Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men. Although, continuously reoccurring in art as well as in poetry, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena.
Archaeological evidence of warrior graves is numerous, especially in the Viking Age of Northern Europe. Situated in Eastern Central Sweden, Birka was a key center for trade during the 8th–late 10th century, linked to a social, cultural and economic network that reached beyond the Ural Mountains into the Caliphate in the east and south to the Byzantine Empire.
Birka's population of approximately 700–1000 inhabitants consisted of trading families, artisans and warriors. The urban culture in Birka was different from the everyday life and practices of the surrounding region.
One of the strongest features reflected through the archaeological remains is the extent and diversity of contacts and cultural influences from other places, which is also reflected in the diverse burial practice. Over 3,000 graves are known, of which approximately 1,100 have been excavated, making it one of the largest known congregations of burials in the Viking world. The graves are distributed over large burial grounds encircling the town area.
One warrior grave, Bj 581, stands out as exceptionally well-furnished and complete. Prominently placed 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, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual's role as a high-ranking officer. As suggested from the material and historical records, the male sex has been associated with the gender of a warrior identity.
Hence, the individual in Bj 581 was considered a male based on the assemblage of grave goods, and the sex was only questioned after a full osteological and contextual analysis that showed that the individual was a woman. 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.
The osteological analysis triggered questions concerning sex, gender and identity among Viking warriors. This made it important to further investigate the biological sex and to do additional analyses to explore the genetic affinity of the individual buried in Bj 581.
The findings suggests that the individual was at least above 30 years of age. The greater sciatic notch of the hip bone was broad, and a wide preauricular sulcus was present. This, together with the lack of projection of the mental eminence on the mandible, assessed the individual as female. Additionally, the long bones are thin, slender and gracile which provide further indirect support for the assessment. No pathological or traumatic injuries were observed.
DNA samples were taken from the Birka warrior which was merged with three different population reference datasets. The DNA sequences showed all the characteristics of authentic and ancient DNA.
The Viking warrior female showed genetic affinity to present-day inhabitants of the British Islands, the North Atlantic Islands, Scandinavia and to lesser extent Eastern Baltic Europe.
The results reflect that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior, suggesting 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.
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