Dwellings, doorways, and domestic life: An interview with Marianne Hem Eriksen



What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Am I allowed to use two? ‘Magical’ and ‘weird’. Where else can you converse Nobel Prize winners at garden parties while sipping champagne; see world leading thinkers speak any day of the week; and punt down the sparkling river any old Thursday? As for the weirdness, well, I have generally had an anthropological approach to Cambridge, and immersed myself in participatory observation.

I poke fun at Cambridge a lot, but deep down I love it. I am very nostalgic about leaving at the end of the month.


Can you tell us a little about yourself, and your research interests? Has your work on dwellings and households in the past started to influence your experience of your own habitations in the present? I know that you were recently looking for a house, so I’m curious as to whether you ever find yourself taking an ‘archaeological’ approach to analyzing your own occupational space.

I have until now worked primarily with houses, architectural space and domestic practice in Scandinavia from the Bronze Age to the Vikings. I did my PhD (and recently published a book) on the Viking Age (actually, on the very peculiar topic of doorways in the Viking Age), and so I guess I am to some extent an early medievalist. However, I see myself as a prehistorian, as prehistory extends through the Viking Age in Scandinavia. I am interested in daily life, domestic practice, and domestic ritual, and the larger configurations these are entwined with.

Working with architecture definitely influences the way I think about dwellings and space in the broader sense, my own and others’, domestic or public. I think houses shape us more than we know, and I acutely notice things like who gets up to clear plates after dinner parties (gendered practices come out so strongly in domestic situations). I am at the moment also thinking a lot about people who do not have secure and safe homes, about the archaeology of homelessness and topics such as domestic violence. This sprang particularly from an article I published from my current project, on the possibility for infanticide in the Germanic worlds in the first millennium. We all pretend that the home is such an inherent safe haven, a private space away from the dangers of the world, but it really isn’t – not for everyone.


What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge? You are in a somewhat unusual situation within the current cohort of McDonald postdocs, in that you have a job in Oslo and your position has multiple ports-of-call in the UK and Scandinavia. Can you describe the experience of applying for the kind of fellowship that you’re on, and the kind of European networks it has allowed you to build?

Yes, I’m in a kind of unusual employment situation, and whether this has any transferable value to anyone I’m not sure, but the short version is as follow: My individual fellowship is a Mobility Grant funded by the Norwegian Research Council and cofounded by MSCA. It’s set up as a two years abroad, one year in Norway scheme (to avoid brain drain, I think. The scheme is open to anyone at postdoctoral level, as long as a Norwegian institution will back you – do get in touch if anyone is interested.) In the first year I was lucky enough to be offered a permanent associate professorship at the University of Oslo. I officially started in October 2017, but was given leave of absence to finish my grant.

If there is anything to learn from the situation for others, it must be to see opportunities rather than limitations with awkward timing, and demonstrate to employers the possible advantages to them. In my case, they could hire a substitute (as my grant covers my salary) and effectively get two positions for the price of one for almost two years.

With regards to European networks, this fellowship and being in Cambridge has obviously been extremely valuable – so many fantastic scholars come through here, and I have had the chance to meet and befriend incredible people in Cambridge, as well as at other universities and departments. I also made sure to keep up with some of the people I knew from a visiting scholarship at UCL some years ago now. I am very grateful to the McDonald Institute for supporting my grant application, and my college, Clare Hall, for giving me lots of opportunities during my time here.

You’ve recently had a book—Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia–published. Tell us about your book and why we should buy it…though, less facetiously, describing how you went about finding a publisher, structuring your writing time, and publicizing the book itself is likely more of interest to your fellow postdocs.

Revising a dissertation for publication was challenging, and I might still be traumatized… I read somewhere that the final revisions of a book are like gnawing off flesh from your own body – it’s accurate. Because you are so intellectually done with the ideas from your PhD, it can be very difficult to reengage with them, feel excitement about the topic, and convey that to a broader audience.

But I did learn a lot along the way, which I am happy to share. First of all, a myth I came across repeatedly is that you need connections to get through the first hurdle at a press. You do not necessarily need an “in” through a former supervisor or similar – I ‘cold-called’ (cold-emailed?) CUP with a book proposal without ever having met the editor, without any introductions or recommendations from anyone.

What I did do, was spend a lot of time on the book proposal, ask senior colleagues to read it, and, as always – ask a colleague if I could see a successful proposal, so I had a better understanding of the genre. It’s a persuasive document, so to you need to find ways to show that you understand the selling points of your book, the competing titles, the reason why you are uniquely placed to write it, and why you can stick to the schedule (I gave myself a lot of extra time, and could subsequently thank past-Marianne for being so perceptive).

For the writing process, I had to be super disciplined, which does not come naturally to me. I revised much of the book in coffee shops around Cambridge. I would have daily goals of a number of pages to revise or a number of pomodoros (25 minute spurts) I would revise for. I strongly believe in rewards, so if I met my weekly goals, I would find something positive to celebrate with.

I would recommend William Germano’s ‘From dissertation to book’ – it is not only full of practical tips, but also conveys a love of writing, from generating the big ideas to making sentences click, which was inspiring and made me want to develop my writing practice further.


What do you do in your spare time?

Run very slowly, read very quickly, eat food, drink wine, and – embarrassingly – read about academic writing. It’s my hobby.

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