A Woman in the Birka Warrior Grave

Last Updated 14 March 2019.

Birka is an important trading town during the Viking Age. It lies at the centre of Scandinavian’s busy trading networks, on the island of Björkö, west of present-day Stockholm in Lake Mälaren. Some excavations here date back more than a century, others are quite recent such as Herigar’s Hall. Any which way, archaeological research on site improves our knowledge on daily life in the Viking Age. And it continues to improve as researchers revisit older excavations and start applying modern techniques.

Birka, Sweden (Source: Google Maps)

This ‘cold case’ type of approach1 has recently been used on grave Bj 581 and the results are available in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.2 It starts with the 1970s osteological analysis that: “triggered questions concerning the sex, gender and identity among Viking warriors.” Originally discovered in the 1880s, the grave contains human remains, two horses and weapons, as well as a gaming board. Over the years, researchers have come to view it as the prototype of a Viking warrior grave. A male warrior, that is. The new genome study, however, surprisingly reveals that the person in the grave is actually a female in her thirties who died in the mid-tenth century. Was this woman a military leader? Or, was she for some other reason buried with symbolic warrior items in her grave?

The article gives some answers and raises more questions in the process. It refuels the scholarly debate. Related, recommended reads are the blog posts ‘Let’s Debate the Female Warriors Yet Again,3 ‘A Female Viking Warrior Interred At Birka’4and the draft paper ‘Female Viking Revised’.5

Here is an interview about the article with one of the article’s author: Saga Thing.

Follow-Up

The authors publish a new article in Antiquity in February 2019.

Its topic still concerns the woman in the Birka warrior grave. But the focus is now on the context of the grave rather than the result of the DNA-testing. The authors offer a solid overview of the burial’s context. This part was more or less hidden between the lines in their earlier article, which caused the “unprecedented public debate” after its publication in 2017.

The authors start by confirming the skeleton in Bj.581 is not mislabeled (as suggested by online critics). They also confirm again that the DNA-testing shows this skeleton belongs to a female. Then, they make their case why this woman is a female military leader. And in contrast to the first article, they now elaborate on the context of the grave goods. They also address the most difficult part of the discussion: why was this female buried with clear military honours? How, then, to interpret the grave and its contents? Does it say anything on how she might have been or behaved in her own society in her own time?6

This article is a recommended read, especially if you read the first one. Two related articles on the topic can be found on History Extra: one on ‘Viking ‘warrior women’‘ and on ‘Viking women‘.

References


    1. The archaeological ‘cold case’ is not necessarily a historical murder or crime scene. Rather it refers to an existing, older archaeological dig site revisited with modern tools and techniques. Also popularly dubbed ‘Dig Site Investigation’ in the Biblical Archaeology Review. Burke, Aaron. ’Archaeological Views: An Archaeological Cold Case Solved.’ Biblical Archaeology Review 37:5 (2011), 28. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical–archaeology–review/37/5.)  ↩
    1. Hedenstierna–Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, et al. ‘A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics’. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2017 (early online access). doi:10.1002/ajpa.23308.   ↩
    1. Viqueen. ‘Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again’. Accessed 10 September 2017. http://norseandviking.blogspot.com/2017/09/lets–debate–female–viking–warriors–yet.html.  ↩
    1. Aardvarchaeology. ‘A Female Viking Warrior Interred at Birka’. Accessed 12 September 2017. http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2017/09/12/a–female–viking–warrior–interred–at–birka/.  ↩
    1. Fedir Androshchuk. ‘Female Viking Revised’. Accessed 18 September 2018. https://www.academia.edu/34564381/FEMALEVIKINGREVISED.  ↩
  1. Neil Price, Charlotte Hedenstierna–Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, et al, ‘Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581.’ In: Antiquity, Volume 93.367 (2019), pp. 181–198. doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2018.258.  ↩

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