The 10th-century Viking’s grave contains high quality weapons, an imported uniform, two horses and even a gaming set. Clearly, the grave contained a warrior of great importance; and for over a century, archaeologists assumed the person was male. But when researchers announced in 2017 that the warrior was actually female, they received a lot of pushback—surely the archaeologists had made some mistake? Perhaps they tested the wrong body?
“I must say I thought that we had come much further than that; I was surprised by the reactions we had to the article,” says Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, a professor of archaeology at Uppsala University in Sweden who co-authored the 2017 paper about the find.
The ensuing conversation raised questions about the role of women in Viking culture—as well as how Vikings understood gender identity. Unlike other Viking women buried with weapons, this person wasn’t wearing typical women’s clothing or jewelry.
“In this grave there is nothing that we archaeologically would interpret as female,” says Hedenstierna-Jonson, who co-authored a new paper in February, 2019 in Antiquity responding to the reactions to her team’s findings. “It’s not a typically male costume either probably because it’s very high status…but there is nothing indicating a woman, there are no typical finds that we link to women.”
In the new paper, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues address the difficulty of trying to the interpret gender roles of people who lived over 1,000 years ago through archaeology, including the suggestion that the warrior may have been transgender.
“While we understand this line of thinking in the context of contemporary social debates, it should be remembered that this is a modern politicized, intellectual and Western term, and, as such, is problematic (some would say impossible) to apply to people of the more remote past,” they write.
Gender identity aside, for many critics, the main issue is simply the suggestion that the warrior isn’t biologically male.
“What I find a bit interesting is that since it was excavated in the 1870s, it has constantly been interpreted as a warrior grave because it looks like a warrior grave and it’s placed by the garrison and by the hillfort,” Hedenstierna-Johnson says. “Nobody’s ever contested it until the skeleton proved to be female and then it was not a valid interpretation anymore.”
The idea of Viking women who were warriors isn’t new. In fantastical 19th-century images, “it’s common to see [women] depicted as valkyries or strong women,” she says (in Norse mythology, valkyries chose which fallen warriors could live with the god Odin at Valhalla). Even so, Viking history books published after World War II tended to portray Viking women essentially as farm housewives. Though Hedenstierna-Jonson says “there is nothing really that supports that,” it still reinforced the idea that roles in Viking society were always segregated by sex.
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The female warrior grave Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues studied dates to the 10th century, and was buried in the Birka Viking settlement on the Swedish island of Björkö. Out of the thousands of graves on the island, hers is one of only two known graves containing a full set of weaponry.
“Even if it had been a man, it would have been rather unique,” Hedenstierna-Jonson says. The weapons suggest the person was a professional warrior, likely a mounted archer. But it’s not just the weapons that mark her as special.
“The presence of a full gaming set and board in [the grave], and their deliberate placement in direct proximity to the body, suggests a potential command role, in addition to the high status implied by the quality of the military equipment,” Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues write in their latest article. The warrior’s tasseled hat seems to indicate she was a leading member of society, and her clothing suggests she was a cavalry commander.
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The grave’s actual location is also significant. “It was highly visible from the sea and from the town area, and it was marked by large stone boulder,” she says, pointing out that everyone would know where the warrior’s grave was.
“This is a very high-ranking person in society,” she says, “and that position was not open to very many.”
Hedenstierna-Jonson predicts that as more Viking archaeologists begin to challenge their own assumptions about gender in their work, they might look for more female Vikings who held special positions like this female warrior did, and perhaps even discover that some previously-discovered graves were misidentified.
As for the warrior’s gender identity, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues write, “There are many other possibilities across a wide gender spectrum, some perhaps unknown to us, but familiar to the people of the time.
“We do not discount any of them.”