A Viking Warrior Revealed

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

The Vikings were Scandinavian

The Vikings were seafaring warriors from Scandinavia who raided and colonized many areas of Europe from the 9th to 11th centuries. A recent discovery suggests that some Viking women may have held important military positions.

In September, a team of scientists announced an unexpected discovery. The team had been examining the skeleton of a Viking warrior that was first discovered in 1880 in the Swedish town of Birka. Birka was an important Viking trading center. Over 3,000 Viking graves have been discovered there. At Birka, Vikings received goods from places as far away as China. “We can see that it’s a great melting pot,” said scientist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, one of members of the team. “They would have heard different languages and met people from other parts of the world with different religious beliefs.”

Researchers concluded that the bones belonged to a warrior because of what was buried along with them. They found an axe, spear, knives, two shields, and the remains of two horses. The grave also included a Viking board game called hnefatafl, or King’s Table. This ancient Viking game is similar to the game chess. The board game led scientists to conclude that this warrior likely had an excellent knowledge of military tactics and strategy and was a high-ranking officer.

The surprising part was that the bones were not of a male warrior. The scientists found that the body of this Viking warrior long presumed to be male was, in fact, female.

DNA Clues

No high-ranking female Viking warrior had ever been discovered before. In fact, for over one-hundred years, scientists had assumed that the tenth century skeleton was that of a man. The items buried in the grave seemed to support this conclusion. In their recent study, the team of scientists from Stockholm University took DNA samples from the skeleton’s arm and tooth. By testing the DNA samples, they were able to determine whether the bones came from a woman or a man.

Human DNA contains genetic information that tells scientists many things about the person to whom the DNA belongs. The structures in DNA that carry genetic information are called chromosomes. Humans have sex-determining chromosomes called X and Y chromosomes. A man’s DNA has one X and one Y chromosome. A women’s DNA has two X chromosomes and no Y chromosomes. Since the skeleton had no Y chromosomes present, it meant that the bones are of a woman.  The fact that the bones were more slender than a man’s bones further supported this finding.

Other Remains of Viking Women

The skeleton is not, however, the first example of the existence of a woman Viking warrior. Two Viking warrior graves discovered in Norway are also believed to be those of women. This skeleton, however, seems to suggest that while women could be warriors, they could also hold important military positions that historians had assumed were held only by men.

The researchers published their findings in the American Journal of Physical AnthropologyThe researchers wrote that their discovery will “provide a new understanding of the Viking society, the social constructions and also norms in the Viking Age.” The discovery suggests that women were “able to be full members of male dominated spheres.”

Researchers think that since the skeleton's tomb contained hnefatafl, a Viking game similar to the game chess, the warrior within was likely a military leader.

Researchers think that since the skeleton’s tomb contained hnefatafl, a Viking game similar to the game of chess, the warrior within was likely a military leader.

Other Explanations

Not everyone accepts their findings.

Judith Jesch is a professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham in England. She says the idea of a woman warrior appeals to people. Because this image is so appealing to the researchers, they look only for evidence that supports this view.

“The emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument,” Jesch wrote in her blog Norse and Viking Ramblings. “They want the woman to be a warrior, so the scientific analysis makes her a woman and her ‘archaeological context’ makes her a warrior.”

Jensh gave the following reasons to support her criticism. For one, she said, in the 130 years since the skeleton was first discovered, bones from different people could have gotten mixed together. She also said that concluding that the woman was a high-status warrior because of the presence of the chess-like game is a stretch. Finally, she said that the researchers failed to consider other reasons why a woman’s bones might end up in a male warrior’s tomb.

Response to Criticism

Hedenstierna-Jonson insists, however, that her team’s findings were accurate. “We know these are the right bones, that they are a woman’s bones and that they were in that grave.” Also, she said that the positioning of clothing and weapons around the skeleton implied that the person had been a woman of authority.

Hedenstierna-Jonson said that the team actually did consider other reasons the artifacts appeared in the tomb. For example, they thought that the weapons might simply have had a religious importance for the deceased. They also wondered if the weapons could merely reflect the status of the woman’s family and not indicate that she was a warrior herself. Finally, the researchers considered that the grave might have belonged to a male warrior whose remains had gone missing. The researchers noted all of these ideas but still concluded that the grave artifacts were in honor of the woman whose bones were in the grave, rather than for some missing male.

In support of this conclusion, the study remarked,“The distribution of the grave goods within the grave, their spatial relation to the female individual and the total lack of any typically female-attributed grave artifacts disputes this possibility.”

Helping to Rewrite History

Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson thinks that people like Judith Jesch who are critical of her team’s research would not raise objections if the remains had been proven to be those of a man. “Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way,” she believes. Historian Dick Harrison, however, says that the work of feminist researchers has greatly expanded people’s knowledge of history. “What has happened in the past 40 years through archaeological research, partly fueled by feminist research, is that women have been found to be priestesses and leaders, too,” he says. “This has forced us to rewrite history.”

European culture is contains many myths and legends about powerful female warriors. Critics say that idea is so attractive to people that researchers may overlook evidence that suggests that that they skeleton they were studying might be that of a man.

Many people enjoy books, movies, and television shows about powerful women warriors. Critics say that researchers so wanted a skeleton they were studying to be that of a female warrior, that they ignored any evidence that suggested otherwise. Researchers insist, however, they considered all of the evidence before drawing their conclusion.

Who Were the Vikings?

The Vikings were seafaring warriors from Scandinavia. They raided and colonized many parts of Europe from the ninth to eleventh centuries. Historians think that the reason the Vikings, also called Norsemen, may have established foreign colonies may have been overpopulation in their home countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Vikings may also have been encouraged by the relative ease by which they could overpower most of the people they conquered.

Vikings societies were based on groups of people formed into clans. In Scandinavia, the Vikings generally made their living through farming. However, once they were at sea, these farmers became fierce warriors, expert military leaders, and brutal conquerors. Vikings sailed the seas in boats called longships. Raids were especially violent, marked by burning, plundering, and killing. It is because of this behavior that these warriors were called vikingr in the ancient Scandinavian languages, the word for pirate. No matter what, historians say that the Vikings had a major influence on European history.

Additional Resources

Read more about the Viking tomb at the Independent and the New York Times.

Learn more about ancient women warriors at CNN and National Geographic.

Discover how women’s role in the military has affected U.S. history at the U.S. Army and Colonial Williamsburg.

Images and Sources

Viking illustration: C.O.M.
Viking illustration license: public domain

Hnefatafl illustration: Andreas Zautner
Hnefatafl illustration license: public domain

Woman warrior photo: taymtaym
Woman warrior photo license: Creative Commons 2.0