A Viking woman!


This is a Viking grave from Sweden — a high status warrior buried with weapons and jewelry and two horses. It was assumed it had to be a man, but closer investigation revealed that the bones were those of a woman — and now genomics has confirmed it.

Do weapons necessarily determine a warrior? The interpretation of grave goods is not straight forward, but it must be stressed that the interpretation should be made in a similar manner regardless of the biological sex of the interred individual. Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics. The skeletal remains in grave Bj 581 did not exhibit signs of antemortem or perimortem trauma which could support the notion that the individual had been a warrior. However, contrary to what could be expected, weapon related wounds (and trauma in general) are not common in the inhumation burials at Birka. A similarly low frequency is noted at contemporaneous cemeteries in Scandinavia. Traces of violent trauma are more common in Viking Age mass burials.

Although not possible to rule out, previous arguments have likely neglected intersectional perspectives where the social status of the individual was considered of greater importance than biological sex. This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female. As long as the sex is male, the weaponry in the grave not only belong to the interred but also reflects his status as warrior, whereas a female sex has raised doubts, not only regarding her ascribed role but also in her association to the grave goods.

Grave Bj 581 is one of three known examples where the individual has been treated in accordance with prevailing warrior ideals lacking all associations with the female gender. Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics. Our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions. They provide a new understanding of the Viking society, the social constructions and also norms in the Viking Age. The genetic and strontium data also show that the female warrior was mobile, a pattern that is implied in the historical sources, especially when it comes to the extended households of the elite. The female Viking warrior was part of a society that dominated 8th to 10th century northern Europe. Our results—that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior—suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres. Questions of biological sex, gender and social roles are complex and were so also in the Viking Age. This study shows how the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies.

A lady Viking! Adjust your preconceptions, and your fantasy novels and movies, accordingly.


Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, Jan Storå (2017) A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23308

Comments

  1. cherbear says

    It doesn’t surprise me. Why should it surprise anybody else? I guess I know next to nothing about vikings.

  2. Dauphni says

    And of course they don’t even consider the possibility that this might be the grave of a trans man.

  3. Rich Woods says

    A lady Viking! Adjust your preconceptions, and your fantasy novels and movies, accordingly.

    Yet stories of shield-maidens are there in the sagas and have been included in modern fiction too, from Tolkien’s Eowyn to the more recent interpretation of Sif in the MCU Thor films.

  4. says

    Doesn’t surprise me. Women have always been warriors. What I would like to know is about the horses – were they killed when the warrior died, so as to be buried at the same time?

  5. says

    #3: That’s a complicated question. Did Viking culture in 900AD have the concept of a “trans man”? Was martial activity solely a property of “men”, so a woman taking part in it is filling the gender role of a “man”, so defined, or was martial activity considered non-gender specific at all, so a woman swinging a sword was just an acceptable part of the range of female activities?

  6. oynaz says

    >A lady Viking! Adjust your preconceptions, and your fantasy novels and movies, accordingly

    I don’t follow. Off the top of my head, shield maidens, valkyries, Laurana of Dragonlance, Angua of Discworld, Vin of Mistborn, and Arya of A Game of Thrones are examples.

    I actually cannot think of an example of a fantasy book which doesn’t feature a female warrior.

  7. Walter Solomon says

    In light of this information, I wonder which Michael Crichton work is more inaccurate–Jurassic Park or Eaters of the Dead?

  8. blf says

    an example of a fantasy book which doesn’t feature a female warrior

    Ken “piglet rapist” Ham’s version of the holely burble?

  9. Saad says

    “Martial activity” sounds like such a nice term, the U.S. might start using it in place of “collateral damage”.

  10. Kaintukee Bob says

    It irks me a little every time I see someone from the Scandinavian culture called a ‘Viking’. ‘Viking’ was a job, not a culture. Scandinavian men (and women) would go ‘a Viking’, which could mean anything from a raid or war to a trade or diplomatic negotiation (although the former was more common).

    Even their fellow Scandinavians were often the targets of Viking raids. There is a fairly well-known Scandinavian roadmarker which has a warning about the area being known for Vikings, urging travelers to beware.

    So it’s likely that this woman did go a Viking, at least once or more in her life if she was truly a warrior, she is more accurately called a Scandinavian woman, not a Viking woman.

    That’s my rant for the day.

    Reference: http://www.museumspartner.com/en/allgemein-en/we-call-them-vikings.html

    I had a chance to view this exhibit when it was at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Very informative, and it certainly helped me understand the ancient Scandinavians at least a little bit better.

  11. davidnangle says

    Presumably, her armor, to be effective, would have constituted a metal bikini with a thong bottom?

  12. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Dauphni #3 & PZ #7.
    From Dauphni in #3:

    And of course they don’t even consider the possibility that this might be the grave of a trans man.

    I call attention to this from the article in question:

    Questions of biological sex, gender and social roles are complex and were so also in the Viking Age.

    I think this is bringing up the possibility of something like what we might today call a “trans(*) man”. Although I’d prefer language that I consider more explicit in its consideration of certain possibilities, I don’t think it’s fair to say that they didn’t consider it. I think it’s fair to say that they considered it, realized that they didn’t know nearly enough to translate genders native to modern cultures dependent on English languages into genders native to iron age cultures dependent on Scandinavian languages. (Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to state the reverse. But phrased either way, the statement and its converse are, I believe, equally true.)

