Last week, archaeologists reported that a Viking buried with a sword, ax, spear, and two shields—first discovered in the 1880s and long thought to be a man—was, in fact, a woman, making her the first known high-ranking female Viking warrior. Yet some Viking scholars have expressed doubt about whether the woman was actually a Valkyrie-like, battle-hardened fighter, or whether she had just been buried with a warrior’s accoutrement.
Science spoke with the team’s lead author, archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University in Sweden, about what archaeologists can infer about the Viking woman in question, and the double standards that crop up when female remains defy historical stereotypes. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Is it sexist to question whether this woman was actually a warrior in life, rather than someone just buried like one?
A: Well, that’s the key question: How do we interpret a grave? That’s something we always face in archaeology. What does a grave represent? Asking whether the person buried ever fought in battle is a relevant question, but this has been known as a warrior grave since the 1880s and nobody has questioned it before. Nobody has made that comment before they knew the bones were from a woman. The archaeology has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our knowledge that it’s a woman and not a man.
Q: What are other possible interpretations?
A: There are no female objects within the grave. She’s not wearing a dress, which would have been typical for a buried female. They made a lot of effort in portraying her in this way. So one interpretation is that she did have this role while she was living, but another interpretation would be that she symbolizes a role she didn’t have, which would also be interesting and unique. In other words, she may not have been a warrior, but she was held in similar esteem and so was given a warrior’s burial.
Q: Was she considered a leader?
A: The predominant way of burying people during the Viking Age was cremation. But in these Viking towns, when they did bury people, they tended to bury them in coffins, or they could just be put in the ground. This woman was buried in what was called a chamber grave, which is more elaborate, filled with meaningful items from the person’s life. The people buried in them are generally thought to be cosmopolitans. The way she was buried points to her belonging to a high level of society.
Q: How would a Viking woman end up as a warrior?
A: Viking Age society was not an equal society. It was very hierarchical and it was probably patriarchal, as well. With that said, it was also complex, just like modern society is complex, and there are always exceptions—exceptional people or exceptional situations where people go outside the norm. In the Viking world, the sphere of the warrior was the ideal. Entering that sphere as an active warrior would normally have been closed to women. But in circumstances where, let’s say, you were from a high-status family and you had the personal attributes and strength and character suitable to the role, there could be exceptions to the norm.
Q: Can more testing reveal whether she ever fought in battle?
A: We could actively look for those kinds of things, but realize the skeleton is 1000 years old, it’s brittle, it’s incomplete, and you have to be careful when you handle it. But also, to my mind, there’s no study that actually states, “These are the types of skeletal signals that indicate a warrior.”
What are we then looking for? You could look for sharp-force trauma, but interestingly, there are not that many graves showing sharp-force trauma in the Viking Age, despite the fact that we know it was quite a violent time. You could look for how muscle use alters the skeleton, like how a smith uses one arm more than the other, but you don’t see that in all cases. And more than that, there’s not a good standard for what a warrior’s skeleton should look like. So it’s a very interesting question and there should be more studies on it, but we just don’t have good diagnostic criteria for what makes a warrior.