The surprisingly contentious Viking warrior woman of Birko
Long thought male, a tenth century corpse is now known to be female, but debate over whether she was a warrior continues. Andrew Masterson reports.
The remains of a tenth century Viking warrior, long assumed to be male but recently found to be female, have become more puzzling, with new research suggesting she may not have been a warrior at all.
Her body, lying in a chamber grave known as Bj.581 on the Swedish island of Birka, or Bjorko, was originally uncovered by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe in 1889. It had been buried in a sitting position, clad in garments made of silver and silk. Also in the grave were a sword, axe, spear, arrows, two shields and the skeletons of a pair of horses.
Stolpe immediately classified the bones as male, with the presence of the sword – near the body – cited as definitive evidence that when alive he had been a warrior.
The interpretation went unchallenged for well over a century. In 2017, however, a team led by Neil Price from Sweden’s University of Uppsala, conducted a genomic analysis of the skeleton, and revealed that the person was, definitively, unequivocally, female.
The result was sensational. Viking and Norse literature contain many references to female fighters – think of the Valkyrie, for instance – but until then actual evidence for their existence was sketchy.
“The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time‐period,” the researchers concluded.
“The results call for caution against generalisations regarding social orders in past societies.”
The paper prompted an immediate and loud backlash. Price and colleagues were accused of fudging their results – even, absurdly, of gene-testing a previously unseen second skeleton also buried in the grave.
Other critics accepted the genomic evidence but challenged the interpretation – uncontroversial when the remains were thought to be male – that the woman was a warrior. Perhaps she was merely buried with someone else’s weapons, in a type of symbolic gesture, some said.
Others suggested that she may have been female in the genetic sense, but not in the cultural one, living perhaps as a transgendered or otherwise non-binary individual, presenting to her community as male.
In a follow-up paper published in the journal Antiquity in February 2019, Price and colleagues strongly counter all the criticisms.
Other examples of obvious non-warriors buried with weapons, including children or obviously deformed adults, are fundamentally different, they say, because in these cases the armaments are obviously old, broken or in other ways patently unsuitable for use. Their symbolic intent is clear. The woman in the Birka grave was buried with a wide selection of serious, and seriously sharp, fighting implements.
It is impossible to completely exclude the possibility that she lived as a non-gendered or non-binary person, they concede, but argue that making such a case pushes the available evidence towards the edge of its envelope.
“Many other interpretations of both funerary treatment and gender are possible, but Occam’s razor would suggest that to reach for them as a first resort is to attempt to ‘explain away’ what seems to be the most obvious and logical conclusion,” they write.
“In our opinion, Bj.581 was the grave of a woman who lived as a professional warrior and was buried in a martial environment as an individual of rank.”
Now, however, another study taking a very different approach seems likely to kick the hornets’ nest all over again.
Researchers including Erin Sebo, an expert in Medieval literature based at Australia’s Flinders University, opted to take a detailed look at the two types of evidence. The first was references to burials contained in Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature, and the second was the layout of 39 burial chambers in Britain and Europe dating from the same periods and cultures.
In a paper in the Journal of European Archaeology, the authors note that none of the literary descriptions of warrior burials, in either corpus, contained any references to swords being placed alongside the corpse.
“If the presence of a sword in a grave doesn’t define a person’s status as a warrior, then perhaps we have to think in a completely different way about what a sword represented in the early medieval mortuary context,” says Sebo.
In the physical graves the team analysed – resting places in which weapons were present – interpretation of meaning was found to be complex and in many ways unknowable.
In Anglo-Saxon graves, the researchers point out, swords were often positioned such that they were being embraced by the corpse, the hilt next to the head. The presence and position of the weapon signalled “an elite but nuanced masculinity, just as they are in literature”.
In Viking interments, they add, “swords were probably seen in a more practical light, worn as objects and tools of battle”.
In Viking burials uncovered in England, corpses were buried with swords placed to suggest they were being worn, in “a hidden position that suggests the sword was understood to be a tool or weapon”.
The burial at Birka, however, is different. Here, say Sebo and colleagues, the sword was positioned some distance from the corpse, seemingly to balance the aesthetic of the grave layout.
It was also placed on her left-hand side – which might indicate she was a southpaw, but might also hint at a non-practical purpose, a weapon she was not expected to grasp in the afterlife.
The position of the sword, the authors propose, would have seemed “jarring” to an observer, a breach of convention.
“These types of burial narratives created tropes about their construction, and were familiar to the observers, from stories and poetry,” they write.
“Either BJ 581 was a burial conducted by someone unfamiliar with these tropes, or this unusual arrangement indicated something unconventional about the dead woman’s identity.”
Quite what that unconventional element might have been, of course, remains unknown, but Sebo and colleagues are unwilling to argue that the state of the Birka grave chamber is evidence that its occupant was an earthly variant of the Valkyrie.
“A sword could be a means of transmitting identity, fulfilling obligations, or authenticating heirs,” they write.
“Swords placed in aesthetically awkward arrangements suggest a plurality of meaning and symbolism bound up with the sword, and its place within a grave.”