When an impressive Viking grave containing weapons, horses and even a board game was excavated in the 1880s, it was simply assumed that the skeleton belonged to a man.
A new analysis of the DNA has proved it to be the “first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior,” according to a recent study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
“Only a few warriors are buried with gaming pieces, and they signal strategic thinking,” study author Anna Kjellström wrote in an email. She works in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden.
The full gaming set, including a board and pieces, was used for strategy and tactics. Its inclusion in the grave indicates that she was an officer who could lead troops into battle, study author Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, of Stockholm University and Uppsala University, said in a release.
Between the eighth and 10th centuries, the city of Birka was a key cultural, social and economic area for trade in Sweden. It hosted between 700 and 1,000 people, including traders, artisans and warriors.
Today, Birka is known as the site of one of the largest groupings of burials from the Viking Age. More than 3,000 graves can be found here, and 1,100 of them have been excavated.
The impressively complete grave of the female warrior from the mid-10th century, identified as Bj 581, was found on an elevated terrace between the town and a hillfort where the garrison would’ve been.
She was found with the gaming set, a sword, an axe, a spear, a battle knife, two shields, armor-piercing arrows and the skeletons of one mare and one stallion — all the signs of a professional warrior.
Because of these “grave goods,” it was automatically assumed that the skeleton belonged to a man. This was questioned when an osteological analysis of the bones was performed in the 1970s, showing that the warrior was a woman. But the finding was controversial. Although there are stories about female Viking warriors, their existence has been debated.
“There are few text sources describing women’s living conditions in general and even fewer that connect women to arms,” Kjellström said. “These are also either written long after the Viking era or otherwise doubtful. Within the archeological record, there are also very few traces that connect women with weapons.”
Even then, weapons found buried with women have been described as heirlooms or symbols of family status. The same assumptions have not been applied to men, the study said.
The remains of a high-ranking female Viking warrior had never been found before. It took ancient DNA analysis to solve the controversial mystery.
Defining a warrior
Samples were taken from a tooth and arm bone. Genome sequence data analysis revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome, confirming that the skeleton belonged to a woman.
The researchers were also able to tell that her genetics aligned with those of present day North Europeans. They believe that while she probably wasn’t from Birka, she had moved there.
She was over 30 years of age, but the preservation of the skeleton itself is so poor that her cause of death cannot be determined. There are no visible clues to how she died, Kjellström said.
The fact that her skeleton bears no trauma wounds does not discount her warrior status, the study authors said. Only two out of 49 confirmed males found buried in Birka show such trauma wounds. They are more commonly found among skeletons in mass burials from the Viking Age.
The researchers will continue studying burials in Birka to “gain a better overview of living conditions for both different social groups and certain individuals,” Kjellström said.
Given the findings, it’s possible that there are other graves in and outside Scandinavia where interpretations of sex and gender need to be reanalyzed in greater detail, she said.
“We hope that in the future, people in the research community as well as others won’t jump to conclusions regarding the biological sex of archaeological individuals based to certain objects or contexts,” Kjellström said.