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On 8 September, the Swedish The Local website published the news that osteology- and DNA tests show that a body buried in a Viking Age grave near the Swedish town of Birka was female. Called “one of the most spectacular graves ever discovered,” the article comes to the conclusion that she was most likely a powerful military leader. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, an archaeologist at Uppsala University, told The Local that:

It’s actually a woman, somewhere over the age of 30 and fairly tall too, measuring around 170 centimetres. Aside from the complete warrior equipment buried along with her – a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses – she had a board game in her lap, or more of a war-planning game used to try out battle tactics and strategies, which indicates she was a powerful military leader. She’s most likely planned, led and taken part in battles.

The academic paper, co-authored by Hedenstierna-Jonson, which the article refers to, can be found here, and gives additional information. Firstly, about the context in which the grave was excavated. During the 8th to late 10th century, Birka was a key trading centre, linked to social, cultural and economic networks reaching beyond the Ural Mountains via the Dnieper and Volga rivers. This aspect of Viking trade is less known outside of Russia than the Viking’s expansion to the West – their colonisation of Greenland and possibly America, the Danelaw in the British Isle. But part of it is the Viking share in the Roman Varangian Guard, based in Constantinople.

Wychwood Warriors©

The paper states that during the time of the burial, Birka is estimated to have had a population of 700-1000 inhabitants, consisting of trading families, artisans and warriors. Therefore, its (urban) culture was different from everyday life and practices in the surrounding region. This reflects cultural influences from both the Islamic and Eastern-Roman world, with which Birka was in contact, and had its consequences for the way people were buried. The area harbours over 3000 graves, of which around 1100 have been excavated, making it “one of the largest known congregations of burials in the Viking world.” Distributed over a large area, the burial grounds encircle the town area.

The ‘female warrior grave’, known as Bj 581, is exceptional. Prominently placed on an elevated terrace, it is situated between the town and a hillfort. It stands out by being very well-furnished and complete as well. The paper claims that the grave’s position places it in direct contact with Birka’s Garrison. It contains a number of grave goods: a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and even two horses – both a mare and a stallion. Besides the “complete equipment of a professional warrior,” finds of a full set of gaming pieces, indicative of knowledge of tactics and strategy, stress “the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.

Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581: Stolpe, H. (1889). Ett och annat på Björkö. Ny Illustrerad Tidning, 25, 4–16.

Skipping the technical details, DNA-tests confirm without a doubt that the body is female:

hence the individual in grave Bj 581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior.

Furthermore, the DNA shows:

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)(…) Furthermore, the woman is significantly more similar to these modern northern Europeans than to southern Europeans. (…) All of those geographical locations are situated within the Viking World. A detailed comparison with modern-day Swedish individuals from across the entire country shows genetic affinities between the female warrior and southern and south-central Swedes.

Strontium isotope analyses leads the paper’s authors to conclude that ‘female warrior’ was not local, but had moved to Birka. The DNA-evidence supports the findings of the osteological research, which found that the individual was probably female, with dental wear suggesting she was older than thirty.

Interestingly though, for someone described as a warrior, no pathological or traumatic injuries were observed. It is its discussion of this lack of trauma that is the paper’s greatest let-down.

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 (e.g., 2 out of 49 confirmed males showed signs of sharp force trauma). A similarly low frequency is noted at contemporaneous cemeteries in Scandinavia (…). Traces of violent trauma are more common in Viking Age mass burials (…).

This reasoning is disingenuous. Accepting that repeated trauma, especially if some of it has healed, is an indication of the skeleton individual having been a warrior, the ‘female warrior’ having such trauma would have been good proof of her being so. Of course, the fact that such trauma is absent does not necessarily mean that she wasn’t a warrior. But a low frequency of trauma in other burials, even if they were male, is only relevant in this case, if those males were warriors. But the paper doesn’t explicitly mention this.

The paper now claims that “previous arguments have likely neglected intersectional perspectives (…) [taking] away the agency of the buried female,” before concluding that:

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.