It’s a hell of a story: DNA analysis of a 10th century skeleton found at a burial in the Swedish town of Birka — a huge trade hub — revealed that a Viking military leader was actually a woman.
The grave (known as Bj 581) was first discovered in the 1880s but only recently tested for DNA. The body was found with a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a bottle knife, two shields, and two horses. All those components suggest that the body belonged to a professional warrior, according to the authors of the study.
“Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence,” said Uppsala archaeologist Neil Price in a press release.
Social media was abuzz with people praising the diversity of Viking’s society, while media outlets (including Mashable) published countless articles with the same catchy headlines. It’s a fascinating story, that attracts the people’s imagination.
But there’s a catch.
Judith Jesch, an expert on Vikings and Norse history has written a long and comprehensive blog post questioning the veracity of the conclusions of the ‘Viking female warrior’ article, which by the way is entitled A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’
“I try to keep an open mind, but I also get very frustrated by what I consider to be academic discourse that seems to be mostly concerned with grabbing attention in order to facilitate further funding and/or claim ‘impact’,” she said.
Let’s try to sum up her main points in a list (which she’ll probably hate, and we beg for forgiveness):
1. No language specialists were consulted
Jesch criticises the authors for not involving any specialist in language of texts, despite the fact that the article has several references to Viking literature. “The impression given is that the authors consider that no special expertise is required to handle this kind of evidence unlike bones, or DNA, or archaeological finds,” she says. She also accuses the authors of referencing only experts and books that confirm their narrative of a ‘female Viking warrior’ story:
I do wish the authors would engage with these more subtle and complex interpretations, rather than just unthinkingly using texts both as the starting and the finishing point of their argument, without any indication of what narratives they have in mind, or even what kind, or any explanation of why a particular quotation might be relevant.
An example of their sloppy thinking is when they claim that ‘the material and historical records’ both suggest that ‘the male sex has been associated with the gender of a warrior identity’ (a statement I think I understand, but it sounds awkward).
This is to elide the nature of two very different types of evidence and does, in my view, a disservice to what they call ‘historical records’ (which may or may not be the same as the ‘narratives’ or ‘mythological phenomena’ referred to earlier).
2. We’re not sure the correct bones were examined
The article refers to another earlier article by one of the authors — Kjellström — which is supposed to provide “a full osteological and contextual analysis” of the burial in question, along with more context on age and sex estimation and identification.
Jesch followed up on the article in question and “can find nothing in it which explains why this osteological and contextual analysis suggests the deceased was a female.”
But there’s more.
Kjellström’s earlier article refers to a “chamber grave furnished with fine armour and sacrificed horses” — presumably the grave with burial Bj 581 — for which “three different osteological examinations all found that the individual was a woman”.
However, he also admits that there’s no certainty those were “the correct bones for this grave”. This is because since the graves were found in 1880s, there’s been confusion regarding the origins of the bones.
In a nutshell, we’re not 100% sure where various bags of bones came from since the graves were excavated 130 years ago. But in the 2017 article, that’s only mentioned in the ‘Supporting Information’.
3. We’re not sure she was a high-ranking warrior
The authors said the skeleton was a “high-ranking officer” based on the fact that the burial contained “a full set of gaming pieces”, implying a skilled knowledge of tactics and strategy. Another factor which could have played a role is the fact that the individual was “at least above 30 years of age”.
However, there’s no factual, evidence-based confirmation of that:
By the end of the article, ‘the individual in grave Bj 581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking warrior’, because ‘the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics’. All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact.
4. She had no signs of harm and healing, so unlikely a warrior
This is an important point, also raised by Greg Jenner on Twitter:
The skeleton shows no signs of harm & healing, which is a bit odd – a warrior would commonly have fractures etc. So, maybe not a “fighter”
— Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) September 8, 2017
The authors themselves note that “weapon related wounds … are not common in the inhumation burials at Birka” so either the “warriors” were such good fighters that they never got injured or they weren’t “warriors” at all.
In the former case, though, Jesch stresses that there would be some signs in the grave:
They also say nothing about whether there was any indication on the bones of the kinds of activities one might expect a warrior to have engaged in, as strenuous physical activity might be expected to have left some traces, particularly if they were good enough to avoid injury to themselves.
5. No other possible explanations were pursued
At the end of the article, authors warn that previous arguments “have likely neglected intersectional perspectives where the social status of the individual was considered of greater importance than biological sex.”
However, Jesch argues that no alternative explanations were pursued:
Was it possible, for example, for a biological woman to have been buried with a full ‘warrior’ accoutrement, even if she had not been a warrior in life? After all, archaeologists are always cautioning us that ‘the dead don’t bury themselves’ and they often seem not to like interpretations in which the deceased’s grave goods are taken as representing their roles in life.
But such perspectives do not seem to be applied here – they want the woman to be a warrior, so the scientific analysis makes her a woman and her ‘archaeological context’ makes her a warrior.