More thoughts on women warriors

*I was going to link to this post from my personal blog but in the end decided to just repost.

Here’s an interesting addition to the debate about the Viking warrior grave in Birka I discussed yesterday. The author, Professor Judith Jesch, makes some good points about the overall gaps in the journal authors’ argument and presentation. Go read it. She is not wrong about many of them. Perhaps, from the supporting evidence offered (or lack of it), there is no way to know for sure that the bones tested are the bones originally pictured. However, the evidence on balance suggests, in my opinion, that they are. I wish I were an anatomist; I wish I could assume that the original illustration is accurate. Perhaps then I could make a guess about the likely biological sex of skeleton pictured.

Of course I can make a guess—that, yes, it’s female—but I have no confidence in that guess. I’m an amateur. I can stare at pictures of brow ridges and mastoid processes until I’m blue in the face; I’m still just guessing. And Jesch is not wrong, either, when she suggests:

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.

I’m quite willing to admit that my perspective on the issue of women warriors in a heroic society is coloured by desire: I want it to be possible.

However, if the bones are in fact the ones pictured in the grave, and if at some point in the future more attention is paid to sword-grip circumference and bone development (were the hands large enough to grip the sword? were the wrists sufficiently developed to wield it?) and the consensus is that, yes, biologically it was possible for the individual to have fought with edged weapons, then either we say: It was a woman warrior, or we say: We should go back and delete all attributions to warrior status based on grave goods. Because we either follow one standard/set of assumptions or we discard them.

There’s a lot more to be said on this one, I think. I’ll look forward to hearing how the conversation develops.

6 thoughts on “More thoughts on women warriors

  1. There were definitely women warriors in west African kingdoms who fought the European colonial armies. They were fierce amazons. This is 19th century history and easily researched.

      1. Nicola,
        I just finished reading Blue Place and Stay. I am now about halfway through Ammonite. I really enjoy your writing.
        I hope you will continue to write for a long time.


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