Was She Or Wasn’t She?

If you’ve been hanging out in the on-line places where history and science–and, occasionally, the history of science–intersect over the last week or so,* you’ve read articles with tiles that are variations on “a female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics”–the title of the scholarly article that first appeared in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on September 8.

female Viking warrior

Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of the grave by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe, published in 1889

Here’s the short version: Ever since the discovery of the so-called “Birka warrior” in Sweden in the late 1880s, scholars have believed that it was the grave of a male Viking warrior, based on the fact that the body was buried with all the accoutrements of a Viking warrior.** It turns out that the bones told a different story. Earlier this year, Swedish bioarcheaologist Anna Kjellström examined the skeletal remains and found that the pelvic bones and jaw indicated that the body was that of a woman. Traditional archaeologists pushed back hard, suggesting among other things that some bones from another body had gotten jumbled up with those of the warrior who was laid to rest in such splendor. (Apparently this is not unknown in ancient graves.) No such luck. DNA tests proved that the bones all belong to one warrior and she was a woman.

Like much of the history world, I’ve been fascinated with the story since it first appeared on my Google alerts.*** But I had no intention of writing a blog post about this until last night when a new report showed up in my in-basket. The Birka burial has been considered a model example of a Viking warrior burial for more than a hundred years. Some researchers are now taking the position that since the Birka warrior doesn’t show signs of battle injuries she probably wasn’t a warrior at all.# Maybe, for instance, she was the wife of a Viking warrior, buried with all his stuff because he died overseas.## I am not an archaeologist, but this sounds to me like someone stretching really, really far to keep the girls out of the Viking clubhouse.

This is exactly the kind of stuff that has been making me nuts over the last year, reading scholars twist themselves into knots trying to prove that individual women warriors 1) didn’t exist, 2)weren’t really warriors, 3)were metaphors for [fill in the blank] resistance against [fill in the blank] or 4)the creation of male homoerotic fantasies because obviously a women with a sword (especially one wearing pants) is a penis symbol. (Hey, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Archaeologist Marianne Moen from the University of Oslo brings a note of reason to the discussion, saying that is important not to hold women to a different standard than men when assessing comparable weapons placed in their grave.### In short, the Birka find “was a warrior grave until it was sexed as female. Now a lot of people would like to call it something else. That is where the danger lies here.”

I have not read either the original report or the rebuttals in detail, though you can bet I will when I get to chapter eight, which will deal with Viking sword maidens, female samurais, etc.–in November, knock wood.

In the meantime, here are links to the original report and a good article on the debates surrounding it for anyone who wants to get a headstart:


*And I know some of you do because many of you have sent me links to articles related to the topic of this blog post. I’ve tried to thank you individually, but in case I missed anyone, let me thank all of you here. I LOVE getting leads to blog topics or info about women warriors from y’all.
**But no horned helmet. The horned helmet made its first known appearance in 1876 in the debut performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. How many costume designers can claim to have created an image with such an impact?
***Alongside news about the latest exploits of many women’s sports teams. Go Warriors!
# Apparently the Birka warrior is not unique in this, but all the other remains without battle injuries have historically been deemed warriors.
##That sound you hear is my teeth grinding.
###Different standard–just another way of saying double standard.



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