Were there fe­male vik­ing war­lords?

The Guardian - G2 - - Shortcuts - Paula Co­cozza

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?

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