For nearly a century, sexist views of warrior culture and the supposed roles assigned to men and women have stood in the way of science. Now, a Swedish archaeology team is setting the record straight, turning to genetics to prove one highly decorated Viking warrior was a woman.
According to the Swedish team, archaeologists uncovered the well appointed grave of a Viking soldier in Birka, Sweden in the 1880s. Researchers immediately assumed the Birka soldier was a man and for over a century “he” has been the archetype of a Viking warrior - a manly man buried with the weapons of his trade including armor piercing arrows, a sword, an axe, a spear, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses. “He” was also buried with a gaming set, meaning, according to the team, “he” was an officer who crafted war strategies and led troops into battle.
The Swedish team says the soldier was identified as male based solely on the grave goods, but skeletal analyses conducted as far back as the 1970s show “he” is really female. According to the team, many Viking researchers have historically been reluctant to admit women could have been warriors. They say medieval accounts of Viking warrior men and women fighting together, have been dismissed as myths.
They also say many female Vikings have been found buried with weapons. None of the burials were as complex or as rich as the Birka burial, but in each instance, other scholars have argued the weapons were heirlooms or objects representing the woman’s family not her as an individual. Yet males buried in the same manner are always seen as warriors, not caretakers of someone else’s weaponry.
It is for all of the reasons outlined above that the Swedish team decided to use genetic testing to confirm the sex of the Birka warrior. Genetic testing shows she is female and strontium isotope testing done at the same time shows she was mobile, a trait the team says was typical of extended members of elite families.
The research team says their work provides a new insight into conventional Viking society and it shows women had access to leadership roles. The group also says their work is a “caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions.” Gender roles, they say, are always complicated, even in past societies.
The Swedish archaeologists published their work in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The article is open access and can be found here. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.23308/full