Sweden, every archived document, every art piece stored in art museums, and every object in history museums, or at least this is the plan. The cost for this is enormous, and most of the work is paid for by tax money or state-financed research funds. The point is that archives and museums are state-owned institutions and paid for by tax money and therefore everyone must have access to the stuff.

A few years ago the Swedish History Museum received funding from one of the bigger research funds in Sweden. The purpose was to digitalize an important collection of objects for researchers and for the public. When I asked if they had checked if there was any need for this information among researchers and the public, I got the answer “we don’t know”. They would spend a lot of money on a project without knowing if there was any need at all for this information. But that’s how it works, and it is an understatement stressing that this is a very naïve and costly way forward. A similar critique could be launched against the Sandby Borg project, and of course against my second excavation. If we could count the number of people who have spent their time taking part in producing the Sandby Borg Internet-information along with the costs and working hours to produce it, we would maybe be able to see what resources have been spent on each individual. From there we could ask if it was worth it, knowing that most of the information very soon will dissolve from the “cloud” and into thin air.

Carlsson’s job was to communicate with the surrounding society, but he not only questions Facebook, but also the strategies that he worked with. He writes that if the museum should be visible they needed to use a pitch — the spectacular — that would encourage discussion and/or sharing, which, he explains, on the Internet always leads to a brawl or some sort of bizarre humor.

This is the consequence, but the general rhetoric is that placing information on the Internet is a question of democracy, of transparency, of everyone being included, of education of the masses, and so forth. But is it really? It’s probably to the contrary. Byung-Chul Han talks about overheating among people in the achievement society, where the Internet play a significant part.

Concluding remarks

To answer the question that I introduced this essay with, there is a clear difference between archaeology done prior the Internet and archaeology done in the age of the Internet, not only because of the obvious existence of the Internet, but because of the focus on the spectacular.

We are, as my examples show, tricked into believing that archaeological research, museum practices, and the digitalization of museum objects, archived material, and so on will make a secret world more open and transparent and that this will be positive for the public, democracy, and for the scientific community. The real world is, however, much more dynamic and diverse but always out of reach for the public because of our naïve desire for the Internet. Archive and museum activities are a practice done in reality, not on the Internet, and so is research. It is irrelevant how much information that we produce on the Internet, because it will never capture the work and practices going on in the real world. Internet information is also dissolved quickly, it loses its spectacular impact in a short period of time and new information must be uploaded continuously to keep all of the Internet’s different channels alive. What this suggests is that when feeding the Internet with information to keep it alive, the Internet is sucking our capacity to think, talk, and communicate, out of our brains.

What we have seen here is that placing things on the Internet without any deeper reflection is a dead end at best. If we want to take the public seriously, we must learn to communicate with it on a readable level, with published texts that can be stored in libraries and thus exist over time. If we use the Internet, a web page is all that is needed, and its purpose must be made clear from the beginning. The web page shall be basic, communicate on an understandable scientific level, and make clear where the visitor can find serious texts from the project to read. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and similar channels must be avoided. Only then can research be transparent and true to the public on the Internet. And even more important, only then can we behave ethically toward missing times and missing people and avoid being trapped by our desire for the spectacular, or, maybe even worse, reducing our research findings and knowledge to the simplistic and the banal.



  1. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London: Penguin Books, 2012 [1859]).
  2. Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017).
  3. Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
  4. Håkan Karlsson (ed.), It’s About Time: The Concept of Time in Archaeology (Göteborg: Bricoleur Press, 2001); Gavin Lucas, The Archaeology of Time (Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2005).
  5. Cornelius Holtorf, “Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage” International Journal of Heritage Studies, Volume 21, Issue 4 (2015): Heritage Erasure, 1—17.
  6. Richard Foster Flint & Edward S. Deevey (eds.), Radiocarbon, The American Journal of Science, Volume 4, (1962), [, accessed October 20 2018]; Dena Dincauze, Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  7., accessed October 29, 2018.
  8., accessed October 14, 2018.
  9. Anders Carlsson, Djurhuvudformade spännen och gotländsk vikingatid (Stockholm, 1983) [Animal-formed brooches and the Viking Age on Gotland].
  10. Johan Hegardt, “Gudings slott, en märklig gotländsk fornborg” (Tor, Volume 23, 1990—1991), 43—54; “Det patrilaterala samhället, hemliga sällskap och monumentala byggnader: en analys av en gotländsk fornborg” (ibid.), 55—84 [Gudings slott, a strange hill-fort on Gotland; Patrilateral societies, secret communities and monumental buildings: an analys of a hill-fort on Gotland].
  11. Johan Hegardt, “The Marvel of the Cauldrons: A Reflection on the United Stories of Archaeology,” Current Swedish Archaeology, Vol. 19 (2011): 65—86.
  12. Dan Carlsson, “The Connecting Point. Viking Age activities along the Gotlandic coast”, (Project description. Gotland Archaeological Field School Arendus Ltd), unpublished pdf.
  13., accessed October 24, 2018.
  14., accessed October 22, 2018.
  15. Clara Alfsdotter, Bad Death at Sandby borg: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Intergroup Violence and Postmortem Agency of Unburied Corpses (Växjö: Linnaeus University Press, 2018).
  16. Gustav Wollentz, “Prehistoric violence as difficult heritage: Sandby borg, a place of avoidance and belonging,” Current Swedish Archaeology 25 (2017): 199—226.
  17. Joakim Carlsson, “Hej Facebook, jag säger upp mig”, Dagens Nyheter 2018-10-17, accessed October 20, 2018.
  18. Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
  • by Johan Hegardt

    Associate Professor in Archaeology, Uppsala University, works in the fields of art history, archaeology, museums and heritage studies, and cultural studies. Currently, Hegardt is associated with the Department of Culture and Learning, Södertörn University, Sweden.

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