New evidence of Viking warrior women might not be what it seems

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tags: archaeology, DNA, Viking, Viking warrior women



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At first, the scientific paper seemed like scientific confirmation of a long-cherished myth about Vikings. DNA and geochemistry experts re-examined the famous Swedish grave of a high-ranking Viking warrior and discovered that the person buried alongside swords, armor, and two sacrificial horses was genetically female. In a paper published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team announced that they had, at last, proven that there were warrior women among the Vikings.

The claim seemed to fit the evidence. Male Vikings were frequently buried with swords, and the sword was undoubtedly associated with the battle-scarred ideal of masculinity in Viking culture. If we assume that men buried with swords are warriors, then a woman buried with one was probably a warrior, too. Analysis of the stable isotopes in her tooth enamel suggested this woman had traveled widely, just like a warrior would have. On top of all that, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues pointed out the many references to women fighting in Old Norse poetry and myth. The bloodthirsty Valkyries are an all-female gang of magical creatures who come to every battle and decide who will fall. The recent paper in American Journal of Physical Anthropology was simply our first scientific evidence that there were real-life women fighting alongside the men.

It was an exciting story, and headlines about Viking warrior women have been everywhere in the media. But the reality is more complex and probably says more about us than it does about Vikings. Several experts have come forward to question the evidence. Writing on her blog, University of Nottingham professor of Viking studies Judith Jesch says, "I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires." Today, many of us are eager to find examples of woman leaders in the past who are just as badass as our woman leaders today. And that might lead to misunderstanding history.




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