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Viking gender roles are hotly debated due to a recent thesis. Source: Mike Orlov / Adobe Stock.

Grave Goods Demand Gender Roles In Viking History To Be Rewritten. Or Do They?

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A Norwegian archaeologist, Marianne Moen, is making the big claim 'the past’ is incorrectly interpreted and that Viking Norway men’s and women’s cultural roles were similar. But not everyone agrees.

Marianne Moen’s Doctoral thesis at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo, is entitled “Challenging Gender. A reconsideration of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape.” According to an article about her paper in Science Nordic she claims gender roles during Viking times weren’t as differentiated as thought, and she told reporters, “I think we need to move away from distinguishing between men’s and women’s roles during the Viking times”.

Having studied the contents of 218 Viking graves in Vestfold, a county on the southwest side of Oslo Fjord, and finding items from “cups, plates to horses and other livestock” in the graves of “Not just housewives”, Moen claims “upper-class men and women generally were buried with the same types of items - including cooking gear”. And from this type of ‘thinking’ the paper suggests Viking gender roles need readdressing.

A soapstone vessel from the Viking Age. Soapstone was used to make cookware among other items. (Elinor Rajka / CC BY-SA 2.5)

However, controversially, if Moen is right then almost every scientist before her has been either: outright stupid, just plain wrong, or perhaps a ‘misguided’ member of an outdated archaeological patriarchy. It has to be one of these. Right? Now the boxing gloves are off and the veiled allusions are no longer in the shadows, let’s see what is being said about this gargantuan claim, which if proved to be correct, demands an instant rewriting of not only Viking, but Norwegian history at large.

A Chasm Of Philosophy In Science?

To reverse a century of evidence gathered by archaeologists which suggests Viking women were ‘more often than not’ responsible for maintaining the home, while men became farmers, merchants, and warriors, one’s evidence has to be not only big, but bullet proof. Put another way, is the discovery that tools and cooking utensils were equally distributed between men and women burials at ‘one’ test site, really tangible proof to ‘challenge gender roles’ in Viking society?

Viking women as warriors – does this question general gender roles? (delDrago / Adobe Stock)

Moen’s conviction is evident in her comment to Science Nordic where she stated; “I think” this means that men also made food. This “thought”, says Moen, is based on another “thought”; that “cooking equipment indicates hospitality”. Where to even begin?

Liberal Thoughts Questioned By Hard Science

To assume that men cooked as much as women because they were buried with cookware, is to assume that Vikings who were unearthed wearing dragon broaches actually fought real dragons. Get me? This is certainly a line of thinking that would find the support of Frans-Arne Stylegar who works with cultural preservation and urban planning at the consulting firm Multiconsult, who told reporters “It is difficult to translate the persona who is idealized in burial customs into actual historical reality. It’s almost a philosophical question”.

And don’t for a second think that Frans-Arne Stylegar wasn’t ‘having a go’ as his careful use of the word ‘philosophy’ suggests Moens discoveries are built on ‘philosophical speculation’ rather than hard scientific data sets. The very fact her paper sets out to ‘challenge gender roles’ suggests to her skeptics that she may have had a somewhat predetermined notion, to reach her conclusion, rather than that conclusion having risen from observations. Moan’s last paper was not entitled “ People in the Landscape” but “Women in the Norwegian Landscape” which is revealing as to her slant or inherent biases.

On The Defense, Moen Reminds Us…

Moen believes that the tools and cooking equipment were not just for conceptual application in the afterlife, because the “items were also found in houses”. However, this castle is built on sand and so as long as she cannot determine ‘who’ used the items, it ‘might’ be the case that they were ‘all’ used by women.

One of Moen’s arguments regarding gender roles was that some of the grave goods items were also found in houses. (serg_did / Adobe Stock)

One of Moen’s arguments regarding gender roles was that some of the grave goods items were also found in houses. (serg_did / Adobe Stock)

But let’s slow down a little for Moen’s research which does show “More than 40 percent of the male graves contained jewelry such as brooches and beads”. Additionally, the men’s graves contained toiletries, “including tweezers and razors likely used for personal grooming”.

Jewelry such as brooches and beads have been found in grave goods of both men and women. What does that say about gender roles? (Maia C / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Okay. Deep breath. To assert that because men groomed and wore jewelry does not mean that they also must have cooked and looked after homes, is verging on sexist, not to mention gender stereotyping! Regardless, Moen backs all her assumptions to be correct and now ‘wonders’ where the idea of clear gender differentiation in the past might have come from?

