DNA says Viking warrior found in 1889 was female

Shieldmaiden was buried with many weapons, horses

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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 male. No more.

The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden, like an ancient Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones.”

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.”

Gotherstrom, along with nine other scientists from the Universities of Stockholm and Uppsala, announced their results in a paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Theirs is the first genetic proof that at least some Viking women were warriors.

The shieldmaiden, whose teeth identify her as being at least 30, also appeared to be of high status. Her grave chamber is on a prominent, elevated piece of ground between the town and a hilltop fort, and also contained a full set of gaming pieces and a gaming board, typically used by military leaders to work out battle tactics and strategy.

Warrior graves

Although some weapons have been found in other female Viking graves, none included only weapons — or so many of them.

“This is exactly what you would expect from male warrior graves,” said Cat Jarman, a British archaeologist not associated with the discovery. “There’s nothing that says it was a woman.”

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 woman is that “she could be someone who lived like a man,” Jarman 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 central-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 write.

Vikings who weren’t engaged in battle usually were cremated, Gotherstrom said, and with women burials, there “would not have been much, or any, of the weaponry, but a stronger tendency for jewelry, broaches and everyday utensils.”

Stuff of legends?

Until recently, female Viking warriors were largely the stuff of literature or mythology. Camilla, in Virgil’s Aeneid, was raised to be a huntress and was expert in the javelin and bow. But she was also suckled by a mare, according to Virgil, and could run over the ocean without getting her feet wet.

Norse legends feature women warriors such as Hervor and Brynhildr. And neither meek nor mild, Viking women were depicted in medieval art and literature as political leaders and priests.

The fascination with women warriors is long and varied, from the Amazons to Joan of Arc to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But for archaeologists, the confirmation of a real Viking woman warrior leaves them fumbling for words. As Gotherstrom finally described it:

“Simply super cool.”