Valkyrie's Death, 1880 (oil on canvas), Arbo, Peter Nicolai (1831-92) / Private Collection / Photo © O. Vaering / Bridgeman Images

DNA proves fearsome Viking warrior was a woman

A 10th century Viking unearthed in the 1880s was like a figure from Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries: an elite warrior buried with a sword, an ax, a spear, arrows, a knife, two shields, and a pair of warhorses. And like a mythical valkyrie (depicted above in a 19th century painting), a new study published today in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology finds that the warrior was a woman—the first high-status female Viking warrior to be identified. Excavators first uncovered the battle-ready body among several thousand Viking graves near the Swedish town of Birka, but for 130 years, most assumed it was a man—known only by the grave identifier, Bj 581. A few female Viking soldiers have been unearthed over the years, but none had the trappings of high rank found in the Birka burial—not just weapons and armor, but also game pieces and a board used for planning tactics. In recent years, reanalysis of skeletal characteristics had hinted that the corpse might be female. Now, the warrior’s DNA proves her sex, suggesting a surprising degree of gender balance in the Vikings’ violent social order.