Birka female Viking warrior

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Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled "Bj 581" by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889

The Birka female Viking warrior was a woman buried with the accoutrements of an elite professional Viking warrior in a 10th century chamber-grave in Birka, Sweden. Thought to be a male warrior since the grave's excavation in 1889, the remains have been proved to be female by both osteological analysis and a DNA study in 2017. The study concludes the artifacts buried with the woman are evidence she was a high-ranking professional warrior. That conclusion has been disputed as premature by archaeologists and historians who say the artifacts are not evidence that women were warriors in patriarchal Viking culture. This controversy has contributed to the debate about the gender roles performed by women in Viking society.

Archaeological records

Initial excavation

Archaeologist and ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe (1841–1905) excavated a warrior's burial chamber in the 1870s, as part of his archaeological research at the Viking Age site Birka, on the island Björkö (literally: "Birch Island") in present-day Sweden. In 1889 he documented the grave as Bj 581.[1][2] It has been considered "one of the most iconic graves from the Viking Age",[3] the burial of a warrior surrounded by "two shields, a sword, an ax, a spear, armor-piercing arrows and a battle knife", and remnants of "two horses...worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics".[4] For the next 128 years, the skeleton was assumed to be that of a "battle hardened man".[4] The warrior has been compared to "a figure from Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries".[5]

Reanalysis of skeletal remains

Studies in the 1970s had questioned the assumption the skeleton was male.[6] A 2014 osteological analysis of the skeleton's pelvic bones and mandible by Uppsala University bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström provided evidence that it was the grave of a woman.[7][2] Some archaeologists were skeptical, citing the probability that the bones had been mis-labeled in the last century, or perhaps jumbled with bones from other nearby graves.[2]

A study led by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, published in September 2017, noted Kjellström's "osteological analysis triggered questions concerning sex, gender and identity among Viking warriors".[8] Hedenstierna-Jonson's team extracted DNA from samples taken from a tooth and an arm bone of the person buried in Bj 581. According to Maja Krezwinska, the skeleton was conclusively proved to be that of a woman, having X-chromosomes, but no Y-chromosomes.[3]

Then the high-born 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 (st. 49)[8]

Analysis of grave artifacts

Analysis of the contents of the grave showed that it contained a game set with a board and pieces, thought to be evidence of her strategic thinking and indicating "that she was an officer who could lead troops into battle".[9] The Guardian reported, "Gaming pieces – perhaps from hnefatafl, a sort of precursor to chess – suggest the female warrior from grave Bj 581 was a battle strategist."[10] According to Kjellström, "Only a few warriors are buried with gaming pieces, and they signal strategic thinking."[9] The evidence also points to her as a member of the military caste.[4][11] The Washington Post reported, "The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden, like the ancient Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones."[4] Archaeologist David Zori noted, "numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, tell of 'shield-maidens' fighting alongside male warriors".[2]


Scholars have not agreed on the interpretation of complex Viking burial findings.[12] Viking studies professor Judith Jesch rebutted the study's conclusion that the skeleton interred in Bj 581 was female, arguing that since the grave was excavated in 1889, bones from other graves may have been mixed together; that the inference that she was a warrior because of game pieces buried in the grave was premature speculation; and that the researchers had not considered other reasons that a female body ended up in a warrior's tomb.[6]

Authors of the Hedenstierna-Jonson paper noted that "Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons", and "At Birka, grave Bj 581 was brought forward as an example of an elaborate high-status male warrior grave."[8] Additionally, they cited Marianne Moen's 2011 study that concluded, the "image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions".[8]

The Hedenstierna-Jonson team considered questions about the sex identification of the remains within the context of the martial objects buried with the bones, asserting that "the distribution of the grave goods within the grave, their spatial relation to the female individual and the total lack of any typically female attributed grave artefacts" disputed possibilities that the other artefacts belonged to the family of the deceased, or to a male "now missing" from the grave. In answer to the question, "Do weapons necessarily determine a warrior? ", the authors stress that interpreting the relevance of the artefacts buried with the body "...should be made in a similar manner regardless of the biological sex of the interred individual."[8]

After noting the androcentrism in archaeology and commenting on the questions some have interpreting the evidence for a female warrior, one observer wrote,

The real questions, the interesting questions: what does it mean that Bj 581 was a female? What does this tell us about how Viking society was structured? Was Bj 581 unique, or did she represent a category of women that has been largely relegated to mythology? And what can this tell us about how violent conflict was viewed and experienced? Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. just opened up a whole line of research questions that remind us how complex, rich, and fascinating human societies actually are when we study them for who they were and not to reflect who we think we are.[11]

— Holly Norton, The Guardian

The Hedenstierna-Jonson study concludes with the comment, "the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies."[8] Swedish historian Dick Harrison of Lunds University noted, "What has happened in the past 40 years through archaeological research, partly fueled by feminist research, is that women have been found to be priestesses and leaders, too... This has forced us to rewrite history."[6]

See also


  1. ^ "First DNA evidence for female Viking warriors" (in Swedish). Uppsala University. 8 September 2017. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c d Greshko, Michael (12 September 2017). "Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  3. ^ a b "Viking warrior from Birka grave confirmed as female". Archaeology News from Past Horizons. 8 September 2017. Archived from the original on 8 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c d Nutt, Amy Ellis (14 September 2017). "Wonder Woman lived: Viking warrior skeleton identified as female, 128 years after its discovery". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017. 
  5. ^ Price, Michael (8 September 2017). "DNA proves fearsome Viking warrior was a woman". Science. Archived from the original on 12 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c Anderson, Christina (September 14, 2017). "A Female Viking Warrior? Tomb Study Yields Clues". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on September 21, 2017. Retrieved September 21, 2017. 
  7. ^ Kjellström, Anna (8 November 2016). "People in Transition: Life in the Mälaren Valley from an Osteological Perspective". ResearchGate. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte; Kjellström, Anna; Zachrisson, Torun; Krzewińska, Maja; Sobrado, Veronica; Price, Neil; Günther, Torsten; Jakobsson, Mattias; Götherström, Anders. "A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23308. ISSN 1096-8644. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. 
  9. ^ a b Strickland, Ashley (14 September 2017). "Iconic Viking grave belonged to a female warrior". CNN. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017. 
  10. ^ Cocozza, Paula (12 September 2017). "Does new DNA evidence prove that there were female viking warlords?". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017. 
  11. ^ a b Norton, Holly (15 September 2017). "How the female Viking warrior was written out of history". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 16 September 2017. Retrieved 15 September 2017. 
  12. ^ Foss, Arild S. (2 January 2013). "Don't underestimate Viking women". Archived from the original on 26 March 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 

External links

  • Secrets of The Vikings Vikings (TV Show) Special (video, 21:46 minutes–section on female Viking warrior begins at 6:43)
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