Grave Bj 581: the Viking Warrior that was a woman
Lecture by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson
Given at Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting on March 12, 2019
Abstract: In September 2017, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (AJPA) published a paper under the title ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’ (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al 2017). It presented the results of an extensive DNA analysis, following earlier osteological studies, showing that the body in a richly appointed Viking-Age burial from the town of Birka in Sweden was not biologically male as had always been assumed, but female. This was significant because the grave, which was excavated in 1878, had long been held up as the archetypal high-status warrior burial of the late Viking Age – an identity that had intriguing implications if applied to a woman.
The grave immediately caught the attention of Viking scholars. The contents were spectacular, and the grave stood out even compared to other chamber burials in Birka in its explicitly martial character. It was interpreted as the burial of a high-status warrior and consequently sexed as male. The emphasis was on the warrior, the sex an assumption based on that interpretation. It was not until an osteological research project focusing on health issues in the earliest Scandianvian towns, recognized the remarkable combination of objects and biological sex was recognized. A new study was launched, including DNA and strontium isotope analyses (the ATLAS project). The questions concerned various aspects of who this person was during life, and a possible confirmation of the osteological sex assessment was only one part of the study. Others concerned the heritage of this evidently important individual, and her geographical movement. DNA proved the body to be biologically female, with a genetic background in the Viking World at large. It also showed that she was not local to the region in which Birka is located, but rather from southern Scandinavia. Strontium isotopes strengthened this picture, also showing that she had lived an itinerant life during her childhood and youth. Through osteology, we know that she was in her thirties when she died, a tall woman (1m 70cm), without visible trauma to the bones. Archaeology, in turn, shows a high-status individual dressed in a manner to suggest close connections to the eastern part of the Viking World, with parallels in present day Ukraine. An interesting picture is starting to emerge when all the pieces of data are combined. But is the standing interpretation of the grave as that of a high-status warrior still valid?
Top Image: Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled “Bj 581” by Hjalmar Stolpe in Birka, Sweden, published 1889