A recent paper in American Journal of Physical Anthropology1 shows that a grave in Viking-age Birka, Sweden, furnished with the material goods of a high-ranking warrior, is that of a female: genomic analysis indicates that “the number of reads mapping to X and Y chromosomes were 248,170 and 247, respectively”.
There are plenty of stories of women warriors in the heroic cultures of northwest Europe2; they are scoffed at by scholars and regarded as myth. The dismissal depends on circular reasoning: Viking society was patriarchal; only men were warriors. If a skeleton is accompanied by a sword, it must be a man because in a patriarchal Viking society only men are warriors.
The Birka skeleton, first excavated in the late 19th century, was assumed to be male. The skeleton was tallish (170 cm, about 5’7″) and buried with a sword, shield, axe, battle-knife, bow and armour-piercing arrows, two horses (one stallion, one mare), plus a board game usually associated with military strategy. For nearly 100 years no one questioned the identification as a high-ranking warrior. But then in the 1970s
someone (I wish I knew who) osteologist Berit Vilkans pointed out the skeleton in the grave exhibited female characteristics. And suddenly the weaponry became purely symbolic. Well, yes, it’s a woman with a sword, but she’s not a warrior. She can’t be because Viking society was patriarchal. Obviously the sword belonged to her father/brother/son; it’s an heirloom, a symbol of family rank.
It’s time that archaeologists and historians admit that for centuries their profession has relied on gender-biased assumptions. There is a long and ignoble tradition of denying early medieval women any kind of agency. I am hopeful that articles like this one in Am J Phys Anthropol are an indication of a change of direction.
Years ago I read an article in British Archaeology (I think, around 2004?) about a grave from Brougham near Hadrian’s Wall. I don’t have the refs to hand (and a preliminary search brings me only The Roman Cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria, by Hilary E.M. Cool, ISBN: 9780907764311) but the ashes, dated to the third century, of two women buried with weapons and, if I recall correctly, animal remains that could be their mounts. They were thought by Cool to be mounted Sarmation numeri from the Danube—fighting units allied with but not fully integrated into the regular Roman army.
I was excited. But the prevailing response was scepticism: Probably wives or girlfriends of the real fighters.
When I was first writing Hild I imagined her learning to use the sword. But decades of scholarly dismissal of armed early medieval women had an effect: I could not convince myself that readers would believe it. So instead Hild learns to fight with a staff. On balance I like the solution I came up with; it matches the imagery we have of Hild (often holding a suspiciously crozier-like staff). I do like to think, though, that writers of realistic fiction set in the past might now feel a little more free to write women with swords. Women are people, human beings in, of, and for ourselves. We are stakeholders in our own lives. Of course we fight.
1 Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, et al (2017). A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 00:1-8 https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308
2 See for example Atlamál in grœnlenzku (The Greenlandic Lay of Atli) quoted at the end of Hedenstierna-Jonson et al.