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How the female Viking warrior was

written out of history


What Bj 581, the female Viking warrior tells us about assumed gender roles in
archaeological inquiry

Assumptions regarding gender roles do not just render women invisible in the
archaeological record, they dilute our understanding of past societies and the
enormous complexity of human achievement and activity.

Holly Norton
Friday 15 September 2017 06.21 EDTLast modified on Friday 15 September
2017 12.32 EDT

In the 1880s Scandinavian archaeologists unearthed a grave containing all the


implements required for battle, including shields, an axe, a spear, a sword,
and a bow with a set of heavy arrows, along with two horses, a mare and a
stallion. A set of game pieces has long lead researchers to believe that this
person was interested in strategy, and may have used the pieces to plan battle
tactics. It was the grave of a Viking warrior and naturally was assumed to be a
male. It was designated, and continues to be referred to, as Bj 581.

Physical anthropologists have long been able to identify characteristics such as


sex and age from osteological analysis, and such investigations in the 1970s
raised the prospect that this individual was, in fact, female. But the grave
goods! Forget the physical characteristics of the skeleton itself, the occupant
had to be male.

This past month the American Journal of Physical Anthropology published a


short study that laid the case to rest once and for all. Hedenstierna-Jonson
and her team scienced the hell out of two DNA samples taken from the
skeleton, sequencing the genome, testing the mtDNA, and conducting
strontium isotope analysis to not only pin down the biological sex of the
skeleton, but also to identify geographic origins or biological affinities (the
populations she most resembles- including the British Isles, the North Atlantic
Islands, Scandinavia, and a dash of the Eastern Balkans) and the potential
mobility of the individual in life. Taken together, these variables add to the
already complex picture of a cosmopolitan Birka, the 8th-10th-century Viking
town in which Bj 581 was interred.

While the popular story has been about a female warrior, the real story that
underlies this study are the assumptions the researchers just blew out of the
water. Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. do not equivocate in their statements that,
for over a century, this individual was mis-identified as male because
archaeologists, acculturated in a western society with strictly defined gender
roles, view men alone as warriors, or soldiers, or wielders of violence. A
warrior, like warfare itself, is a cultural construct, practices and professions
created by human societies to fulfill specific desires. To assume uncritically
that men alone are warriors leads to a cascade of other assumptions about
human behaviors that renders our attempt to understand those behaviors
somewhat moot.

These types of assumptions hurt the scientific endeavour of archaeology.


Assumptions regarding gender roles do not just render women invisible in the
archaeological record, assumptions regarding gender roles dilute our
understanding of past societies and the enormous complexity of human
achievements and activities. Not only are women invisible, but men are
deterministic, and all of human history is nasty, brutish, and short.

This is not a new problem in archaeology and anthropology. Our most basic
categorization of man the tool maker was challenged by feminist researchers
such as Joan Gero in the early 1990s. Geros argument then was that stone
tools, the most ubiquitous artifact in the archaeological record, were assumed
to be manufactured and used by males, even in contexts, such as house and
village sites, where the activities were assumed to be dominated by women.
Gero illustrated clearly and concisely that ethnographic and historic evidence
does not in fact support the man-the-tool maker hypothesis, and that other
aspects of our modern value system- our tendency to commodify labor, to
quantify energy and expenditure and therefore give those things higher
value- may in fact warp many of our research questions and a priori
conclusions.

Skogstrand asserts that androcentrism in archaeology does all human sexes a


disservice, arguing that The fact that men are representing the entire
prehistoric society is not simply because women are ignored; it is mainly
because men are not gendered. By uncritically assuming modern gender roles
applied in the past, we are failing to understand how past peoples lived and
how they saw the world. Men are therefore rendered as invisible as women,
and the past becomes boring.

Already the identifcation of Bj 581 is being bogged down in pedantic


arguments questioning whether this individual could have been a warrior. The
genomics is fairly certain- these are the remains of a woman who genetically
was part of the Viking world, and who was interred in a Viking tomb with
Viking material culture, specifically material culture associated with combat
and warfare. It continues to be a challenge for some people to reconcile those
variables. But those same people are missing the larger implications of the
genomics study. The real questions, the interesting questions: what does it
mean that Bj 581 was a female? What does this tell us about how Viking
society was structured? Was Bj 581 unique, or did she represent a category of
women that has been largely relegated to mythology? And what can this tell us
about how violent conflict was viewed and experienced? Hedenstierna-Jonson
et al. just opened up a whole line of research questions that remind us how
complex, rich, and fascinating human societies actually are when we study
them for who they were and not to reflect who we think we are.

Hedenstierna-Jonson C., Kjellstrom A., Zachhrisson T., et al (2017) A Female


Viking Warrior confirmed by Genomics. American Journal of
Physical Anthropology.

Gero, Joan (1991) Genderlithics: Womens Roles in Stone Tool Production. In


Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory, edited by Joan Gero and
Margaret Conkey. Blackwell Publishers.

Skogstrand, Lisbeth (2010) Is Androcentric Archaeology Really About Men?


Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/sep/15/how-the-female-viking-warrior-was-written-out-
of-history