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Legendary Scandinavian tales of formidable shieldmaidens such as Lagertha, depicted in the hit series Vikings, could well be true, it would seem.
Narratives from the early Middle Ages provide accounts about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men. However, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena, even though they continuously reoccurred in art as well as in poetry.
Now, work by Stockholm University researcher Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues has provided the strongest evidence yet for their existence.
Genetic testing has revealed that the remains of a Viking warrior buried with two horses and a selection of weapons was a woman.
The study team, whose findings have been reported in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, set out to learn more about the individual buried in the well-furnished warrior grave in the Viking Age town of Birka, in Sweden.
They said an earlier classification of the individual as a woman, based on her bones, was considered controversial in both a historical and archaeological context. A gene-based confirmation of the sex of the individual was considered necessary to solve the issue.
They successfully obtained DNA from the skeleton, with tests revealing the lack of a Y chromsome, confirming that the warrior was a woman.
The results showed that the woman had a close genetic affinity to present-day North Europeans, and within Sweden to the southern and south-central region.
“The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period,” the authors wrote.
“The results call for caution against generalizations regarding social orders in past societies.”
The researchers said Birka had been a key centre for trade during the 8th to late 10th century. Its population of 700 to 1000 inhabitants had consisted of trading families, artisans and warriors.
Over 3000 graves are known to encircle the town area, making it one of the largest known congregations of burials in the Viking world. About 1100 of them have been excavated.
One warrior grave, first unearthed in the late 19th century, stood out as exceptionally well-furnished and complete, with a prominent position on an elevated terrace between the town and a hill fort. The grave was in direct contact with Birka’s garrison.
The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses – a mare and a stallion. In short, the grave was equipped with the complete equipment of a professional warrior.
A full set of gaming pieces in the grave indicated knowledge of tactics and strategy, pointing to the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.
Initially, the individual was considered a male based on the assemblage of grave goods
The sex was only questioned after a full bone and contextual analysis that concluded the individual was a woman.
The authors noted that the existence of female warriors in Viking Age Scandinavia has been debated among scholars.
“Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons.”
Similar associations to that found in Birka of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, the authors noted, on the basis 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.
“Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way,” they noted.
“Our results — that the high-status grave on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior —suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres.
“Questions of biological sex, gender and social roles are complex and were so also in the Viking Age.
“This study shows how the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies.”
Professor Mattias Jakobsson, from Uppsala University’s Department of Organismal Biology, said it was the first first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior.
Isotope analyses had confirmed a travelling life style, well in tune with the martial society that dominated 8th to 10th century Northern Europe.
Hedenstierna-Jonson continued: “What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to have been a woman.”
Neil Price, a professor in Uppsala University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence.”
The study team comprised Hedenstierna-Jonson, Jakobsson, Price, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Torsten Günther, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå.
A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics
Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, Jan Storå.