Graves excavated in Norway in the early 1900s were of course interpreted by the cultural standards and perspectives of those times, in the same way that Moen now sees the artifacts from her modern perspective. And that perspective is maybe as unbalanced as the male patriarchy she silently alludes to, for she calls herself a ‘gender archaeologist’ and openly aims to “challenge other archaeologists interpretations of Viking culture”.

“I encounter quite a bit of skepticism” said Moen, because the vast majority of even modern researchers “are very set in their opinion on gender when it comes to work-related roles”. Regardless, she thinks part of the reason 99.9% of Norwegian scientists, both men and women, are so wrong is that it’s easier to relate to a historical narrative “that is in keeping with our modern expectations”.

Moen believes that modern researchers are set in their opinion of Viking gender roles. (Fxquadro / Adobe Stock)

However, skeptics line up to suggest that this is precisely what Moan is herself doing, by projecting her modern gender ideologies onto the past, thus, rewriting evidential history.

In conclusion, I think what we have here is an unashamedly controversial paper, bold and obvious in its alignment with the European University Liberal Agenda, and for this reason, conservative scientists will be spinning in their shoes. And so too might the brave warrior Vikings, who died by the sword, be turning in their graves screaming, spectrally, “that kettle is for my mushroom tea in the otherworld, not to make soup for the family. And the comb, well I use it before I visit my tent of vixens, not because I am a hipster! Sheesh! Really!”

Bronze Viking kettle. Does the ability to make tea really say anything about gender roles? (Arild Finne Nybø / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Top image: Viking gender roles are hotly debated due to a recent thesis. Source: Mike Orlov / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie



Ziza Tremor's picture

You said EXACTLY what I was thinking. As an added note, just because Moen used "women in the Norwegian Landscape “ and not "people in the Landscape" does NOT mean she is Biased. It could simply be that she was focusing on a females roles and during her studies. Then during her studies found evidence that shows history might have been wrong about it's gender roles for females in this situation and thus probably wrong about the men's roles as well. But to just disregard and sling such horrible hate at Moen because she wasn't afraid to ask the question is just poor writing. Someone clearly has a bias and it's not Moen.

So, here we have a woman reviewing the evidence from a group of graves and asking – legitimately – if gender roles are quite as clear-cut as they have been presented. Then we get this article spewing forth venom and abuse because it might, in Cowie’s mind, “reverse a century of evidence gathered by archaeologists”. But don’t worry, Cowie will show us “Liberal Thoughts Questioned By Hard Science”.
Despite the fact that Cowie has not even read the thesis (!), but just seen an article about her paper in Science Nordic, he takes off and rubbishes her work. If she questions older interpretations of graves goods then she is saying that “almost every scientist before her…[was] outright stupid, just plain wrong, or perhaps a ‘misguided’ member of an outdated archaeological patriarchy”. As a matter of fact, my dear genius with your own website dedicated to how windswept and interesting you are, that is how you question past interpretations of the archaeological record. People can, you know, get things wrong, they can be stupid, and they can be part of an outdated archaeological patriarchy.
Since Cowie makes statements such as “To assume that men cooked as much as women because they were buried with cookware, is to assume that Vikings who were unearthed wearing dragon broaches actually fought real dragons”, it indicates that he doesn’t even understand how gender roles are identified. While he scoffs at broaches being used to determine male gender roles, he doesn’t seem to understand that that is *exactly* what people have done with female gender roles. If it is absurd to suggest that men were cooking because cooking ware is in their graves, why is it that people have done just that for cooking ware in female graves? Hmmm?
Above all, how is a study of evidence – hard, real evidence – and a reinterpretation of that evidence “rewriting evidential history”? And why is questioning past interpretations “To reverse a century of evidence gathered by archaeologists”? Because Cowie believes that “the brave warrior Vikings , who died by the sword, [would] be turning in their graves”?
What we evidently have here is someone who really doesn’t like his idea of big, bad Vikings, living in a world were men were men and women shut up and kept out of archaeology, upset in any way. Certainly, one should not question the interpretation of evidence, because that is, apparently, to question evidence….

Crasslee's picture

I'm not sure of her argument. Not being an expert in ancient Norse society. But I would argue that there is value in asking these questions. As the answers, whatever they may turn out to be. Will enrich our knowledge of the past.


ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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