MORE THAN A millennium ago in what’s now southeastern Sweden, a wealthy Viking warrior was laid to rest, in a resplendent grave filled with swords, arrowheads, and two sacrificed horses. The site reflected the ideal of Viking male warrior life, or so many archaeologists had thought.
New DNA analyses of the bones, however, confirm a revelatory find: the grave belonged to a woman.
The study, published recently in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, sends ripples of surprise through archaeologists’ understanding of the Vikings, medieval seafarers who traded and raided across Europe for centuries. (Explore how Vikings really lived in National Geographic magazine.)
“It was held up before as kind of the ‘ideal’ Viking male warrior grave,” says Baylor University archaeologist Davide Zori, who wasn’t involved with the research. “[The new study] goes to the heart of archaeological interpretation: that we’ve always mapped on our idea of what gender roles were.”
Viking lore had long hinted that not all warriors were men. One early tenth-century Irish text tells of Inghen Ruaidh (“Red Girl”), a female warrior who led a Viking fleet to Ireland. And Zori notes that numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, tell of “shield-maidens” fighting alongside male warriors.
But some archaeologists had considered these female warriors to be merely mythological embellishments—a belief colored by modern expectations of gender roles.
Since the late 1880s, archaeologists had viewed the “Birka warrior” through this lens; textbooks had listed the grave as belonging to a man, but not because the bones themselves said so. Since the remains were found alongside swords, arrowheads, a spear, and two sacrificed horses, archaeologists had considered it a warrior’s grave—and, thus, a man’s.
As National Geographic magazine reported in its March 2017 cover story on Vikings, that all changed when Stockholm University bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström closely examined the warrior’s pelvic bones and mandible for the first time. Their dimensions appeared to match those typical of a woman.
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