Last summer, as part of our Great Danish Road Trip, we did the whole Viking thing. We spent time ruminating over runic ruins. We took shelter from the heat inside Viking longhouses. And we visited graves. In one location, I shook my head and snapped a photo which said (paraphrasing), “hey, we know there was jewelry from this time that had some pictures of women with shields and swords but we don’t know why, so we’re just going to assume they were mythological, kthxbye.”
We’re used to that, right? Valkyries. Wonder Woman. Amazons. Artemis the Huntress. Heck, even Katniss Everdeen and Yara Greyjoy and Brienne of Tarth. Women are fierce warriors….as long as they stay within the narrative of mythology and fiction.
Not so fast, buckaroo…
In 1889, the grave of a Viking warrior was excavated in Birka, Sweden. The burial “stands out as exceptionally well‐furnished and complete….The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐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.”
This was exciting. Like the Oscar for Best Archeological Viking Burial sort of exciting. The grave was brought forth as “an elaborate high-status male warrior grave.” It reinforced the epitome of the rugged, Viking warrior. Like Chris Hemsworth in Thor, but Nordic and not an Aussie playing a Norse God.
Naturally, everyone ticked “he” next to the Viking Warrior Sex box and off they went for the next 70 years.
But starting in the 1970s, some began to question the bone structure of the Birka Warrior, most notably the jaw and pelvic bones. In 2014, a bone analysis was done by bioarcheologist Anna Kjellström and…
CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A GIRL!
Yup. It turned out that the Birka Viking Warrior was more like Freya than Thor.
Some archeologists, and this is my favorite part of this story, and by favorite, I mean of course they would do this, suggested that NO, NO, NO: There must have been a mix-up at the museum with the bones. Or maybe they were jumbled together from a nearby grave. Or there was probably a missing male from the grave. Yeah, that must be it.
No one seemed to question the authenticity of the bones or their placement when she was incorrectly assumed to be a he for all those decades. Just saying.
That dang Birka Warrior just didn’t stay in her mythological box like she was supposed to, I guess.
In 2017, DNA analysis by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson confirmed the bones of the Birka Warrior were, indeed, female. And despite twisting logic to figure out a thousand reasons why a woman couldn’t possibly be there, most people are just going with the simplest explanation: she was a she.
History colors how we think. It tells us–scratch that, TOLD us– that Viking warriors were big, burly, men with bulging biceps named Ragnor. And so when we find evidence of such a thing, we simply assume it to be true. But the confirmation that the Birka Warrior is a woman does more than just rearrange our assumptions, it shows us that when we have women archeologists and historians, we’re allowing different assumptions to seed and grow. We are opening a different window. The room is the same, but the view IN and OUT is changed.
Other evidence of women buried with weapons and shields as grave goods have popped up here and there. Recently scientists did a facial reconstruction of a warrior excavated in Norway. She too was buried with her weapons and horse. Some think she is evidence of the shield maidens thought to exist only in mythology.
Perhaps one day, the site we visited will change its sign to read “Pieces of jewelry have been found depicting women with shields and now we DO know why. Because once, we were warriors too.”
We get to rewrite history. One woman at a time.
Happy Women’s History Month!