(Source: arstechnica.com)

At first, the scientific paper seemed like scientific confirmation of a long-cherished myth about Vikings. DNA and geochemistry experts re-examined the famous Swedish grave of a high-ranking Viking warrior and discovered that the person buried alongside swords, armor, and two sacrificial horses was genetically female. In a paper published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team announced that they had, at last, proven that there were warrior women among the Vikings.

The claim seemed to fit the evidence. Male Vikings were frequently buried with swords, and the sword was undoubtedly associated with the battle-scarred ideal of masculinity in Viking culture. If we assume that men buried with swords are warriors, then a woman buried with one was probably a warrior, too. Analysis of the stable isotopes in her tooth enamel suggested this woman had traveled widely, just like a warrior would have. On top of all that, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues pointed out the many references to women fighting in Old Norse poetry and myth. The bloodthirsty Valkyries are an all-female gang of magical creatures who come to every battle and decide who will fall. The recent paper in American Journal of Physical Anthropology was simply our first scientific evidence that there were real-life women fighting alongside the men.

What we want to see vs. what’s actually there

It was an exciting story, and headlines about Viking warrior women have been everywhere in the media. But the reality is more complex and probably says more about us than it does about Vikings. Several experts have come forward to question the evidence. Writing on her blog, University of Nottingham professor of Viking studies Judith Jesch says, “I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires.” Today, many of us are eager to find examples of woman leaders in the past who are just as badass as our woman leaders today. And that might lead to misunderstanding history.

Jesch has written extensively about gender roles in Viking society in her fascinating book The Viking Diaspora, and she finds a lot of problems in the researchers’ analysis. For one thing, even when men were buried with swords, that didn’t mean they were necessarily warriors. Swords were often decorative or symbolic. She also rejects the idea that burial with horses and game pieces suggests “an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics,” as Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues claim. “All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact,” Jesch writes.

But Jesch’s most damning criticism is that the researchers don’t acknowledge a key point: the bones they analyzed might not actually have been from the grave in question. The Swedish archaeological site where the remains came from was originally excavated in the 19th century, and the bygone scientist who led the dig took out all the bones and put them into bags. Some of the bags are poorly labeled and don’t seem to correspond to the gravesite in any meaningful way.

To find this out, intrepid readers would have to follow a single footnote to another paper written by archaeologist Anna Kjellström, who also worked on the study with Hedenstierna-Jonson. She describes the rather messy chain of evidence at Birka, the site in Sweden where the “warrior woman” was identified:

During the present analysis, it became clear that the osseous material and the contextual information given on the box or bag did not always match the data… there are bags of bones tagged with grave numbers that do not exist elsewhere. In other cases, there are unburnt bones in bags from graves documented and registered according to [archaeologist Erik] Arbman as “cremations” and bags which include the bones of several individuals while being documented as the grave of one person.

Another interesting (and possibly controversial) find was a grave where the preserved bones do fit the original 19th-century drawings and descriptions. This is a chamber grave furnished with fine armor and sacrificed horses. Nevertheless, three different osteological examinations all found that the individual was a woman. Whether these are not the correct bones for this grave or whether it opens up reinterpretations of weapon graves in Birka, it is too early to say.

And there’s the crux of the problem. The only evidence we have linking an undeniably female skeleton to the warrior grave is the fact that identification material on the bag fits “the original 19th-century drawings and descriptions.”

Even archaeologists who believed this bag of bones was associated with the sword and armor were dubious that it meant we’d found a female military officer. Archaeologist Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University told Science News he was skeptical. “Have we found the Mulan of Sweden or a woman buried with the rank-symbols of a husband who died abroad?” she wondered. His question isn’t rhetorical. Archaeologists have found many graves of men buried with the oval brooches that women used to fasten their cloaks, and these grave goods have always been interpreted as keepsakes from a beloved wife or female relative.

The exception that proves the rule

Baylor University archaeologist Davide Zori told National Geographic that “it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that the woman’s relatives buried her with a warrior’s equipment without that having been her role in life.” Still, he said he was pretty convinced. Even Jesch conceded that the researchers might very well be right.

But she cautioned that this grave, and a handful of others where women were buried with weapons, does not mean Vikings accepted women as warriors. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests that women in the Viking world were expected to run households, serve the men, and bear children. Even the mythical Valkyries, with their bellowing battle cries, are most often depicted in images where they offer drinking horns of mead to slain (male) warriors.

Though fascinating, this grave doesn’t really change our picture of the Viking world very much. If the researchers are right that this woman was a military leader, it tells us simply that there were rare exceptions to the generally rigid gender roles among Vikings. But those would have been extremely unusual and shouldn’t be taken as evidence that most people accepted the idea of women warriors.

Listing image by Evald Hansen

More Info: arstechnica.com

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