It’s weird when a fantasy series for kids ends up beating actual archaeologists to a historical fact. As it turns out though, thanks to characters like Astrid in the How to Train Your Dragon series, my kids are apparently more comfortable with the notion of a female Viking warrior than most scholars have been for the past 137 years. A grave in Birka, Sweden was discovered with a considerable amount of equipment suitable for a high-ranking warrior, but nobody even really considered the idea that this warrior was a woman until this year, when genetic testing firmly established her XX chromosomes.
The grave in question is known as BJ581, and is somewhat famous as an example of a successful warrior’s grave. In addition to the human skeleton, the grave also contained the bodies of a male and female horse, a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and a board game. Many of these items have since been found to be representative of warrior burial practices in the Middle Ages, but the board game stands out. The chess-like game is thought to be a sign that this particular warrior was able, and probably expected, to have a mastery of strategy and tactics, quite likely as a commander on the battlefield. The conclusion is therefore that the occupant of grave BJ581 wasn’t not only a fighter, but a skilled and accomplished one at that.
Weapons aren’t for women?
This same collection of grave goods has long been used as evidence that this warrior was male, because people were used to that idea, more or less. Researchers from the 1880s onward have essentially assumed that anyone able to wield a weapon must be male, most likely because of researchers’ own cultural standards. In most of the studies of this grave, there was little investigation into the skeleton’s sex because it was considered a foregone conclusion. Only recently did Anna Kjellström actually investigate the sex of the body, a task made easier with modern DNA analysis. In addition to the discovery of two X chromosomes, isotope samples from the skeleton’s tooth root and upper arm also revealed that this woman had probably moved to Birka from elsewhere somewhere between ages four and nine.
As definitive as the chromosomes are in this case, there’s still push-back in the academic community to accept this correction. In some cases, people point to the idea that women may have been buried with weapons that were heirlooms, or for ceremonial purposes. Women may have been buried alongside male warriors and their weapons. People have even wanted to rewrite the meaning of the game pieces, suggesting that maybe this longstanding sign of tactical prowess was actually, after 100 years of agreement, included because the deceased might have enjoyed playing games. This is all despite other historical records pointing women’s martial abilities in Viking societies, even beyond kids’ movies and cartoons.
Accepting female fighters
The warrior from grave BJ581 isn’t the first woman to face this kind of resistance. The most famous example is probably the Scythian women more commonly known as Amazons. Famous even in their own time, myths and exaggerations created some doubt about if these warriors really did fight bows and arrows, spears and swords from horseback as written and depicted in contemporaneous artwork. Today we have the physical evidence, including genetic testing, to confirm many of these legends, and it seems that the reputation of female Viking warriors may be on a similar track. With this new knowledge from Birka, people are now wondering how many other Viking women have been misidentified in other graves, and further tests should help settle some doubts about who exactly was fighting in Viking armies.
My third grader asked: Women have smaller bones than men?
Part of what sparked the interest in testing this warrior’s skeleton’s DNA was that the bones were proportionally a bit slighter than one might expect for a male. Hips and shoulders are usually more obvious hints at a skeleton’s sex, but studies have also found that males are more likely to have slightly thicker bones, such as around the tibia.
Source: First Female Viking Warrior Proved Through DNA by Kristina Killgrove, Forbes