In the 1880s, a fascinating grave was discovered in the Swedish town of Birka. Chock full of weapons, gaming equipment, and two horses, the 10th century AD burial was assumed to be that of a powerful male Viking warrior. But the skeleton had some traits that suggested the person was female. A new study has revealed through DNA analysis that this powerful warrior was indeed a Viking woman.
The idea of a female Viking warrior is not new. Historical records from the early Middle Ages mention women fighting alongside men and artistic works depict this as well. But for the most part, these ideas have been dismissed as mythological, not based in reality. With thousands of known Viking warrior graves around Europe, though, it is now possible to test this idea through the study of skeletons.
Birka in east central Sweden boasts over 3,000 Viking graves, about one-third of which have been excavated by archaeologists. The population of Birka appears to have consisted of warriors, artisans, and traders — the diverse styles of burial in particular speak to a culture receptive to outside influences.
One particular grave at Birka, which was excavated in the late 19th century, is the subject of a new article out in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of researchers at Uppsala University and Stockholm University, led by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson. As the researchers note, the burial was of special interest because “the grave goods included a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses (one mare and one stallion); thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior.” Also included in the grave were gaming pieces that are suggestive of “knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.”
For centuries, this individual was assumed to be male, solely because of the complement of weapons. In 2016, however, one of the researchers, Anna Kjellström, reexamined the skeleton from this burial — and found that the individual was most likely female. “Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known,” the researchers explain, “a female warrior of this importance has never been determined, and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons.” In order to confirm her hypothesis, Kjellström, Hedenstierna-Jonson, and the rest of the research team decided to investigate the nuclear DNA of the person.
The researchers tested both a tooth root and the upper arm bone from the burial. Both samples returned with clear evidence of biological sex — two X chromosomes, and no Y chromosomes. The mtDNA haplogroup came back as T2b, which is common in England, Iceland, and Scandinavia. Her strontium isotopes values, however, suggest early mobility. Between the time her first molar finished forming around age 4 and her second molar finished forming around age 9, the female warrior moved from an undetermined homeland to Birka. “The individual in grave BJ581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior,” Hedenstierna-Jonson and colleagues conclude.
This finding should make all archaeologists question previous identifications of the sex of Viking warriors. In the past, numerous preconceptions have prevented the full study of possible female warriors. The researchers note that “similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning, or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual. Male individuals in burials with similar material record are not questioned in the same way.” Another argument was that this particular grave may have held a second individual at some point in time, and all of the weapons belonged to him. And finally, some have argued that weapons buried with a female do not make her a warrior, while not examining the assumption that weapons buried with a male do signal his warrior status.
Hedenstierna-Jonson and colleagues’ discovery paves the way for a better understanding of the Vikings. While their paper does not specifically raise the issue of how this biological female would have presented to the rest of the group, or how the group would have perceived this biological female, they do conclude that “questions of biological sex, gender, and social roles are complex — and were so also in the Viking Age.”