Viking ‘warrior women’: Judith Jesch, expert in Viking studies, examines the latest evidence

In 2017, a research paper made waves by claiming that the remains of a supposed professional warrior found in a 10th-century grave in Birka, Sweden, could be female. The remains, originally unearthed in the 1880s, had been long presumed to be those of a male warrior, due to their burial with weapons and other status symbols. Judith Jesch, an expert in Vikings and Norse studies, offers comment on the recent reassessment of the remains…

Katheryn WInnick as Lagertha in season 2 of 'Vikings'. A strong belief in Viking women warriors is now rife in many quarters of cyberspace, says Judith Jesch. (Image by Alamy)

Back around the year 1200, the learned Danish cleric Saxo Grammaticus peppered his Latin history of the Danes with female warriors of an earlier time. His warrior women owed more to classical myths of the Amazons than to real-life precedents in the Viking Age, but his imaginative leap continues to influence our perceptions of that period. The shield-maiden Lagertha in HISTORY’s drama series Vikings (2013–) was inspired by one of his characters. Once you have seen Lagertha, it is hard to unsee her, and a strong belief in Viking women warriors is now rife in many quarters of cyberspace.

Advertisement
Viking women in the home. (Illustrations by Laura Grace Haines)

This desire for female Vikings contributed to the viral reception a couple of years ago of the paper ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’ (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., 2017). Now, the same team has published a more extensive assessment of the grave in question (Price et al., 2019). Already in the title (‘Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj. 581’), the authors recognise the need for judicious interpretation of the evidence, with the question mark inviting discussion and argument. They do not revisit the scientific conclusions of the earlier study, but concentrate on the archaeological interpretation. Important matters, such as the processes by which the archaeologists identified the contents of the grave and by which they were led to do a genetic analysis, are better explained this time around. The authors also give more consideration to what it might mean to identify a body as both a ‘woman’ and ‘warrior’. The article thus improves on the previous study with a better-reasoned argument and by toning down the originally rather sensationalist claims.

Michael Hirst discusses 'Vikings' on the History Extra podcast.

Many aspects of the new article will lead to further discussion. The authors often make too much of rather slim evidence. The strong link they make between the gaming board and pieces [found with the remains] and the ‘command’ status of the individual is still unconvincing. In the online supplementary material they refer to “[w]hat appears to be an iron-framed gaming board”, suggesting that the evidential basis of their interpretation is insecure. The authors also make much of various “eastern” aspects of the burial but do not address the ways in which this might complicate their classification of it as ‘Viking’. But with fragmentary evidence from more than a thousand years ago, some well-informed speculation is useful for moving the discussion forward. It is to be hoped that the authors will welcome further discussion of their interpretations.

The grave of a Viking supposed warrior has always been assumed to be male since its excavation in 1878. (Image by Alamy)
The grave of a Viking supposed warrior has always been assumed to be male since its excavation in 1878. (Image by Alamy)

Interestingly, the article begins with the “problematic legacy” of both popular interest in and academic “recycling” of the Viking Age. There is no doubt that History Channel’s Vikings series led to the interest provoked by the 2017 article, but now it has become entangled with the academic results. The principal author’s links to HISTORY channel and its ‘documentary’ series The Real Vikings are not mentioned, yet both this study (with its reconstruction drawings), and Price’s work more generally, espouse a view of research into the Viking Age which fills out our meagre evidence with speculation and imaginative reconstruction. This can lead to the blurring of the line between primary research and public presentation.

Lagertha, portrayed by Katheryn Winnick, in season 4 of Vikings. (Credit: Jonathan Hession/History)

While the main article is a reasonably well-argued archaeological analysis, some of the online supplementary material is less impressive. A long section of this is a survey of the “textual support for the existence of female warriors in the Viking Age”. The status of this survey in an archaeological journal by archaeological authors is not clear. On the one hand, they say that this literary and historical material is “quite unnecessary for the interpretation of the excavated material”; on the other hand, the authors cannot resist discussing it at some length. There are many aspects of this discussion with which specialists in medieval texts would take issue. The true fascination of studying the Viking Age is the range of different kinds of evidence for it, and the necessity for genuinely interdisciplinary work. In the meantime, one female ‘warrior’ is only the first step in what will need to be a much longer conversation.

Advertisement

Judith Jesch is professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham. Her books include The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015) and Jesch wrote about the varied roles of Viking women for the March 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine.