The skeleton of an iconic Viking warrior at Birka possibly belongs to a woman

iconic-viking-warrior-skeleton-woman_1Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 from Hjalmar Stolpe's excavations at Birka in the late 19th century. (Stolpe 1889).

Back in 2014, a study conducted on the analysis of mitochondrial DNA, extracted from Norse skeletons dated from the Viking Age, suggested the possibility of how women (and even their children) accompanied some of the male Viking warriors on their raiding endeavors. Well as it turns out, very few of these women might have even taken up the mantle of armed raiders themselves, as alluded by a new study directed by researchers at Stockholm and Uppsala Universities. According to them, one of the iconic graves in Birka (an important medieval Scandinavian trading center in Sweden), corresponding to the Viking Age, belonged to a high-ranking warrior who was possibly a woman.

The grave in question here, dating from circa 10th century AD, typically contains the remains of the warrior, along with a sword, arrows, two horses and most importantly an entire gaming set with board and pieces. Pertaining to this latter object, such artifacts were occasionally reserved as funerary material for high-ranking warriors. As Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, who led the study said –

What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman. The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle.

Anna Kjellström, one of the participants of the study, added –

The morphology of some skeletal traits strongly suggests that she was a woman, but this has been the type specimen for a Viking warrior for over a century why we needed to confirm the sex in any way we could.


Reconstruction of how the grave with the woman originally may have looked like. Illustration is made by Þórhallur Þráinsson (© Neil Price)

Pertaining to this scope of confirmation, the researchers delved into the genetics, in a bid to derive the molecular sex identification based on X and Y chromosomes. Utilizing a similar technique approved for sex identification of children, the scientists were able to discern the presence of X chromosomes but the lack of a Y chromosome. One of the senior researchers involved in the study, Jan Storå clarified –

This burial was excavated in the 1880s and has served as a model of a professional Viking warrior ever since. Especially, the grave-goods cemented an interpretation for over a century [i.e., it was just assumed she was a man through all these years]. The utilization of new techniques, methods, but also renewed critical perspectives, again, shows the research potential and scientific value of our museum collections.

Now, of course, the (possible) identification of a female as a high-ranking Viking warrior doesn’t mean that having women as commanders was a common practice during the particular era. But in spite of the probable rarity of the scenario, the discovery does go against the historical convention of 19th-century hypotheses and theories. This, in turn, can lead to even more detailed analyses of various Viking graves, not only to determine the gender of the occupants but also to discern their statuses and cultural affiliations as military leaders within a martial society.


Recreation of a Viking burial with game pieces, in Sanday, the Orkney Islands. Credit: Historic Scotland.

The study was originally published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Source: Stockholm University