In the 1880s, the body of a Viking warrior was dug up. Ever since, most have assumed that this military leader was a man. However, now equipped with DNA evidence, archeologists have concluded that this "high-status Viking warrior" was actually a woman. This new discovery could rewrite what we thought we knew about social organization, gender, status, and warfare in this ancient society.
The recent study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, set out to confirm the sex of the body found near the village of Birka in Sweden. The individual was buried in a warrior grave (image below) that dated back to the Viking age, around mid-10th century, and contained a wealth of relics related to war, such as a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, a battle knife, two shields, two horses, and a board game to work out warfare tactics.
"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," said Anna Kjellström, one of the researchers on the project, in a statement.
To settle the score, they turned to genetics. They retrieved DNA from the skeleton’s bones and discovered that the person carried two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome – a sure sign this was a female.
"This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior," Professor Mattias Jakobsson, from Uppsala University's Department of Organismal Biology, said in a separate statement.
"Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we've really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence," added Neil Price, a professor at Uppsala University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Judith Jesch, professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham, argues in a blog post that the woman’s lavish grave doesn’t necessarily infer she was a warrior. It’s worth noting, she says, that the skeleton showed no signs of traumatic injury or "wear and tear" from battle.
Nevertheless, the researchers appear adamant that this discovery is much more than the 20th and 21st century's fascination with woman warriors.
“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," added senior author Jan Storå. "The utilization of new techniques, methods, but also renewed critical perspectives, again, shows the research potential and scientific value of our museum collections."