A fe­male Vik­ing war­rior?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Health & science - By Christina An­der­son

STOCK­HOLM — When a team of schol­ars an­nounced last Fri­day that a fa­mous Vik­ing tomb in Swe­den con­tained the re­mains of a wo­man, it seemed to pro­vide long-awaited sup­port for leg­ends of fe­male Vik­ing war­riors that date to the early Mid­dle Ages but had been dis­missed, in mod­ern times, as myths.

The schol­ars said their find­ings, based on DNA tests, “sug­gest that women, in­deed, were able to be full mem­bers of male-dom­i­nated spheres” in Vik­ing so­ci­ety.

But a re­spected scholar of the Vikings says that con­clu­sion is pre­ma­ture. She says the re­searchers who con­ducted the tests were so de­ter­mined to show that women were Vik­ing war­riors that they over­looked other pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for why a wo­man’s body might have been in the tomb, which dates to the first half of the 10th cen­tury.

The controversy is not merely aca­demic. Vik­ing cul­ture is be­com­ing a big theme in Swedish tourism, and the Vik­ing burial ground where the tomb is has been an at­trac­tion since it was dis­cov­ered in the 1880s.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, the controversy has reignited a long­stand­ing de­bate about the role of women among the Vikings, Norse sea­far­ers whose ex­ploits, from the eighth to the 11th cen­turies, are cen­tral to Scan­di­na­vian iden­tity.

The tomb at the cen­ter of the de­bate is known as Bj 581, after its lo­ca­tion when it was ex­ca­vated at the Birka set­tle­ment on the is­land of Bjorko, which is west of Stock­holm, with easy ac­cess to the Baltic Sea. (UNESCO des­ig­nated the set­tle­ment a World Her­itage Site in 1993.)

The grave was one of 1,100 ex­ca­vated at the site, but it was im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized as im­por­tant be­cause it was so well-fur­nished and in­tact. Sit­u­ated on an el­e­vated ter­race next to a mil­i­tary gar­ri­son, the grave in­cluded a sword, an ax, a spear, ar­mor­pierc­ing ar­rows, a bat­tle knife, two shields and two horses — “the com­plete equip­ment of a pro­fes­sional war­rior,” as the team of schol­ars put it.

The tomb was quickly iden­ti­fied as that of a high­rank­ing war­rior — who was pre­sumed to have been male.

As early as the 1970s, schol­ars be­gan to ques­tion that as­sump­tion. A bone anal­y­sis in 2013 sug­gested that the skele­ton was that of a wo­man, although the ev­i­dence re­mained in­con­clu­sive.

In the new study, pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Journal of Phys­i­cal An­thro­pol­ogy, the schol­ars say their anal­y­sis — based on anal­y­sis of DNA and of iso­topes of stron­tium, an el­e­ment found in hu­man bones — showed that the skele­ton was that of a wo­man, and that con­tex­tual ev­i­dence sug­gested that she had been a high-sta­tus war­rior.

Not only was her body sur­rounded by ar­ma­ments, but on her lap was a chesslike board game known as hne­fatafl, or King’s Ta­ble. Its place­ment sug­gested “that she also made strate­gic de­ci­sions, that she was in com­mand,” Char­lotte He­den­stierna-Jon­son, lead author of the pa­per, said in an in­ter­view in her of­fice at the Swedish His­tory Mu­seum.

Vik­ing so­ci­ety was pa­tri­ar­chal, but women were not closed off uni­formly from power. “They could own prop­erty ,” He­den­stierna-Jon­son said .“They could in­herit. They could be­come pow­er­ful mer­chants. That of course gave se­cu­rity and a level of in­de­pen­dence.”

About 1,000 peo­ple lived in Birka set­tle­ment un­til the 11th cen­tury, when the in­hab­i­tants moved away for rea­sons that are not clear.

The war­rior grave at Birka is not the first to be­long to a wo­man. Two war­rior graves in Nor­way are also be­lieved to be those of women.

Evald Hansen/The Swedish His­tory Mu­seum via The New York Times

A 19th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tion of the con­tents of a Vik­ing-era tomb ex­ca­vated on an is­land near Stock­holm. A group of schol­ars an­nounced that the re­mains were fe­male, a con­clu­sion that has reignited the long­stand­ing de­bate about the role of women in Vik­ing so­ci­ety.

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