Secret Life of a Viking Warrior Woman
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
Way back in 1871, on the quiet island of Birka, in present-day Sweden, an amazing discovery was made when Swedish entomologist turned archaeologist, Hjalmar Stolpe came upon the lavish grave of a Viking warrior.
In 1889, when excavations were underway, he documented the grave as Bj 581, and it has since been considered “one of the most iconic graves from the Viking Age”. The body in the grave was in sitting position, and around it were the remains of two sacrifices horses, a double-edged sword, a long, thin knife known as a scramasax, a bow, a shield, and a spear. This was truly an incredible find, as Viking graves rarely contain more than three weapons.
The grave that Stolpe found contained every weapon known to the Viking world. The grave also contained some other objects of note including a full set of hnefatafl, a board game also known as Viking chess, which indicates the strategic thinking and authority of a war leader.
This was interesting because a thousand years ago, this grave site would have been situated next to the Warrior’s Hall, where troops were stationed to protect the nearby bustling Viking town of Birka. At first, the location, the weapons and the hnefatafl all indicated to scholars that the man buried in this grave was a prominent and wellrespected Viking warrior. This assumption that the grave belonged to a battle-hardened man remained unchallenged for 128 years.
Though the gender of the remains did receive some scrutiny in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t until much later that any concrete studies were done. An osteological analysis of the skeleton’s pelvic bones and mandible were done in 2014, and Stockholm University bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellstrom provided evidence that the bones belonged to a female.
Still, no one was prepared for the story that began to emerge when a study led by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson in 2017 noted Kjellstrom’s previous findings that the osteological analysis performed on the remains triggered questions about the sex, gender and identity of and among Viking warriors. Hedenstierna-Jonson’s team extracted DNA samples from a tooth and arm bone of the person buried in Bj 581, and found that the skeleton had two different X chromosomes, but no Y chromosomes. This proved conclusively that the bones belonged to a female.
Thus, Stolpe in 1871 had come across the grave of a great Viking warrior all right, but the occupant of Bj 581 wasn’t a male warrior. She was a woman. The same 2017 study further analysed strontium isotopes on the skeleton in order to determine a geographical profile.
Through this, they were able to establish that the woman in Bj581 had similar markers to present-day people living in the areas previously under the influence of the Vikings. Though there was some question as to whether she was native to Birka or had simply settled there, the study ultimately concluded that the grave Bj 581 belonged to the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior.
This conclusion was initially met with some controversy, but the authors of the study further explained their reasoning in a followup article published shortly after the first.
The study’s lead researcher Hedenstierna-Jonson responded to criticism the bones tested for DNA could not for certain belong to the individual in Bj 581 as bones from other graves could have got mixed in with the remains during excavation, stating that Stolpe, the archaeologist who discovered the grave site was known for his meticulous note-taking and careful documentation, and thus the chances of such a contamination happening were very low.
She further stated that she was surprised by the reactions to the article, as she believed that we as a society had come much further than that. The idea of Viking women who were warriors is not new. Women warriors are well-documented in Viking history. In 19th century images, it is common to see women depicted as Valkyries or strong women. This is also seen in Norse mythology in poems and folktales.
In such tales, female warriors often taken on male characteristics, and male attitudes, including dress and weapons. Further, Hedenstierna-Jonson argued, that the attire of the woman in Bj 581 was none like any they had seen before. It wasn’t anything similar to that of other Viking women, and it wasn’t the usual armour or battledress worn by Viking men. Thus, it is possible that this woman was high-born or belonged to a higher class of warriors, something that is further evidenced by the vast weaponry and chess-like game buried with her.
Regardless of what the truth is, there is no arguing that this discovery is a truly remarkable one. Hedenstierna-Jonson predicts that as more Viking archaeologists begin to challenge their own assumptions about gender in their work, they may look for more female Vikings who held special ranks or positions like this female warrior did.
She also believes that letting go of these long held assumptions will allow for further discovery and correction of some previously discovered graves that were perhaps misidentified. As for this particular warriors identity, there is still a lot to be found out, but researchers like Hedenstierna-Jonson are not discounting anything.