    So the researchers simply state that questions of gender and its relationship to biological sex as determined from bones*1 is highly complex in the contemporary context and was almost certainly just as complex in the various (multitudinous!) distinct iron age contexts.

    I think it would actually be a leap too far to assume that we understand the local (spatial and temporal) cultural context well enough to say that a close analog of “trans man” existed. Of course, if we’re looking for close analogs, it’s unlikely that role, identity, expectations, and habits of the group describe by the word(s) they used for “woman” in the society that buried this individual have any close analogs to the group we describe with our use of the word “woman”.

    It would be nice if we remembered that more often, actually. So far from feeling an impulse to educate the researchers, I’m appreciating their own ability to admit the existence of phenomena beyond the boundaries of their own knowledge. I’m especially appreciative that they seem able to do this in an area where too many people think that quotidian personal experience dictates that any ignorance associated with the topic, even in such specialized cases as the differences between that quotidian experience more than 1100 years ago and the quotidian experience today, automatically implies sub-par intellect.

    *1: Was there karyotyping from preserved osteocytes? Measurements of hip width to height? Something else? Did these all match?)

  13. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Shorter Me:

    I don’t know is a fine answer even if it is not (and shouldn’t be) our final answer.

  14. cartomancer says

    This is not really all that surprising a find. There are Old Norse sagas that describe powerful women being given the same kinds of prestigious burials as high-status men, such as the Laxdaela Saga, and we have found archaeological evidence of them before (e.g. the Sanday Burial in Orkney, which also included weaponry). Other sagas mention women taking up arms alongside their husbands to defend their homes, which is seen as a praiseworthy thing by said husbands.

    It is worth sounding a note of caution though. We know from their literary records that most early Medieval Scandinavian societies were very patriarchal in character, and made sharp distinctions between the roles expected of men and those expected of women. We even have Icelandic law codes (the “Grey Goose” laws) that forbid cross-dressing, including the wearing of weapons on the part of women. Which is not to say that there wasn’t great variation in attitudes to gender across the miles and the centuries – 9th Century Sweden was probably quite different from 13th Century Iceland in all kinds of interesting ways – but we most certainly should not imagine the Viking Age as a time of great female emancipation and equality.

    What finds like this do is remind us that we shouldn’t presume that general cultural trends dictate every detail of individual lives. There are plenty of exceptions to cultural norms in every society, even if those norms are still generally valid. I am reminded of the epitaph of Alia Potestas here – an inscribed celebration of a polyamorous Roman threesome that adds perspective to a culture in late 2nd century Rome which venerates monogamy. Reading between the lines, that the Icelanders felt the need to pass laws against cross-dressing at all kind of suggests that there were people around who were keen on doing it.

    The lack of warfare-related damage on the skeleton raises a range of possibilities. She could have been a very good warrior (or at least a very lucky one) to have avoided injury. Or she might have been an occasional warrior, rather than a dedicated one. Or she might not have been a warrior at all, but was honoured in the same manner as one as a mark of respect. I have come across plenty of Roman tombstones that attribute traditionally male virtues to honoured women as a kind of backhanded, misogynistic mark of respect – they showed more-than-feminine courage and presence of mind! Why, they went so far beyond womanliness that they’re acting like men! Such a culture of gendered praise does more to reinforce stereotypes than to break them down.

  15. rjw1 says

    It’s not really surprising. In the case of the Scythians and other Eurasian nomads archaeologists had previously assumed that any badly decomposed skeleton buried with weapons was a male, they were wrong. Some of those skeletons also show fatal battle injuries.

    In terms of sexual equality, the barbarians were often more civilised than the Greco-Romans.

  16. microraptor says

    IIRC, in Norse society, women had a lot more rights than they did in most of the rest of Europe.

  17. Cartimandua says

    I wonder if she followed the Xena/Diana Prince protocol: women can only fight while unencumbered by trousers.

    I suspect she totally didn’t conform to mass media interpretations of “Warrior Women”

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    Caine @6: I think horses and human thralls were often sacrificed for upper-class twits of any gender, in many ancient cultures.

  19. Ichthyic says

    who knows who is the most important entity in that burial?

    …so, the horses were actually the ‘vikings’ and the woman was THEIR thrall?

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    And now she’s reincarnated as a gutsy little girl chasing off fucking idiots from Infowars!

  21. zoniedude says

    There was a genome study looking at northern Europe that expressed surprise that rape apparently did not occur often in Viking raids. The authors suggested the Vikings had their wives with them on the raids.

  22. unclefrogy says

    has anyone consulted evolutionary psychologists about this I am sure they could offer keen insight this.

  23. David Marjanović says

    *1: Was there karyotyping from preserved osteocytes? Measurements of hip width to height? Something else? Did these all match?

    It’s right there in the title (“confirmed by genomics”): this person had no Y chromosomes and as many X chromosomes as of any autosome.

    Previously, the skeleton was known to have rather female proportions, but individual variation in these things is pretty high – you can tell Superman from Wonder Woman by their skeletons, but beyond that it gets difficult – so that “well, must be a man with somewhat unusual proportions” was a perfectly reasonable answer until now.

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