Archaeology

DNA Evidence Shows Some Viking Warriors May Have Been Women

For decades, the Viking story went something like this: during the 10th century, big, muscled Norse men wearing horned helmets raided and pillaged their way through Europe and the New World. But if you ask archaeologists, they'll tell you most of that is a big fat myth. That may even include the part about them being men: DNA evidence shows that, in fact, many of the warriors may have been women.

If It Looks Like A Warrior...

The idea that Viking warriors could have included men and women is nothing new. Historical records and artistic works from the Middle Ages include women in their accounts of warriors fighting grand battles, but academics dismissed those ideas as myth. There are also thousands of Viking warrior graves throughout Europe, giving archaeologists plenty of evidence to sift through. But the way they determined the sex of the corpses left plenty of room for bias: if the Viking was buried with weapons, it was male; if it was buried with an oval brooch, it was female. It's pretty hard to determine the sex of a warrior when their sex depends on whether or not they were a warrior.

In 2017, archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and researchers from Uppsala University and Stockholm University took a second look at the remains of one warrior who was always assumed to be male. Located in the east central Swedish city of Birka — which lays claim to more than 3,000 graves of Viking warriors, artisans, and traders — the grave, labeled Bj 581, was originally excavated in the 19th century. The corpse was buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a battle knife, two shields, two horses, and battle-strategy gaming pieces. This was clearly a high-ranking officer. And, to 19th century experts, clearly a man.

In the 1970s, bone analysis indicated that the body in Bj 581 was female, but again researchers argued that there were no female Viking warriors and the findings were dismissed. In 2016, more bone analysis, this time of the shape of the cheek and hip bones, suggested again that the body was female. This time, other experts raised doubts about whether the artifacts belonged to the corpse — sure, she was a female buried with weapons, but that didn't make her a warrior.

DNA To The Rescue

Finally, in 2017, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team analyzed the DNA from one of the corpse's teeth and an arm bone, which showed conclusively that samples belonged to a woman. Like with previous discoveries, the researchers admit that weapons do not a warrior make — but in the paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, they point out that these kinds of questions don't come up when the corpse is assumed to be male. "Similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual," the authors write. "Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way."

There's one issue with this research: because the grave was excavated so long ago, it's possible that the remains got mixed up over the decades and that the bones the researchers analyzed didn't actually belong to Bj 581. Critics say that even if this Viking was a warrior and a woman, it might just show that there were rare exceptions to the culture's otherwise rigid gender roles. It's hard to know, but the possibilities are certainly intriguing.

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Written by Ashley Hamer September 20, 2017