A female Viking warrior?
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.
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.