New evidence calls for rethinking famous grave and may shed new light on gender roles among the Vikings.

In what is now southeastern Sweden, a wealthy Viking warrior was laid to rest over a thousand years ago in a majestic grave full of swords, arrowheads and two sacrificed horses. The grave reflected the life of a male Viking warrior. At least that is what many archaeologists thought.

However, new DNA analyzes of the bones reveal a secret: a woman is lying in the grave.

Through the study, recently in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology is published , archaeologists had to improve their knowledge of the Vikings. These medieval navigators plundered and traded throughout Europe for centuries.

“Until now, the grave has been seen as the ‘ideal’ grave of a male Viking warrior.”

BY DAVIDE ZORI

“To date, the grave has been viewed as the ‘ideal’ grave of a male Viking warrior,” said Davide Zori , an archaeologist at Baylor University. He was not involved in the investigation. “The new research says everything about our archaeological interpretation: we have always based everything on our view of gender roles.”

Tradition about the Vikings already suggested that not all warriors were men. An early tenth century Irish story is about Inghen Ruaidh (the Red Virgin), a female warrior who led a Viking fleet to Ireland. Zori notes that in countless Viking agas, such as in the thirteenth-century Völsunga saga, “shield maids” fight alongside male warriors .

However, some archaeologists dismissed these female warriors as mythological embellishments. A view that was colored by modern expectations of gender roles.

A man was assumed

Since the late 1980s, archaeologists have seen the ‘Birka warrior’ through these glasses. Textbooks attributed the grave to a man, but not based on what the bones said. Since swords, arrowheads, a spear and two sacrificed horses were found next to the remains, this was the grave of a warrior and thus of a man, according to archaeologists.

As described in the editorial of the March 2017 National Geographic edition on Vikings, this all changed when Anna Kjellström , bioarchaeologist at Stockholm University, first thoroughly examined the warrior’s pelvis and mandible. Its dimensions corresponded to that of a woman.

Dressed in iron helmets, chainmail and leather cuirasses, the Viking performers make an impressive impression. It becomes clear why these robbers frightened their victims so much.
PHOTO BY DAVID GUTTENFELDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

As described in the editorial of the March 2017 National Geographic edition on Vikings, this all changed when Anna Kjellström , bioarchaeologist at Stockholm University, first thoroughly examined the warrior’s pelvis and mandible. Its dimensions corresponded to that of a woman.

Kjellström’s analysis, presented at a conference in 2014 and published in 2016, did not raise much controversy, and some archaeologists opposed it. The excavation took place over a century ago. Maybe the bones were mislabeled? This had also happened when digging nearby. Or maybe the bones of the skeleton were swapped with the bones of other people?

Under the direction of Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson , archaeologist at the University of Uppsala, two types of DNA were extracted. The mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from mother to child, made it possible to determine whether the bones belonged to one or more persons. The warrior’s core DNA is said to reveal biological sex.

The results were clear. The team did not find any Y chromosomes in the bones, and the mitochondrial DNA of the different bones matched. The remains belonged to one person and that person was a woman.

According to Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues, the woman was probably a warrior and even a respected strategist. “On her lap was a board game,” said Hedenstierna-Jonson in an earlier interview. “That could indicate that she was setting tactics and that she was a leader.”

Illustration by Evald Hansen, based on the original sketch of the tomb by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe, published in 1889.
PHOTO FROM ILLUSTRATION COURTESY UPPSALA UNIVERSITY

Life of the Vikings         

Zori remains fascinated by what the discovery says about Birka, the Viking-era trading settlement where the woman was buried. The region is not only one of the largest and best known Viking cemeteries, it was also a thriving trading hub. The place was flooded with silver from Byzantium and Arabia through the sale of pelts and slaves, which were shipped over the Dnieper and the Volga.

The Birka Counts have a distinct international appearance, which Zori believes may be due to the movement of goods and people. The funeral rites in Birka varied widely, from the burning of the dead to the dead placed on a chair.

Birka connected the Viking world. The place revolved around trade, change, people’s comings and goings. Not to finish each other, ”he adds. “It is also important that the grave in this trading place has a warlike side. This connects two important aspects of the Viking world. ”

While possible, Zori says it is unlikely that the next of kin buried the woman with a warrior’s equipment without her playing that role. Given the evidence, Zori is very confident in the research results.

Zori: “The texts about female fighters have always aroused a lot of interest. Thanks to new technologies, we can now bring text and archeology closer together. ”

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