Viking warrior women?
Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581 and its implications
Þriðjudaginn 17. apríl 2018 kl. 16.30
The warrior woman or ‘shield maiden’ has long been part of the Viking image, with a pedigree that extends from the Valkyries of Old Norse prose and poetry to Wagner’s operatic fantasies and beyond. In our own times, she has taken on a new lease of life through mass-media entertainment and television drama such as the Vikings series. However, until recently the actual Viking-Age evidence for female fighters, whether real or mythical, has been sparse and ambiguous.
This lecture presents the results of a new archaeological and genomic research project in central Sweden, focussing on a single grave from the island market centre of Birka. The burial, designated Bj.581, was excavated (rather well) in 1878 and even then was seen as unusual and special. Packed with weapons and war gear, it has always been universally interpreted as the grave of a high-status warrior, held up repeatedly as a kind of ‘ultimate Viking’ of the tenth century. In line with that view, the occupant has consistently been assumed to be male.
Our project began with a coincidence, when a general osteological analysis of the Birka human bone material — including the skeleton in Bj.581 — unexpectedly suggested that the body was in fact biologically female. Intrigued by the possible implications, we undertook DNA studies that confirmed this revised sexing of the dead. The publication of these findings, and our suggestion that the occupant of Bj.581 was therefore a female warrior of high status, immediately went viral and received global media attention — much to our surprise. They also attracted controversy and critique, that in turn spread across the internet. In particular, the very integrity of the burial, and our research, was called into question: we must have analysed the wrong skeleton, or else we had somehow overlooked a second body in the grave, and so on. These issues — none of which were ever raised while the deceased was believed to be male — are addressed in the talk, but also set in a wider context. Bj.581 provides a useful case study, not just in the martial cultures of the Viking Age and the interpretation of mortuary behaviour, but in the conflicting attitudes to gender that still frame our pictures of the time.
Neil Price is Distinguished Professor of Archaeology at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Educated at UCL, York and Uppsala, he specialises in the Viking Age and the pre-Christian religions of the North. From 2016-2025, Neil is directing a Swedish Research Council project to explore the origins of The Viking Phenomenon.
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