Was it possible, in a society seemingly so dominated by men and violence, for a woman to have played a roll in combat?
Its certainly a heated debate, and one that recent archaeological discoveries have only intensified.
We know that the female viking warrior archetype has become widely popular in cinema and media with shows like the History Channel’s Vikings, Netflix’s Last Kingdom, and now rumored female warriors in Assassins Creed Valhalla, but we also know popular culture isn’t always known for historical accuracy.
So what’s the evidence for and against female viking warriors?
Luckily archaeology, archives, and museum collections provide us with evidence to explore.
VIKING SAGAS, SHIELDMAIDENS, VALKYRIES & FEMALE WARRIORS
Let’s start by looking at the Viking sagas. Women wielding weapons were not uncommon in viking sagas which included everything from valkyries, shield maidens and ordinary women forced by their circumstances to take up arms and fight.
According to Dr. Crawford, who has an excellent video I’ll link below, women in the sagas who take up arms are often high status women with important roles in the sagas. In the sagas, a woman’s roll as a warrior is looked at approvingly, in some cases even receiving the highest compliments.
But in the past, scholars assumed that these female warriors in literature were merely imaginative depictions. Is it possible that they may have real counterparts in history? To uncover more we have to turn to material culture and archaeology.
BIRKA GRAVE CONTAINS A VIKING FEMALE WARRIOR
In September of 2017, an article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology entitled “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics” set the academic world on fire. Debate over the article spilled out into popular culture, with comment sections on popular news sites and YouTube videos filled with debate.
The article explored grave BJ 581, originally excavated in 1878 by antiquarian Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden. Of more than 3000 graves in the region, over 1000 were excavated by Stolpe and his team.
Grave BJ 581 was of particular interest to Stolpe even at the time. A chamber grave with walls, roof and a floor, it contained the remains of one individual and an elaborate array of grave goods including a variety of weapons, shields, a strategy game similar to modern day chess and and a full set of pieces propped in the individual’s lap, and two horses bridled for riding. Stolpe remarked in his report to the Royal Academy that it was quote “perhaps the most remarkable of all the graves in this field”.
Stolpe, using the conventions of the time that graves with weapons were male and graves with jewelry and textile goods were female, typed the sex of the individual as being male.
Due to the location of the grave on a prominent over look, situated in a high status area of the burial grounds, its relation to a garrison building, and the contents of the grave, researchers concluded for over 100 years that the grave was that of a high status male warrior.
It wasn’t until much later that scientists began questioning whether or not that assessment was correct.
FIRST REEVALUATION OF GRAVE BJ 581
The first hint that something was off with BJ 581 was in the 1970s when an osteological review of the remains identified the bones as belonging to a female. However, the burial goods and their prominent martial nature were not analyzed in context with the bones, and so the assessment that the bones belonged to a female failed to make any waves.
That happened later, when the bones from the grave were reevaluated in a study on Viking Age health published in 2014 by Anna Kjellstrom, a Stockholm University osteologist, who noticed that pelvic and mandibular indicators typed the skeleton as belonging to a woman.
SECOND REEVALUATION OF GRAVE BJ 581
Following the osteology assessment, interest in an already unique and noteworthy grave was reignited. A group of scientists decided to seek out a final word on whether or not the individual truly was a female.
Samples were taken from several of the remaining bones in the grave, and both DNA and strontium isotope analysis tests were performed.
DNA analysis revealed that the occupant of Bj.581 was indeed female, possessing two X chromosomes and no Y, confirming the prior osteological analysis.
The tests further revealed that the individual was not local to the Birka region of Scandinavia, but rather from further south. She would have been tall in comparison to her contemporaries at 5’5 and she was in her 30s when she died. Strontium isotope analysis painted a picture of an individual who moved frequently in her younger years.
The scientists brought in the leading Birka textile specialist to review the grave goods, who used comparative data to conclude that the clothing in the grave belonged to a cavalry commander. A silver tasselled cap in particular was unique, similar to those found in modern day Ukraine.
This area was a route known to the Vikings, and Birka’s historic role as a economic center and trading post would have likely made itinerant traders and warriors a common sight.
INDICATIONS OF A HIGH STATUS WARRIOR
But what made the archaeologists believe the grave belonged to a high status warrior?
For one, as a trading center Birka would have been a vital and well protected economic hub.
Archaeologists have located a garrison building in town believed to have been burned down during conflict. It’s architecture was noteworthy as the building had over 300 knives incorporated into the walls and floor, in addition numerous weapons like spears, swords and axes as well shields were scattered about the building in addition to chainmail and lamellar armor.
Known martial elements are seen throughout the archaeological makeup of Birka, and they add context to grave BJ 581 which is located not far from the garrison building.
BIRKA FEMALE VIKING GRAVE GOODS
In addition to the location, the funerary goods also provide context. Out of more than 1000 graves excavated in Birka less than 75 had any weapons in the grave at all, and far fewer had more than one weapon. BJ 581 was unique in both the type and number of weapons which included a sword, axe, spear, armour piercing arrows, and a battle knife.
The horses would have been valuable, and their placement in the grave denotes an individual of high status and wealth.
The strategy game, included a board and all the pieces, leading some to conclude that the individual who held them was a strategist and possibly a military commander.
CONTROVERSY OVER THE FEMALE WARRIOR GRAVE IN BIRKA SWEDEN
But a female warrior in the grave remains controversial, and alternative theories have been proposed.
Some have claimed that a male was intended to be placed in the grave in addition to or instead of the female.
Archaeologists have argued that this is unlikely given that the grave appears to be prepared to only hold one person due to the size and arrangement of the grave goods. Double burials in chamber graves are uncommon in Birka with less than a dozen examples out of the 1000.
