In this second blog post about the discovery of female remains in a warrior's grave long thought to be that of a male, we'll look more closely at the facts presented by the scholars.
We are discussing and quoting parts of the original report published on September 8th, 2017, on the American Journal of Physical Anthropology here: The Report
The first part blog post can be reached here: Part 1
Alright, let's look at the most obvious questions and see how the report deals with them:
1. The grave was excavated more than 100 years ago. How can we know what it looked like?
The grave was excavated by Hjalmar Stolpe, who made careful drawings over all his finds. Thus the exact position of the items, the skeleton, the horses and other items is confirmed.
2. Could she have been a slave or a wife buried with a now missing male skeleton?
The report looks at this possibility. A conclusion is reached based on the comparison with other graves confirmed to hold only one individual. The grave goods, items and corpses are arranged in a specific way that makes it evident that this grave only held one person. The exact quite from the report is:
"Furthermore, an argument can be put forward that the grave originally may have held a second, now missing, individual. In which case, the weaponry could have been a part of that individual's grave furnishings, while the remaining female was buried without any objects. However, the distribution of the grave goods within the grave, their spatial relation to the female individual and the total lack of any typically female attributed grave artefacts disputes this possibility."
3. Could she have been buried with the weapons, without being a warrior?
Basically the report states that all other burials with the same set of grave goods have been interpreted as graves of warriors (this one lacks items normally associated with females). Letting the fact that it is a woman negate the importance of the grave goods would according to the report be forcing modern day cultural values on a time we know little about. The report states:
"Do weapons necessarily determine a warrior? The interpretation of grave goods is not straight forward, but it must be stressed that the interpretation should be made in a similar manner regardless of the biological sex of the interred individual. Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics."
4. The skeleton don’t show any signs of trauma. Shouldn’t a warrior’s skeleton show signs of damage?
Far from all wounds leave traces on the skeleton. Fact is that only 2% of male skeletal remains show such signs. To quote the report:
"The skeletal remains in grave Bj 581 did not exhibit signs of antemortem or perimortem trauma which could support the notion that the individual had been a warrior. However, contrary to what could be expected, weapon related wounds (and trauma in general) are not common in the inhumation burials at Birka (e.g., 2 out of 49 confirmed males showed signs of sharp force trauma). A similarly low frequency is noted at contemporaneous cemeteries in Scandinavia."
5. Why is this particular grave so special and important?
This burial has for over 100 years been the embodiment of a professional Viking warrior's grave. There were no mundane items buried with the individual, but rather only items related to warfare. It is a famous grave and the fact that the person in it is a woman makes the head spin on a lot of people. The report reflects on the graves importance:
"Grave Bj 581 is one of three known examples where the individual has been treated in accordance with prevailing warrior ideals lacking all associations with the female gender (Jesch, 2009) (S1, S2, and S3). Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics."
6. Can we trust the researchers? Are they biased or unprofessional?
The team working with the project consists out of the top scholars within this field - archaeologists, professors and researchers. They don't run their own errands, which has been evident in their past work. Trying to pin them with anything similar is just a sign of utter ignorance. And no, There is no conspiracy behind this report.
7. What is the conclusion? Did female warriors exist? Were professional female Viking warriors common?
The vast majority of all the warriors sailing from Scandinavia were men - there is no question about that. However, we need to remember that most men remained at home farming and fishing, and most women remained at home with the men. So - did female Viking warriors exist?
The existence of "shieldmaidens" has been the topic of many heated debates, often with an unfortunate number of trolls and professional opinion-machines digging information from Wikipedia. It stirs up heated emotions, where people project wishful thinking and their own conclusions on the topic, often neglecting archaeology and the latest research. Books, TV-series and other sources not based on facts doesn't make it easier. These discussions often end up mirroring our own society and how we conceive gender related issues. We need to remember our way of thinking can not be applied to a culture we actually know preciously little about. We are still in the process of learning and discovering.
This is the first time that there is actual evidence pointing at a female warrior. We're not talking about sagas, stories or questionable archaeological finds. This is something that really can't be questioned using the standard arguments. The report states:
"Our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions. They provide a new understanding of the Viking society, the social constructions and also norms in the Viking Age. The genetic and strontium data also show that the female warrior was mobile, a pattern that is implied in the historical sources, especially when it comes to the extended households of the elite (cf. Steinsland, Sigurđsson, Rekdal, & Beuermann, 2011)."
We'd like to compare that to women's boxing. It was hugely controversial 100 years ago and the practitioners suffered from a social stigma. Today they are celebrated athletes. Even in our time we see rapid changes in attitude. Who are we to judge a society that existed 1000 years ago - a society that is still largely shrouded in mystery, and label it with our own ways of thinking? If a woman chose to purse fame and fortune through being a warrior, why should it have been any different from a woman in a MMA ring?
We wouldn't say that professional female warriors were common though. That conclusion can't be reached until more prominent warrior graves can be confirmed to be female. However, how many women took the path of a warrior isn't important. The interesting part is that women obviously could make the choice. We know so very little about the culture of that day and age. Most of it is based on more or less educated guesses. When something comes along that actually can prove something, we need to value that.
One final thought: We are laymen and no experts, which also goes for the vast majority reading this. Our or your opinions are actually not worth much more than those of a 10 year old kid questioning the decisions made in a top league football game. What we need to do is let this report settle with the scholarly community and see if they reach a general consensus of approval.