By Leszek Gardeła
The recent reinterpretation of a richly furnished chamber grave Bj 581 discovered at the Viking Age site of Birka, Sweden, suggesting that the occupant was a female warrior, has captured the imagination of history aficionados all around the world and has led to heated and sometimes overtly emotional debates among professional academics. Was the person interred with a wide array of weapons and two horses really a warrior, some people ask? Or were all these precious goods merely symbolic of this individual’s prominent position in life? Could the weapons have actually belonged to a ‘missing man’ or to the mourners who gathered at the graveside with the intention to pay their last respects to someone they held in very high esteem? And to what extent can we use the outstanding discovery from Birka to make new inferences about gender roles in Viking Age Scandinavia and the wider medieval world? These questions resurface time and time again in all possible media known today, as well as in many academic publications that have appeared since the re-interpretation of Bj 581 was announced to the public in 2017.
In 2018, as a follow-up to my earlier studies into female roles in the Viking Age and as a new development of my wider cross-cultural research into unusual mortuary practices, I initiated an interdisciplinary project entitled “Amazons of the North: Armed Females in Viking Archaeology and Old Norse Literature”. The project received generous funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD P.R.I.M.E Fellowship) and gave me the opportunity to spend a whole year at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen, Norway and six months at the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literatures at the University of Bonn, Germany. The overarching goal of “Amazons of the North” was never about finding evidence for or against the existence of real warrior women in the Viking Age, but rather to add new pieces to the puzzle, to nuance the ongoing international debate and to explore all kinds of associations between women and weapons in the North using a comprehensive array of available material including archaeological and iconographic finds, medieval textual sources and comparative evidence from various cultural milieus.
It is my archaeological credo that archaeological evidence should always be experienced first-hand; it is not enough to look at images in books or to investigate objects by gazing through glass cases in exhibitions. Therefore, from the outset of the project I decided to personally examine the relevant finds in Scandinavian museum collections and, through visits to various archaeological sites, to immerse myself in the dramatic landscape in which they were originally discovered. In the course of the “Amazons of the North” project all these first-hand experiences, together with a thorough literature review, involving reading hundreds of pages of nineteenth- and twentieth century journals and site reports, have enabled me to identify around 30 potential graves of Viking Age women buried with military equipment.
One methodological issue that needed to be seriously considered and resolved at the very outset of my project was the fact that some of the graves I intended to investigate had been discovered by amateurs, antiquarians and archaeologists whose methods of excavation were rudimentary by today’s standards. What this means essentially is that the documentation of a number of allegedly female graves with weapons is limited to the (sometimes very vague) descriptions of their contents with no other accompanying imagery showing the site and the layout of the burial context. When grave plans or photographs are occasionally available, they are often of rather low quality. Another problem in dealing with Viking Age funerary evidence, especially in the case of graves from Norway, is that the harsh climate and unfavourable soil conditions lead to very poor preservation of the skeletal remains. Scandinavian archaeologists have long struggled with this issue, and in the course of time they have come to the conclusion (which is not always correct) that the presence of weapons typically indicates male graves whereas jewellery and domestic utensils suggest that the deceased was female.
In light of the above, and acknowledging the problematic nature of some of the available material, in my opinion from these circa 30 graves around 10 can – with some caution – be regarded as the graves of women buried with actual weapons or objects that could be used in armed conflict. In examining them in museum collections, I strived to devote equal attention to their complete assemblages and did not focus solely on those items that displayed militaristic connotations. The final results of my analyses will be published in a forthcoming monograph Amazons of the North: Women and Weapons in the Viking Age as well as in a series of peer-reviewed articles in 2020. Here, I am pleased to share some of the more general thoughts and conclusions I have arrived at in the course of my 2018-2019 project.
Funerary evidence, in the form of graves and their contents, is the kind of source material that allows us to get intimately close to the people of the past. By analysing the burial record, including the skeletal remains and the different goods that accompany the dead, we can determine the biological sex of the deceased, their physical appearance and sometimes even get a hint of the different activities they engaged in during their lives. Careful investigations of the various portable objects buried with the dead can also help us to make educated guesses about how these people perceived themselves and/or how the mourners wanted to remember them. In the course of my work on female graves with weapons, one thing almost immediately became clear – they are all unique, but they do have a number of interesting features in common.
One of the most intriguing examples is a richly furnished grave from Nordre Kjølen in Hedmark, Norway. According to a local farmer who excavated the grave in 1900, the deceased was buried supine with the head resting over a shield and was flanked by different types of weapons including a sword to the left as well as a spear and an axe to the right. Somewhere in the grave were also several arrowheads, and a complete horse was resting at the feet. At first glance, the general layout does not deviate much from what is usually encountered in Norwegian inhumations, except for two significant details: the shield placed under the person’s head and the peculiar position of the sword which was found ