Viking warrior women: reassessing Birka grave

In 2017 Charlotte Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson et al wrote “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics” for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Now the authors have written a thoughtful followup piece, Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581, for Antiquity:


The warrior woman has long been part of the Viking image, with a pedigree that extends from the Valkyries of Old Norse prose and poetry to modern media entertainment. Until recently, however, actual Viking Age evidence for such individuals has been sparse. This article addresses research showing that the individual buried at Birka in an ‘archetypal’ high-status warrior grave—always assumed to be male since its excavation in 1878—is, in fact, biologically female. Publication, in 2017, of the genomic data led to unprecedented public debate about this individual. Here, the authors address in detail the interpretation of the burial, discussing source-critical issues and parallels.

I agree with their conclusion:

In our opinion, Bj.581 was the grave of a woman who lived as a professional warrior and was buried in a martial environment as an individual of rank (Figure 8).* In our 2017 article—as its title indicates—we strongly followed the same military reading as has been proposed for Bj.581 by a long series of archaeological authorities, and for the same sensible reasons that are far from arbitrary. In doing so, we find no problem in adjusting for the new sex determination. To those who do take issue, however, we suggest that it is not supportable to react only now, when the individual has been shown to be female, without explaining why neither the warrior interpretations nor any supposed source-critical factors were a problem when the person in Bj.581 was believed to be male.

That’s a much nicer way of saying, as I did in autumn 2017:

 …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.

As always, I look forward to future developments about the past.

*You should go look at that illustration, it’s wonderful!

4 thoughts on “Viking warrior women: reassessing Birka grave

  1. Could this possibly be a valued and beloved Shield Maiden of a high ranking warrior? Would her burial be honored as would be of a warrior with status?

      1. This I would certainly want to be truth. Perhaps further discoveries in yet unearthed sites will unequivocally reveal this to be so.

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