Stolpe does not draw or mention any additional bones, and in an 1879 report he writes that the grave contained a single body. We also see no evidence of what would be perceived as female associated grave goods like textiles or jewelry.
Another theory was that the bones had been misidentified as they left the site to be put in storage, or were jumbled in storage sometime in the last 150 years.
While there is some reason to see this as a more plausible theory than the double grave, as the cranium of the individual is missing and an extraneous femur was found in the box it still seems unlikely.
Stolpe was known for keeping copious notes and drawings, even exceeding expectations of the day with his use of graph paper and more scientific methods known to be used more by archaeologists than antiqurians. His drawings and notes are still available to this day online which I’ll link below if you’d like to see them.
The drawings of the bones and Stolpe’s notes point to BJ 581 as the most likely match due to the spinal column and the unique state of preservation.
While they did find an extra femur stored with the remains of BJ 581, all the BJ 581 bones were accurately marked and the extraneous femure was clearly marked BJ 584, clearing up any confusion.
The missing cranium is also not uncommon amongst the Birka remains, where many of the craniums were removed from their original context. While BJ 581’s cranium has not yet been found, archaeologist posit that it was likely moved to an anatomical collection, as was common practice, and will likely be found some day in the future.
OTHER PROBLEMS WITH GRAVE BJ 581
Detractors of the study claim that the lack of combat damage on the skeletal remains proves that the individual was not a warrior, but only portion’s of the individual’s skeleton remain – the cranium, ribs, part of the pelvis and shoulder bones are missing. I’ll post a link below to show images of the supplemental materials where you can review the additional photos and drawings.
We also know that with a mounted archer, we also tend to see less brutal combat damage than we might with hand to hand combatants and the damage we do see tends to look different.
But despite this evidence, notable scholars in the field of Viking studies still disagree about the findings. There is no consensus on the analysis, but of course, this is not unheard of in archaeology.
OTHER VIKING WARRIOR WOMEN IN GRAVES
But Birka is no longer the only proposed female viking warrior grave. Two Norwegian graves – Grave CC22541 – dubbed “Erika the Red” by National Geographic who used modeling to reconstruct her battle damaged face and another unmarked burial in Norway give us two more examples of potential female viking warriors.
Erika the Red, estimated to be from the mid 900s was buried with a double edged sword, axe, shield, arrrowheads and a bridled horse at the foot of her grave is believed to be a female between 18 and 19 years of age. Scientists plan to do DNA analysis on her grave, and as of this video going live do not appear to have published their findings yet.
The second grave was a 20 year old female buried in a bed of textiles and feathers, with a scabbard, a damascened sword, a sickle, gaming pieces, chests, and a dog.
Much like the grave in Birka, the women are surrounded in death with weapons previously believed to only be wielded by male warriors.
SCANDINAVIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORD DEPICTS WOMEN WARRIORS
The Scandinavian archaeological record also appears to have clues about female Viking warriors. A 3D figurine from Harby in Denmark held at the National Museum of Denmark, depicts females on horseback and standing nearby bearing shields, swords and lances.
A second figurine made of silver from a manor at Tisso also held by the National Museum of Denmark shows a woman on horseback ready to fight and a figure with a voluminous dress holding a shield nearby also believed to be depicting a woman.
The famous Oseburg burial contained two women as well as weapons, and the Oseburg Tapestry depicts women that appear in a warlike setting prepared to enter combat.
HISTORICAL TEXTS ON FEMALE VIKING WARRIORS
We also have historical texts, like John Skylitzes compilation of imperial military campaigns that point to the potential for female warriors.
In his account of the Byzantine and Rus war in 871, he notes that when the Byzantines looted the corpses on the battlefield they found the bodies of women equipped like men, presumed to have been fighting together with the men against the Byzantines.
In the War of the Irish with the Foreigners, a 12th century text, a list of raiding flotillas and their commanders includes a “Red Girl or Red Daughter”
The Annals of Clonmacnoise, a 17th century translation of the medieval original also references a “Red Daughter” commander.
The Annals of Ulster references Viking female military commanders, one called “The Maid” in an 881 battle against the Irish and another Maid in a 1098 battle against foreigners.
The Annals of Inisfallen describe a plundering force in 905 made up of close cropped women.
And Abbo’s eye-witness account of the Vikings in Paris in late 885 notes that Viking women were present on the ships and were physically close to the fighting and encouraging the men in combat.
Female Viking WarriorS – THE ONGOING DEBATE
There seems to be mounting existence for the reality of female combatants, but challenges to the science and historiography continue.
An important part of the debate continues to be the need to remember our current biases, the historical biases of Stolpe and his contemporaries as well as our lens of interpretation.
Remembering these biases as we try to analyze and reconstruct Viking society through the primary resources left to us is invaluable.
A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. et al., American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2017.
Supporting Information: A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. and Kjellstrom, A.
Annals of Innisfallen – Bodeleian Collection, Oxford
Female Viking Revised Androshchuk, F.
Female Warriors in the Viking Age, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
Hjalmar Stolpe’s Journals and Notes, Sweden History Museum
Old Norse Images of Women – Jenny Jochens
Shieldmaidens in the VIking Sagas and Graves Crawford, J 2017 YouTube
The Birka Warrior: The Material Culture of a Martial Society Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. Stockholm University 2006
Vikingr Exhibit, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj.581 Price, N, et al., Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2019.
Supplementary Material – Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj. 581 Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. 2019
Viking Woman Warrior May Have Been Slavic – Smithsonian Magazine
Viking Warrior Women with Leszek Gardela Medievalists
‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study – Gardela L., Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 8, 273-339. (Online at Academia)
Women at War? The Birka Female Warrior and Her Implications Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., SAA Archaeological Record May 2018