It held the remains of a tall Viking warrior. Carefully arrayed alongside the body was a full suite of heavy weaponry. Two expensive horses had been sacrificed as part of the interment ritual.
There was even an elaborate game set, including board and pieces, set carefully on the deceased’s lap.
The burial helped set the definition of what a Viking warrior was since it was first discovered near the Swedish town of Birka in the 1880s.
But it turns out there is something out of the ordinary with this hero of the age of plundering long boats.
The American Journal of Physical Anthropology reveals it was a woman in her 30s.
“At Birka, grave Bj 581 was brought forward as an example of an elaborate high-status male warrior grave,” the study reads. “This image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions. Hence, the biological sex of the individual was taken for granted.”
“What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman,” says the leader of the Stockholm and Uppsala Universities study, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson.
The burial was made near the Viking town of Birka in the mid 10th Century. Isotope analysis of her teeth reveals she had been a roamer — moving all about northern Europe in keeping with the legendary Viking wanderlust.
The notion of a Viking warrior woman is not new. Mention is found in Nordic tradition.
Then the highborn lady saw them play the wounding game,
she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak;
she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen’s lives,
she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows.
— The Greenlandic Poem of Atli
“You can’t reach such a high (military) position without having warrior experience, so it’s reasonable to believe that she took part in battles,” Hedenstierna-Jonson told The Local .
“It was probably quite unusual (for a woman to be a military leader), but in this case, it probably had more to do with her role in society and the family she was from, and that carrying more importance than her gender.”
A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE
Her DNA tells another, more detailed story.
“The Viking warrior female showed genetic affinity to present-day inhabitants of the British Islands (England and Scotland), the North Atlantic Islands (Iceland and the Orkneys), Scandinavia (Denmark and Norway) and to lesser extent Eastern Baltic Europe (Lithuania and Latvia),” the study reads. “A detailed comparison with modern-day Swedish individuals from across the entire country shows genetic affinities between the female warrior and southern and south-central Swedes.” Study co-author Anna Kjellstrom said the body had attracted questions previously, but tests had proven inconclusive.
“The morphology of some skeletal traits strongly suggests that she was a woman, but this has been the type specimen for a Viking warrior for over a century (which is) why we needed to confirm the sex in any way we could.” The presence of the X chromosome was confirmed in the remains. As was a lack of Y chromosomes.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEWOMAN
The weaponry she was buried with denoted her as an accomplished warrior. Her high status was inferred from the burial of two horses.
“The gaming set indicates that she was an officer”, says Hedenstierna-Jonson, “someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle”.
So does the simple presence of weapons make her a warrior, the study asks.
“The interpretation of grave goods is not straight forward, but it must be stressed that the interpretation should be made in a similar manner regardless of the biological sex of the interred individual. Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics.” The study points out this grave brings the total of known Viking warrior women to three.
“The female Viking warrior was part of a society that dominated 8th to 10th century northern Europe,” the study concludes. “Our results — that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior — suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres. Questions of biological sex, gender and social roles are complex and were so also in the Viking Age.”