For more than a century after it was found, a skeleton ensconced in a Viking grave, surrounded by military weapons, was assumed to be that of a battle-hardened ɱaп. No more.
The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woɱaп, a shieldmaiden, like the ancient Brienne of Tarth from “Game of Thrones.”
A 1889 drawing of the Viking warrior grave discovered in Birka, Sweden. For more than 120 years, it was assumed to be the skeleton of a ɱaп. (Hjalmar Stolpe)
The artifacts entombed with the 1,000-year-old bones and unearthed in 1889 in Birka, Sweden, included two shields, a sword, an ax, a spear, armor-piercing arrows and a battle knife — not to mention the remnants of two horses. Such weapons of war among grave goods, archaeologists long assumed, meant the Viking had been male.
Yet modern-day genetics testing on the DNA extracted from a tooth and an arm bone has confirmed otherwise. The skeleton, known as Bj 581, belonged to someone with two X chromosomes.
“We were blinded by the warrior equipment,” one of the researchers, Anders Gotherstrom, said in an email to The Washington Post this week. “The grave-goods shout ‘warrior’ at you, and nothing else.”
A modern drawing of the same Viking grave, this ᴛι̇ɱe depicting the female warrior. (Neil Price)
But some experts warn against making additional assumptions beyond gender. The artifacts could have been heirlooms from a male relative, they say, or were symbolic. Or perhaps the grave once held a second individual who was male. Her skeleton shows no obvious trauma indicative of battle wounds, but archaeologists of Viking graves say there are often none found on male warrior skeletons.
One of the major arguments against assuming the grave belonged to a woɱaп is that “she could be someone who lived like a ɱaп,” Jarɱaп said. “Someone buried her,” but what she was buried with might not have been of her choosing. “That’s who she was in death, but it doesn’t mean that’s who she was in life.”
The researchers who tested and analyzed the DNA agree.“Our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions,” they write in their paper, but the findings are highly suggestive “that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male-dominated spheres.”
More than 3,000 Viking graves have been discovered encircling Birka, in western Sweden, but only about 1,100 have been excavated. The location is one of the largest Viking burial grounds ever discovered, yet only three graves with artifacts suggesting warrior ideals have been associated with the female gender, the authors said.