When Viking grave Bj 581 was discovered in the 19th century, at the former Viking town of Birka, Sweden, the remains it contained were automatically assumed to be those of a man.
This person had been buried with all the trappings of a high status professional Viking warrior, including an axe, a sword, a spear, a battle knife, arrows, two shields, a set of gaming pieces, and two horses. Based on this archaeological context alone, the sex of the deceased was a foregone conclusion, and remained so until more than a hundred years later, when an osteological analysis of the remains carried out in 1970 indicated that they had belonged to a woman.
Doubts were immediately raised. It could not be verified beyond doubt whether all the bones in the grave derived from a single individual. And if the grave had originally contained more than one individual, it was also possible that the grave goods were not intended primarily for what appeared to be the remains of a woman, but for a second, male individual, whose remains were now lost.
Some of those doubts have since been put to rest by a DNA-study of the remains, published by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR) & Riksbankens jubileumsfond (RJ). The study confirms not only that the individual in grave Bj 581 was a woman, but also that the remains were from a single individual.
The study also disputes the likelihood of there having been a now lost second individual for whom the gravegoods were intended, as their placement in relation to the woman’s remains (the gaming pieces, for instance, were placed on her lap) indicate that she was indeed the intended recipient.
Evidence for female Viking warriors can be found in the historical record, but has often been dismissed as fiction by Viking scholars. The Norse Sagas and early historical accounts of Scandinavia mention several examples of female Viking warriors by name, and even detail their actions. Examples include Hervor (Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) and Webiorg (Gesta Danorum). Another is Brynhildr (Völsunga Saga), on whom Brunhilde of Wagner’s famous Nibelungenlied is based. High status female warriors are also known from the historical record of Roman Britain, where Queen Boudica of the Iceni led her army into a defensive war against Roman occupation at Londinium.
“Now out of the town of Sle, under the captains Hetha and Wisna, with Hakon Cut-cheek came Tummi the Sailmaker. On these captains, who had the bodies of women, nature bestowed the souls of men. Webiorg was also inspired with the same spirit, and was attended by Bo (Bui) Bramason and Brat the Jute, thirsting for war.”
– Saxo Grammaticus
“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
The findings of Hedenstierna-Jonson’s study provide conclusive evidence that there were women who identified – and were identified – as high-status Viking warriors.
However there are a few further questions worth asking. The woman in grave Bj 582 showed no signs of trauma or injury – the absence of which is perhaps puzzling in an individual who led a warrior-lifestyle. Yet surprisingly, such a lack of evidence for trauma is fairly typical of Scandinavian Viking burials. Out of 49 excavated male Viking graves at Birka, only 2 showed signs of injuries. A similar ratio is typical for Viking burials elsewhere in Scandinavia.
Based on this, it is worth asking whether the two-fold characteristics of battle/raiding and commerce/trade associated with the Viking lifestyle may frequently have involved much more of the latter, with the former having been more of an ideological aspect associated with Viking culture. As such, Vikings would have identified as warriors even if in practice their lives did not involve regular armed conflict.
The woman of grave Bj 581 is not the first Viking woman to have been found buried with weapons, although she is the first of such high status that has been verified. Similar points to the one I made above have regularly been made about these female warrior graves: namely that their equipment may have been merely symbolic, rather than being indicative of an actual warrior lifestyle. But as the authors of the study rightly point out, these points then should be made of all Viking warrior graves lacking evidence for trauma, regardless of sex.
Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics”, The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308
Oliver Elton. “THE DANISH HISTORY, BOOKS I-IX by Saxo Grammaticus”. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg.