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Vikings, History, and Ourselves: Still Searching…

By Terri Barnes

Three years ago, I began teaching a course on the Viking Age and wrote a piece that was reflective of my experience, which I shared at a couple conferences and which was also eventually published.(1)  It centered on the discoveries I made about how my students approached the Vikings and their history, mainly by persisting in seeing them however they wished, often regardless of historical fact.  Now, after having taught the course a few times, and continuing to do research in the field, I remain struck by the steadfast determination exhibited by students, and now scholars alike, to read ourselves into the past.

Previously, I concluded that by making the past in their own image and interests, my students were simply engaging with it essentially as it’s always been done, and I still believe this to a degree.  But in looking at recent scholarship I find it interesting that the academic community can simultaneously purport to want to find objective truths about the past, while also engaging in the practice of projecting their own desires on it in the same way my students do.  I understand my students behaving in this manner, as they are not trained in the field and so only have limited knowledge and experience with historical inquiry. They can fabricate the past more easily because they don’t know what they don’t know. But for historians or other scholars working on the Viking Age, I wonder sometimes if they really (read: objectively) want to know what happened then.

Of course, part of the difficulty in studying the past, and the Viking Age in particular, has to do with sources and evidence.  When there is a dearth of material, or when what does survive is problematic, it means the best we can do is theorize. But what this seems to mean in our ever increasingly polarized world is that the point of studying history isn’t to learn and come to impartial conclusions about it, but rather to see what we want to see in it and engage in the sport of criticizing others for their opinions.  In short, it is more about us than about those people in the past whom we claim to want to understand on their own terms. Granted, academic discourse is supposed to be about the discussion and testing of ideas, but isn’t it also a means to an end, the “end” being a greater understanding of what came before? As a case in point, I shall use the current debate regarding the issues of sex, gender, and women warriors in the Viking Age because, once again, the gaps in this particular history provide ample opportunities for debate, conflict, and wild speculation.

Photo by Hans Splinter / Flickr

Women warriors are presently a very hot topic.  In my previous piece I discussed how important it had been to my students, particularly females, that “shieldmaidens” existed in the Viking Age, and that medieval Scandinavia was akin to a feminist paradise in the way society treated women generally, at least relative to the rest of Europe at the time.  This phenomenon continues, with students more certain than ever (based on what, they can’t articulate, but no doubt modern pop culture is at least partially to blame) that strong women who wielded weapons, and raided and fought alongside men, existed. Full stop. A persistent popular and academic interest has been fueled in recent years by a more interdisciplinary approach involving historians, archaeologists, scientists, sociologists, and gender theorists, which is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of Viking Age women into new territory.  The approach to women’s history begun forty years ago is now being challenged and updated with new ideas regarding sex and gender. The inclusion of DNA analysis as a tool, coupled with the surviving material culture, mostly in the form of burial goods, is simultaneously adding clarity and confusion to this mix. With each new piece of evidence researchers produce, the waters only seem to get muddier. Then, in the fall of 2017 a bombshell announcement was made that shook not only the academic world, but the general populace as well.

“A female Viking warrior…”

For any academic involved in Viking Age studies, or even any non-professional who is interested, the fireworks that erupted regarding whether there were female warriors is stunning.  In September 2017 an article was published with the seductive title, “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics” in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.[2]  This was a culmination of the work of several scholars and scientists over a period of years looking at Viking Age graves in Birka, Sweden, but the article focused on the grave labeled Bj581. This grave had, since the 1880s, been considered a “high-status warrior” grave, largely due to the number and types of weapons it contains. And because warrior status has generally been ascribed only to men, it was assumed for more than a century the skeleton in the grave was male.  Until modern DNA and bone testing recently proved conclusively the skeleton is indeed female. This new evidence opened a path for reinterpreting not only the grave, but the concept of the female warrior, and by extension gender identity in the Viking Age. What could be more exciting, right?  Isn’t the thrill of how new evidence can possibly change our perceptions of the past, giving us a potentially clearer picture, at the very heart of academic inquiry?

Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled “Bj 581” by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889

Instead what followed was a firestorm of articles, interviews, blog posts, and reports in various media outlets and on social media, the likes of which the academy rarely sees.  Challenges to the findings came from scholars such as Judith Jesch, long considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Viking Age women.[3]  Others, such as Howard Williams, did not question the findings so much as the response to them.[4]  Even non-academic commenters on various websites weighed in, chose sides, and lined up with just as many bristling at the thought of challenging traditional interpretations as there were those open to new explanations who opposed them.

Some of the article’s authors have publicly admitted to being surprised by the swift and controversial response. Intentional or not, the authors had struck a nerve. The populace was definitely split; a rift had been created. Most of the commentary has centered on debating the grave goods themselves [5] and whether it was appropriate (responsible, ethical, professional?) for the article’s authors to have made their claims in such a conclusive manner.  For me, however, all the excitement ultimately begged a similar question to that raised by my students’ obstinate view of the past: why does it matter if there were female warriors in the Viking Age, and to whom?  Why do we need them to have been one way or the other? The Viking Age occurred at a time when it was common throughout medieval Europe that women were primarily relegated to the domestic sphere. Why would medieval Scandinavia be any different?  We know there is essentially no historical example of women warriors being the norm in any medieval culture, so why do some people have such a vested, dogged interest in female Vikings being real, and conversely, why are others equally determined to debunk that “myth”?  Obviously, the answer lies in the fact that this controversy speaks volumes about us, rather than about people of the past.

Let me begin by stating that, at least for academic historians, the idea that we project ourselves onto the past is not new.  The holy grail of objectivity in our interpretations is largely a goal that is impossible to achieve. But we persevere because, in the words of historian Natalie Zemon-Davis [author’s emphasis], “the goal of our historian’s craft has been and is a quest for a truthful account of the past as full as we can make it.”[6]  Edward Hallett Carr also spoke of this over fifty years ago in his seminal work What is History?  In it he argues that “the function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them.”[7]  He also makes it clear throughout his book that the never-ending dance between now and then, us and them, invariably means for those of us in the present that it is impossible to remove ourselves from how we view the past.  That we routinely read ourselves into the narrative is widely acknowledged; Carr is far from alone in this view. But how can we continue to hold these two competing ideas in our heads at the same time, on the one hand striving to objectively investigate our history, while on the other hand acknowledging that we are subjective beings in our attempts?  And if we can’t fully do it, does it mean we should not try?

Charlotte Hedenstierna‐Jonson and Neil Price, both archaeologists and specialists in the Viking Age at Uppsala University in Sweden, and two of the co-authors of the AJPA article, seem to be putting forth a good effort.  In at least one interview, Hedenstierna‐Jonson can be found qualifying the article’s methods and outcomes in cautious terms and urging further discussion on various possible interpretations.  She warns their conclusions are not sweeping statements, but are only about Bj581 stating, “we don’t say anything about the total social structure or if there were loads of Viking female warriors; it’s just this one unique grave.”[8]

Likewise, even though as a co-author Price is supportive of the findings and conclusions about the Bj581 grave, he is also often careful in his explanations, sometimes positing more questions than answers.  In various television appearances and lectures, many available online, he can be found qualifying his comments using terms such as “believed to be” and “we don’t know for sure,” and urging scholars to “be careful” in their assumptions.  He stresses archaeology is changing the game, and that women who could have been warriors or “shieldmaidens” are probable in his estimation, but he acknowledges the debate is ongoing and thus far inconclusive. He also openly admits we don’t know about gender construction in the Viking Age in much the same way Hedenstierna-Jonson warns that we have no template stating what a warrior should look like.[9]  This sort of humility in the face of evidence that poses serious questions is responsible and ethical.  They seem to be reserving judgment and attempting to let the evidence, and the past, speak for itself. In at least one of Price’s lectures, he specifically states, “This is a grave with a biological female occupant.  What you think about that is up to you.”[10] That last part is important, and in it lies the problem.  The certainties which science has provided about the Bj581 skeleton have, in turn, served to create more questions and uncertainty regarding Viking Age women.  And wherever uncertainty lies, people tend to fill in the blanks with the history they want.

This is evident in Andrea Pintar’s review of one of Price’s lectures on warrior women wherein she provides an interesting overview and raises some good questions, but also serves to underscore my point, especially in her conclusion where she states [italic emphasis mine]

Price has opened doors for younger archaeologists to discuss ideas that have taken off in our generation, which we find pertinent not just for respecting past populations, but for continuing to push progressive ideas forward, so that people today can live richer, more fulfilling lives, however they choose, and with whatever identity they wish to project.[11]

This is both using the past to serve the present, and a classic example of a younger generation of scholars rejecting previous interpretations to remake the past in their own image, all packaged as beneficial and progressive.  It’s unclear how acknowledging the existence of female warriors in the Viking Age validates our own ideas about gender identity and fluidity, or, more importantly, why it should, but nonetheless that is the implication. Do we really need to know for sure there were strong women in the past to make it socially acceptable to be so now?  David Lowenthal perfectly sums up what is happening here:

Historians who abjure former biases now fancy themselves less prone to bias; recognizing forerunners’ flaws, they suppose their own less serious.  But this is an illusion common to every generation. We readily spot the now outgrown motives and circumstances that shaped past historians’ views; we remain blind to present conditions that only our successors will be able to detect and correct.[12]

What are we really looking for? Them, or ourselves?

Some younger scholars’ openness to alternative interpretations is not only common, but they are also just as guilty of committing the sin of foisting their own worldview onto the past as any other generation before them.  In their presentist bias, they are couching their views and methods in terms of “progress.” In this way, the ongoing efforts to reconcile whether there were women warriors become not really about the Viking Age, but rather about our own struggles over gender and identity currently playing out in the U.S. and Europe.  According to Carr we find that, “when we seek to know the facts [about the past], the questions which we ask, and therefore the answers which we obtain, are prompted by our system of values,”[13] which is exactly what we find in this example, and which is a trap we seem incapable of avoiding.

This raises several questions: What are we really looking for? Them, or ourselves? And if we really do want to respect the past, shouldn’t we be doing so on its terms and not ours, especially when our approaches and methods are changing and providing us with promising new ways to do so?  We must abandon this myopic and self-serving view of the past which leaves us with too narrow an interpretation (namely, the one we prefer) precisely at a time when our more interdisciplinary approach provides exciting opportunities to expand our knowledge.

E.H. Carr – photo from Curtis Brown Company

As Carr suggested in the early 1960s, if History as a discipline (to cite just one) wants to improve its standards and stop inflicting the desires of the present on people of the past, it must become more scientific and rigorous in its approach.[14]  In this view he was prophetic, or at least progressive, as this is exactly what is happening now.  The current debate over the Bj581 “woman warrior” has been significantly informed by the hard sciences of genomics and osteology.  But while it is true that we now have irrefutable proof the Bj581 skeleton was biologically female, and that she is in a chamber with a markedly martial appearance, even Price has conceded that hers is but one of thousands of Viking Age graves which have been studied to appear this way, so at least for now she seems to be somewhat of an anomaly.[15]  Using the language of science, the fact that she is biologically female is but one datum point among many.  When some have raised the question of potential alternative interpretations, it has been asserted that in doing so they are merely attempting to explain away the interpretation they don’t prefer, i.e., that she was indeed a “high-status warrior.”  But if people asking legitimate questions about other possible explanations can be dismissed so easily, those dismissing them must admit that the converse must also be true; since it goes against the scientific method to state a definitive conclusion based on only one datum point, they too can be criticized for creating the outcome they desire.  While several of the article’s co-authors have urged that their conclusions are innocent because they have done nothing to reinterpret the grave other than identify the skeleton as female, the title of their article certainly betrays some particularly wishful thinking.

Ultimately, what remains is the question of what we do with all of the data; as Price asserted, what we think about it is still up to us.  In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Lowenthal cautions that modern scientific modes of probing the past can give us the illusion we are becoming more “dispassionate and unprejudiced.”[16]  But because scientific data requires interpretation and contextualization, it means we are right back where we started with the standing danger of inserting our own values, desires, traumas, and intentions into the process of understanding the past, rendering our conclusions anything but unprejudiced.  This is where the interplay between hard science and disciplines such as History, Anthropology, Sociology, and Gender Studies can play important roles in balancing out the narrative, providing checks and balances. It is beneficial for scientists to understand the larger social, political, economic, and even religious contexts that the social sciences and humanities provide.  Likewise, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and gender theorists should pursue a deeper understanding of the scientific method and what constitutes scientifically valid data.[17] The findings of Hedenstierna-Jonson, Price, et al have given us an interesting direction to pursue which may change at least some of what we know about Viking Age women, but only if we analyze the data with caution, open to all possible outcomes, and let the past speak for itself.

Judith Jesch sounded an apt cautionary note when she said, “Taking complex research to the general public inevitably involves a loss of complexity.”[18]  In this time of fake news and short attention spans, flashy headlines and article titles remove the complexity and risk perpetuating fallacies and misunderstanding.  This conundrum has been all too evident in the Bj581 controversy but can certainly be extended to include all historical inquiry. When an article is titled “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics,” but then the lead author publicly states we should discuss how this grave should be interpreted, and that there are several possible interpretations,[19] it does nothing but foster confusion.

Natale Zemon Davis – photo Holbergprisen / Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, when some of the co-authors claim to have been amazed by the confusion and critical reaction, it seems to be an incredulous response that is disingenuous coming from people who have written an article with a click-bait title which appears to have already decided upon an interpretation for us.  As a historian and educator, my intention is to help my students navigate the past and the complexity it presents through honest, well-informed, critical analysis, and hopefully without resorting to self-interested conclusions. They need to know, at least where historians are concerned, and as Zemon-Davis reminds us, that “we historians do not possess a monopoly on ways of telling about the past, but we have a strong responsibility to defend historical evidence, duly researched, and [the] credible interpretation of it.”[20]  I want students to know why thinking in historical context is so essential to our understanding of the past, and that if we strive to know it on its own terms so it can inform our present and future, we need to stop reading ourselves into it.  Otherwise, we are doomed to a state of arrested development if all we ever see when we peer into the past is ourselves staring back at us. In many ways, the past helps to create the present, but those people are not us, and we are not them. I can only hope my fellow academics will approach it in the same way.

Conclusion

In the end, the Bj581 grave controversy is not really about the Viking Age or women warriors at all.  It is about the age-old question of how we engage with the past and to what end, and the responsibility of professional scholars and scientists in assisting all of us in that endeavor.  Women living during the Viking Age, one could surmise, probably didn’t spend much time being concerned with what we think of them. Clearly, they weren’t farmer’s wives, or daughters, or slaves, or even “shieldmaidens” to please and validate us.  Therefore, we need to ask the same of ourselves. What does it say about us that some need women who lived 1,000 years ago to be this way or that? Can we be who we want to be in our own historical context without needing them to have first provided justification?  I believe we can, and the first step is realizing that people of the past can’t legitimize our contemporary struggles no matter how much we may wish they could. They lived in a context wholly their own, and therefore so should we.

Terri Barnes, M.A., is History faculty and Social Science Department Chair at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus in Portland, Oregon.

Notes

1.  See Terri Barnes, “Vikings, History, and The Search for Ourselves,” Community College Humanities Review Vol. 1, No. 2, (Spring 2017), 26-35.  A longer version was also published under the title “Reflections on Our Fascination with Vikings and What It Tells Us About How We Engage with the Past” in The Medieval Magazine No. 28 (August 10, 2015), 6-17.

2. Charlotte Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, Jan Storå, “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics,” The American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164:4 (September 2017), 853-60.

3.  Judith Jesch, “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again,” Norse and Viking Ramblings: A gentle wander through the Viking World (blog), September 9, 2017, http://norseandviking.blogspot.com/2017/09/lets-debate-female-viking-warriors-yet.html?m=1.

4. Howard Williams, “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response,” Archaeodeath: The Archaeology and Heritage of Death & Memory (blog), September 14, 2017, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/viking-warrior-women-an-archaeodeath-response-part-1/.

5. For an interesting discussion on the grave and its material goods, see Leszek Gardela, “Warrior-women in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study,” in Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia Volume 8, ed. Slawomir Kadrow (Rzeszów: Institute of Archaeology Rzeszów University, 2013) 273-314.

6. Natalie Zemon-Davis, “What is Universal about History?” in Transnationale Geschichte: Themen, Tendenzen, und Theorien, eds. Gunilla Budde, Sebastian Conrad, and Oliver Janz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), 19.

7. Edward Hallet Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage, 1961), 86.

8. Charlotte Hedenstierna‐Jonson, “Saga Brief 10: ‘Female Viking Warrior’ Interview with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson,” Saga Thing, Podcast audio, December 1, 2017, https://sagathingpodcast.wordpress.com/2017/12/01/saga-brief-10-female-viking-warrior-interview-with-charlotte-hedenstierna-jonson/.

9. Neil Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing a Swedish Chamber Grave and Its Implications,” Paper presented at Icelandic Sagas, Society, and Viking Archaeology: A Conference In Celebration of Jesse Byock’s Career, University of California at Los Angeles, May 2-3, 2018; Hedenstierna-Jonson, Saga Thing podcast.

10. Ibid, Price.

11. Andrea Pintar, “Valkyries or Valiant Women?  The World of Women, Weapons and War in Viking Age Scandinavia: A Lecture Review,” June 28, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/26228465/Valkyries_or_Valiant_Women_The_World_of_Women_Weapons_and_War_in_Viking_Age_Scandinavia_A_Lecture_Review, accessed 25 August 2018.

12. David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), 111.

13. Carr, 174

14. Carr, 110.

15. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing a Swedish Chamber Grave and Its Implications.”

16. Lowenthal, 107.

17. I wish to thank Dr. John Ott at Portland State University for his thoughts on this point.

18. Jesch, “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again.”

19. Hedenstierna-Jonson, Saga Thing podcast.

20. Hedenstierna-Jonson, Saga Thing podcast.

Sources

Carr, Edward Hallett.  What is History?  New York: Vintage, 1961.

Gardela, Leszek.  “Warrior-women in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study.” In Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia Volume 8, edited by Slawomir Kadrow, 273-314. Rzeszów: Institute of Archaeology Rzeszów University, 2013.

Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Charlotte.  “Saga Brief 10: ‘Female Viking Warrior’ Interview with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson.” Saga Thing. Podcast audio, December 1, 2017. https://sagathingpodcast.wordpress.com/2017/12/01/saga-brief-10-female-viking-warrior-interview-with-charlotte-hedenstierna-jonson/.

Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics.” The American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164:4 (September 2017), 853-60.

Jesch, Judith.  “Let’s Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again.”  Norse and Viking Ramblings: A gentle wander through the Viking World, September 9, 2017, http://norseandviking.blogspot.com/2017/09/lets-debate-female-viking-warriors-yet.html?m=1.

Lowenthal, David.  The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History.  Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Pintar, Andrea.  “Valkyries or Valiant Women?  The World of Women, Weapons and War in Viking Age Scandinavia: A Lecture Review,” June 28, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/26228465/Valkyries_or_Valiant_Women_The_World_of_Women_Weapons_and_War_in_Viking_Age_Scandinavia_A_Lecture_Review.

Price, Neil.  “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing a Swedish Chamber Grave and Its Implications.”  Paper presented at Icelandic Sagas, Society, and Viking Archaeology: A Conference In Celebration of Jesse Byock’s Career, University of California at Los Angeles, May 2-3, 2018.

Williams, Howard.  “Viking Warrior Women: An Archaeodeath Response.”  Archaeodeath: The Archaeology and Heritage of Death & Memory, September 14, 2017, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/14/viking-warrior-women-an-archaeodeath-response-part-1/.

Zemon-Davis, Natalie.  “What is Universal about History?” In Transnationale Geschichte: Themen, Tendenzen, und Theorien, edited by Gunilla Budde, Sebastian Conrad, and Oliver Janz, 15-20. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.

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