Swedish scientists have revealed that the body of a Viking warrior long presumed to be male is, in fact, female.
A team of researchers from Stockholm University conducted a DNA analysis of the skeleton and confirmed that it belonged to a woman. The 10th-century skeleton, the researchers concluded, is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior.
Scientists had long assumed that the skeleton was male – despite early indications that she may have been female – largely because of the status symbols buried alongside her.
Early archaeologists uncovered a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses in the grave, signifying the buried individual’s status of as a “professional warrior”. A set of gaming pieces found in the grave indicates the individual’s “knowledge of tactics and strategy” and role as a high-ranking officer, the scientists said.
Because of this – and because no such high-ranking female Viking has been discovered before – most researchers assumed the body was male. When early analyses indicated the body was female, some suggested that the objects buried alongside her belonged to someone else.
“This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female,” the researchers write. “As long as the sex is male, the weaponry in the grave not only belong to the interred but also reflects his status as warrior, whereas a female sex has raised doubts.”
To quash those doubts, the researchers took a DNA sample from the skeleton’s arm and tooth. The sample revealed a lack of Y chromosomes, signalling that the individual was female. The scientists also noted that the skeleton’s bones were “thin, slender and gracile” like a woman’s, further supporting their conclusions.
The skeleton was first discovered in the 1880s in the Swedish town of Birka. The city is located on the on the island of Björkö, and was an important trading centre for Vikings. The area now contains more than 3,000 Viking graves.
These latest findings, the researchers write, “provide a new understanding of the Viking society, the social constructions and also norms in the Viking Age.”
“Our results – that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior – suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male dominated spheres,” they conclude.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies