Researchers Confirm Disputed Viking Warrior Was a Female Because Some Just Won’t Accept It
“Then the high-born lady saw them play the wounding game,
she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak;
she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen's lives,
she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows.”
- ‘The Greenlandic Poem of Atli’ (st. 49) (Larrington, 1996)
Arguably the most iconic example of a warrior burial in Viking Age Sweden is a mid-10th century grave in Birka. This grave has been the example of what a Viking warrior burial should look like for over a century. Everyone assumed that a man was the one laid to rest in the grave – but research has shown assumptions should not be taken as fact. The grave contains female remains.
Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of the Viking Age warrior grave (Bj 581) by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe; published in 1889. (Stolpe, 1889)
Questioning Common Belief
According to The Local, the first person to do something about the fact that the skeleton’s morphological features don’t coincide with a male body was Anna Kjellström, an osteologist at Stockholm University. Kjellström was examining the skeleton for an unrelated research project when she noticed that the cheekbones were finer and thinner than men would normally have. However, the tell-tale sign that the skeleton is female is the obvious nature of the hip bones.
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After a thorough osteological analysis, DNA testing was applied. And, as Phys.org reports “DNA retrieved from the skeleton demonstrates that the individual carried two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome.” Based on the results of the study, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Stockholm University, who led the research, asserted, “It’s actually a woman, somewhere over the age of 30 and fairly tall too, measuring around 170 centimetres [5.5ft.]” Furthermore, in 2017 the researchers wrote in their journal article that, “The Viking warrior female showed genetic affinity to present-day inhabitants of the British Islands (England and Scotland), the North Atlantic Islands (Iceland and the Orkneys), Scandinavia (Denmark and Norway) and to lesser extent Eastern Baltic Europe (Lithuania and Latvia).”
Romanticized depiction of a Viking woman, 1905, by Andreas Bloch. (Public Domain)
The researchers decided to confirm the nature of the woman’s travels by using a strontium isotope analysis on three molar teeth from the lower jaw. The results of this testing show that the woman was a nonlocal who had moved to Birka.
Professor Mattias Jakobsson at Uppsala University's Department of Organismal Biology highlighted the importance of this find when he said, “This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior.”
Artistic representation of a Viking Age warrior woman on a ship. (Women in History)
The belief that the woman found in Birka, Sweden was a warrior is largely based on the grave goods that were found alongside her body. Her high-quality weapons included a sword, armor-piercing arrows, an axe, two lances, and a battle knife. There were also two shields, two horses, and a war-planning gaming board with a full set of gaming pieces in the grave. Her clothing, including a tasselled cap, suggest the gear of a royal war leader. As Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson explained, “The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to have been a woman.”
Reconstruction of what the grave may have looked like. (Uppsala University)
But ever since the researchers announced in 2017 that the iconic warrior was female, they have received criticism suggesting that they must have made a mistake. Many people simply do not want to believe that the grave was made for a Viking warrior woman. Some have argued that the weapons were probably owned by the woman’s husband, who they say may have once been buried alongside her. Others have suggested that the bones were jumbled up with someone else’s, leading to the wrong set of remains having been analyzed. And some people have even claimed that the researchers had just read too much into the Viking era stories of warrior women, such as tales of the shield maidens.
But, as the researchers write in a new paper reflecting on the criticisms, “The buried person has always carried two X chromosomes, even if this was unknown before our recent work; the occupant of Bj.581 will never be biologically male again.”
As for the criticisms suggesting that the weapons weren’t the woman’s own, or that she wasn’t really a warrior, they write:
“Perhaps she was, for some reason, interred with objects that conferred a proxy identity that she never had when alive. Equally, she may have lived as a warrior, but in a symbolic sense […] To be a warrior was, at least in part, a social construct, and not necessarily directly connected to entering actual combat. If such a thing applied to the person in Bj.581, we do not know exactly how this operated, and it is possible that we are just seeing the high-end ‘straight-to-Valhöll’ option from the Birka funeral directors, but it would have made this individual a warrior nonetheless.”
They also confronted the accusation that they were searching for these results by flat-out stating “We have not ‘gone looking’ for female Viking warriors.” It is just that Occam's razor suggests “the grave of a woman who lived as a professional warrior and was buried in a martial environment as an individual of rank.”
The fact that the woman wasn’t buried with ‘typical’ Viking era female clothing or jewelry has also spiraled the conversation into a whole other direction – gender identity. While they admit that there’s no way to be sure that the individual identified as a woman in a gendered sense, they also point out:
“While we understand this line of thinking in the context of contemporary social debates, it should be remembered that this is a modern politicised, intellectual and Western term, and, as such, is problematic (some would say impossible) to apply to people of the more remote past. All this is also inevitably speculative, considering the limitations of the archaeological material. There are many other possibilities across a wide gender spectrum, some perhaps unknown to us, but familiar to the people of the time. We do not discount any of them.”
And finally, they provide a cautionary note that could be applied to many situations for archaeologists:
“We must be especially aware that such perceptions are ours and not necessarily those of Viking Age people. Similarly, such critique must be applied broadly, and not just in contexts where the implications are inconvenient for preconceived interpretations. In that light, we also need to examine ourselves as scholars—our own biases and prejudices—asking what we are prepared to find acceptable in the past, and why.”
Viking Warrior Women
Although the gender stereotype for Viking Age warriors has almost exclusively described them as men, the idea of female warriors is not unknown in Norse society, or in other cultures. For instance, Norse mythology discusses a group of figures known as Valkyries. Ancient Origins writer ‘Dwhty’ explained that the Valkyries were: “believed to be the handmaidens of Odin, the supreme god of the Norse pantheon. They were sent by this god to the battlefield to select warriors worthy of entering Valhalla after their deaths. The Valkyrie were portrayed as warriors, being equipped with helmets, mail-coats, and spears.”
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‘Valkyrien’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo. (Public Domain)
Another example of female warriors in Norse society can be seen in the Battle of Bråvalla, a legendary battle from the 8th century AD. 300 female warriors known as shieldmaidens are said to have fought on the side of King Harald Wartooth in that battle.
This supports the conclusion by Neil Price, Professor at Uppsala University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, who said there is some written evidence supporting the idea of female warriors in the Viking Age, but it doesn’t detract from the importance of the discovery because “this is the first time that we've really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence.”
Lagertha - a respected warrior and reigning queen of Denmark in the TV series ‘Vikings’. (CC BY SA)
Top Image: ‘Brynhildr.’ Used here as a representational image of a woman warrior in the Viking Age. Source: FLOWERZZXU/Deviant Art