Skeleton ignites debate over whether women were Viking warriors

Viking warriors have a historical reputation as tough guys, with an emphasis on testosterone. But scientists now say that DNA has unveiled a Viking warrior woman who was previously found in a roughly 1,000-year-old grave in Sweden. Until now, many researchers assumed that “she” was a “he” buried with a set of weapons and related paraphernalia worthy of a high-ranking military officer.

If the woman was in fact a warrior, a team led by archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University in Sweden has identified the first female Viking to have participated in what was long considered a male pursuit.

But the new report, published online September 8 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, has drawn criticism from some researchers. All that’s known for sure, they say, is that the skeleton assessed in the new report belonged to a woman who moved to the town where she was interred after spending her youth elsewhere.

“Have we found the Mulan of Sweden, or a woman buried with the rank-symbols of a husband who died abroad?” asks archaeologist Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University in Denmark. There’s no way to know what meanings Vikings attached to weapons placed in the Swedish grave, Sindbæk says.

Although the new paper dubs the long-dead woman “a high-ranking female Viking warrior,” other interpretations of her identity are possible, Hedenstierna-Jonson acknowledges. But she notes that the Viking woman “was an exception in a sphere dominated by men, either if she was an active warrior or if she was ‘only’ buried in full warrior dress with a complete set of weapons.”

Excavations in the late 1800s at Birka, a Scandinavian trading center from the 700s to around 1000 (SN: 4/18/15, p. 8), uncovered the woman’s grave. Remains of Birka lie on the island of Björkö, about 30 kilometers west of present-day Stockholm. About 1,100 of more than 3,000 graves that encircle Birka have been unearthed.

Excavators noted that the body lay among a warrior’s gear. This equipment included an ax, a spear, arrows, a large knife, two shields and two horses. Playing pieces found in the grave, apparently for some type of board game, suggest the woman may have been a high-ranking officer with knowledge of military tactics and strategy, Hedenstierna-Jonson’s team speculates.