Were there female viking warlords?
Awell-furnished warrior grave in the Viking age town of Birka, Sweden, has been found to contain female bones. So, a female Viking warrior. And not just any warrior, but a senior one: she was buried alongside a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and two horses. Gaming pieces – perhaps from hnefatafl, a sort of precursor to chess – suggest the female warrior from grave Bj581 was a battle strategist. Was she unique, or were the Viking ranks full of women?
“It is exciting because the traditional images of Vikings are masculine and war hungry – with the women at home baking, or looking after the kids,” says Becky Gowland, a lecturer in archaeology at Durham University. “This burial is clearly of a high-status woman. The fact that she’s buried with weapons indiciate this. It doesn’t indicate that she’s a warrior, but if we interpret [male graves] in that way, why not women as well?”
The female Viking warrior is a familiar figure in popular culture, from early incarnations such as the Völsung cycle of
Norse mythology through to the History Channel’s Vikings series. Valkyrie amulets have been found depicting women wearing dresses armour. But historical fact has largely lagged behind the fictions.
The bones from grave Bj581 always looked female – they were slender – making it a so-called “anomalous” grave where the gender of the skeleton appeared at odds with the martial objects buried with it. It took many years and, finally, genomic testing to establish the lack of a Y chromosome. But some experts still express doubts about the warrior’s identity.
Might the gaming pieces indicate only she enjoyed board games? Were the bones – excavated and labelled in the 19th century – put with the wrong weapons? Or do these questions prove that we recreate the past in the light of our own prejudice? “Before we knew it was a woman, it was interpreted as a warrior grave. Nothing in the archaeology has changed – only the gender. I do believe she was a warrior,” says Charlotte Hedenstierna-jonson, the archaeologist at Uppsala University who led the research.
“Because it was buried with weapons, [people assumed] it must be a man,” Gowland says. “I think that’s a mistake that archaeologists make quite often. When we do that, we’re just reproducing the past in our image.”
So how many more warrior bones have been presumed male that might be female? In Poland, “archaeology is really getting to grips with a number of anomalous graves”, according to Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval European literature at Oxford University. There are thought to be further anomalies in Norway and Sweden.
“We are getting quite a lot of evidence that the gender roles may have been more fluid in the Viking period than we thought, and that it’s quite possible women may have been regarded as socially male even though biologically they weren’t – and might have been able to assume positions of military leadership,” Larrington says.
“We don’t tend to imagine the women sitting on the longships. But they must have been there.”
How many more warrior bones hav been presumed male that might be female?