BBC History Magazine
4 Women on the move
Science has exploded the notion that wives, mothers and daughters were bystanders in the great Viking migrations
Tales of the Vikings have traditionally revolved around the men who embarked on daring journeys
– and carried out atrocities – abroad. Women, on the other hand, are often thought of as mere onlookers, waiting patiently at home in charge of the family farm until their husbands and fathers returned bearing the spoils of war. The frequent foreign and exotic artefacts found in women’s graves have almost exclusively been interpreted as gifts. But new evidence is beginning to challenge this.
Isotope analysis now shows that women travelled, too, both within Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. At Adwick-le-Street in South Yorkshire, isotope evidence revealed that a woman buried with Scandinavian-style brooches likely grew up in western Norway.
At the 873 Great Army winter camp at Repton, a mass burial thought to contain war dead also contained several women. These were originally believed to have been the local wives or even slaves of the Scandinavian men. But here, too, the isotope evidence revealed that several of them may well have grown up in Scandinavia.
It is now clear that women played a significant part in the population dynamics of the Viking Age. However, we still don’t know exactly what their roles were. While many of those women buried abroad may have been peaceful migrants, one particular burial from Sweden has suggested that this may not have been the case for all of them.
In 2017, a team of researchers announced the results of a new ancient DNA study of one of the most spectacular warrior graves from the Viking town of Birka near Stockholm. The chamber grave (number Bj 581) contained a single body with an extensive set of weapons and the remains of two horses – one of them fully equipped, as if ready to ride into battle. But what made the DNA study especially surprising was the fact that it revealed that this individual – usually thought to be the archetypal, Viking warrior – was genetically female. 6he findings created quite a stir because fighting women are often thought to be confined to mythology. Some still doubt the interpretation of Bj 581, noting that, although genetically female, the warrior may have considered themselves male (ie, they were transgender). Others have pointed out that, although she was buried with weapons, that is not enough in itself to confirm she was a warrior. Still, someone went to a lot of trouble to present her as one in death. This, combined with the knowledge that women also took part in movements in and out of Scandinavia, suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the contents of Bj 581 after all.