Scientists have discovered that a Viking grave adorned with swords and axes belonged not to a male, but a seemingly powerful female.
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What the gravestite may have looked like. Illustration by Evald Hansen/American Journal of Physical Anthropology

Despite the fact that strong women warriors like Wonder Woman and Lady Brienne from ‘Game of Thrones,’ are finally becoming more of a fixture in pop culture, it’s not easy to forget how rare these figures actually were in historical society. For centuries, and in almost all societies, men were at the forefront of battle, while women remained behind to take care of the home.

However, it seems that Viking-era Sweden may have been an exception to that rule, and way ahead of its time as far as feminism is concerned.

Recently archeologists in Sweden have discovered that a body found over a century ago in the Viking Age town of Birka was, in fact, a woman, and most likely a very powerful one.

“It’s actually a woman, somewhere over the age of 30 and fairly tall too, measuring around 170 centimetres,” said Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, an archeologist at Uppsala University.

“Aside from the complete warrior equipment buried along with her – a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses – she had a board game in her lap, or more of a war-planning game used to try out battle tactics and strategies, which indicates she was a powerful military leader,” she said. “She’s most likely planned, led and taken part in battles.”

When the grave was initially excavated by Swedish archeologist Hjalmar Stolpe at the end of the 19th century, the heavy battle armor and “manly” weaponry inside led the team to believe it was a man. Tests were never performed that proved otherwise.

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Artist rendering of the Stolpe excavation site. Neil Price

That changed a few years ago, when Anna Kjellström, an osteologist at the Stockholm University took a second look at the body. Kjellstrom had brought the body out for a research project when she noticed discrepancies between her findings and those reported by Stolpe.

The cheekbones were finer and thinner than those of a man of the same age, and the hipbones of the body were distinctly feminine. This led Kjellstrom to request an osteological analysis, backing up up her theories.

This year, a DNA-analysis was carried out, finally confirming them. The team of researchers who made the discovery produced a formal report detailing their findings.

“This image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions. Hence, the biological sex of the individual was taken for granted,” Hedenstierna-Jonson, Kjellström and eight other researchers behind the discovery, wrote in the report.

They noted how important the discovery was, and how it was the first of its kind.

“Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons,” they said.

Hedenstierna-Jonson added that besides being a military strategist and leader, the woman likely participated in battle as a warrior herself.

“You can’t reach such a high (military) position without having warrior experience, so it’s reasonable to believe that she took part in battles,” she said.

The discovery may have been an important one, but some of the research team noted its rarity.

“It was probably quite unusual (for a woman to be a military leader), but in this case, it probably had more to do with her role in society and the family she was from, and that carrying more importance than her gender,” Hedenstierna-Jonson said.

When the body’s gender was first revealed, it was met with skepticism. However, the team noted that despite the criticism, they hope it will open archeologists up to the idea of women warriors, and make them less likely to make assumptions in the field based on stereotypical gender roles.

“I think that’s because of how we view history, and many of us would like to think that we live in the best (and more gender-equal) of worlds now,” Hedenstierna-Jonson said.


Enjoyed this? Next, check out the 1,200 year old Viking sword discovered in Norway. Then read about the Viking funeral ship full of treasure.

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