Female "Viking" Warrior May Have Been A Slavic Migrant

Artistic reconstruction of grave BB from Bogovej in Langeland, Denmark. Illustration by Miroslaw Kuzma. Copyright: Leszek Gardela

Rosie McCall 26 Jul 2019, 14:29

The grave of a person archaeologists have identified as a female Viking warrior may actually be a Slavic migrant from an area in today's Poland, new research suggests.

The skeleton lies alongside an axe in a Viking cemetery on the island of Langeland, Denmark, and was rediscovered years ago – but until now, no one has paid attention to the heritage of the weapon, says Leszek Gardeła, an archaeologist and Viking age specialist from the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literatures at the University of Bonn, Germany.

"So far, no one has paid any attention to the fact that the axe in the grave comes from the area of the southern Baltic, possibly today's Poland," Gardeła told Science In Poland.

Gardela, who is currently working on a project (Amazons of the North) studying weapon-enclosed female graves from 9th and 10th-century Scandinavia, explains that neither the axe nor the form of burial (a chamber grave containing an additional coffin and a weapon) suggests that the women was a Viking. It is more likely, he says, that she originated from an area in modern-day Poland, making her Slavic.

"The presence of Slavic warriors in Denmark was more significant than previously thought; this image emerges from new research," said Gardeła. "During the Middle Ages, this island was a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements."

The grave is one of thirty graves containing biologically female remains from 9th and 10th-century Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) known to carry weapons. Most often, these weapons are axes, though there have been (less frequent) examples of graves containing spears or arrowheads. 

While characters like Lagertha in the TV show Vikings and Valkyrie in Thor have popularized the figure of the Viking warrioress – or Nordic "Amazon" – and the sagas themselves tell stories of shield-maidens, the weapons found in this grave were not necessarily used for fighting and their presence does not necessarily mean these women were warriors, says Gardela.

"Some of the axes are so badly preserved that such analyses are not possible," he explained. "Those that are in a better condition look as if they were placed in the grave just after being made – it may be due to the fact that their blades were sharpened, hence there are no nicks on them. But it is possible that some weapons were made specifically for the funeral."

And while shield-maidens and valkyries do feature in old Icelandic texts and Nordic sagas, so do dragons, trolls, elves, and dwarves, which makes their real-life existence hard to verify without stone-cold archaeological evidence. 

The problem here is that the bones in the graves are badly preserved. Many remains have been identified as women simply on account of the traditionally female artifacts buried alongside their bodies, or famously misidentified as male thanks to impressive displays of weaponry or indications of high-ranking status. Meanwhile, the poor state of the remains makes it hard to confirm how they died or, indeed, their biological sex or role in society.

Luckily, says Gardela, the alleged Slavic woman's bones had survived. Though there are no obvious injuries that can pinpoint the cause of her death.

Gardela believes that female Vikings only occasionally wielded weapons, and even then, mostly for reasons of religious ritual or self-defense. However, until we know more about how Viking society was structured (and accept they lived in a context of their own) we can only speculate about the roles of warrior women in it, though the evidence is building that shield-maidens may not have been as mythical as their valkyrie counterparts.

[H/T: Science In Poland]

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