Researchers Prove Disputed Viking Warrior Skeleton Really Was Female

The occupant of Bj.581 reconstructed as a female warrior of high status. Drawing by Tancredi Valeri

Following two years of controversy, researchers have taken another look at a much-disputed skeleton found in a 10th-century Viking warrior tomb and come up with a clear conclusion: the remains are definitely female. 

In 1878, when archaeologists cracked open the chamber on the Swedish island of Björkö, once an important Viking trade center known as Birka in medieval sources, it was pretty clear it belonged to a high-ranking Viking warrior, laid to rest with all their weapons, grand clothes, and two horses. The skeleton in the chamber was also assumed to be a male, until 2017 when a study used ancient DNA analysis to conclude the individual was, in fact, biologically female.

The story caught a lot of attention worldwide, but not everyone was happy with this conclusion. Many critics said the weapons might have belonged to her husband or there were actually two skeletons in the grave. Some argued the researchers had analyzed the wrong skeleton, or bones they studied had got mixed up with another set of remains. Others just thought it was wishful thinking that women were warriors in Viking times. Certainly, stories from the Viking era speak of female warriors, but were the researchers naively reading too much into these tales? 

Now, writing in the journal Antiquity, the researchers have responded to their critics by reaffirming that the person buried in the chamber, also known as Bj.581, was "unassailably female."

Plan and drawing of grave Bj.581: plan from Arbman (1943). Drawing by Þórhallur Þráinsson

Maintaining their DNA analysis was correct first time around, now they have addressed particular criticisms, specifically the suggestion they analyzed the wrong skeleton. The authors confirm there was only one skeleton in the grave, and there was no chance of the bones being muddled up as each individual human bone was clearly labeled “Bj.581” in ink. 

"Grave Bj.581 had only one human occupant,” Professor Neil Price, study author from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, said in a statement given to IFLScience. "An extra thigh-bone in the Bj.581 museum storage box – much hyped by our online critics – is clearly labeled as coming from another grave and had just been misplaced in the wrong box (the possibility of which is why bones are labeled to begin with!)"

Also, they make this rather fine point: "To those who do take issue, we suggest that it is not supportable to react only now, when the individual has been shown to be female, without explaining why neither the warrior interpretations nor any supposed source-critical factors were a problem when the person in Bj.581 was believed to be male." 

However, the question of this person's gender – not biological sex – does remain hazy. They point out that just because the skeleton has been proven to be biologically female does not mean the long-held interpretation they were a warrior is wrong. Ideas about gender are not set in stone and can vary hugely between cultures. As such, it's dangerous to apply our own modern ideas of gender roles and gender identity onto this ancient skeleton from a hugely different culture, or similarly, assume they weren't more ambivalent about gender identity than us. 

“The body’s XX chromosomes revealed in the genomic study provide an unambiguously female sex determination, but the gender of the Bj.581 individual is a different matter,” said Professor Price. “There is, of course, a broad spectrum of possibilities, many of them involving contested contemporary terminologies that can also be problematic to apply to people of the past.”

“Time will prove us right or wrong, but we think it probable that more Viking Age female warriors will be found in the archaeological record — either as new discoveries or as reinterpretations of old finds,” the team concluded.

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