An elaborate Viking Age grave in Sweden holds the remains of a decorated female warrior from the 10th century, providing the first archaeological evidence that women held high-status positions in Viking culture.
The remarkable find was revealed in a study by researchers at Stockholm and Uppsala Universities and published in the American Journal of Anthropology. Their DNA analysis of the skeleton confirmed that the individual was a woman older than 30 years old, who stood somewhere around 5 feet 6 inches tall.
Several weapons were buried alongside the body, including a sword, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, an axe, a spear and two shields, indicating that the skeleton was likely that of a warrior. Accompanying the wide array of weapons were two horses and a full set of game pieces and a gaming board. The gaming pieces suggest that the person buried was a high-ranking combatant who was knowledgeable of strategies and tactics.
“This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior,” said Professor Mattias Jakobsson in a report by Uppsala University.
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Legends of ferocious female warriors appear in Scandinavian lore and poetry from the Middle Ages. Stories of similar warriors have been told in the modern era too, for example Lagertha on the HISTORY series Vikings, but the existence of warrior women in Viking culture has consistently been challenged in official histories, with women often relegated to non-combatant roles.
This common assumption was also the reason why this landmark discovery was initially overlooked. The grave was originally uncovered in the late 19th century by Swedish archaeologist Hjalmar Stople, and initially seemed like many others found in the Swedish city of Birka, a trading hub for Vikings.
As Viking warriors were all assumed to be male, the trove of weapons and paraphernalia found with the skeleton seemed to leave little question as to the sex of the fighter. It wasn’t until Stockholm University osteologist Anna Kjellström reviewed the skeleton as part of another project that she noticed the bones’ structure suggested that the unknown Viking may have been a woman.
Kjellström’s theory turned out to be true. A DNA sample was taken from a tooth and an arm of the skeleton, revealing no Y chromosomes were present.
This isn’t the first Viking grave to contain both weapons and female remains, the study explains. It is, however, the first to present overwhelming evidence that the weapons and paraphernalia found beside a skeleton belonged to the woman who occupied the grave. Viking burial rites were unique but fairly consistent, and warriors were often buried beside their possessions. These possessions could range from their weapons or, in some cases, the women that they took as slaves. As a result, female remains have been found in Viking graves.
Prior to this, the most famous female-centric Viking discovery was the Oseberg ship, one of the most well-preserved and decadent Viking burial sites ever found. Housing the skeletons of two women, the exceptionally large boat included 13 horses, two dogs, two oxen, a four-wheel wooden cart, three beds, wooden chests, four wooden sledges and a variety of other items indicating high influence. However, no weapons were found in the ship, and there was no indication that the women at the Oseberg site were warriors, making this recent discovery all the more significant.
For the first time, the study notes, it can be said that women “were able to be full members of male dominated spheres,” during the Viking Age.
“What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman,” Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, leader of the groundbreaking study, said in a public release.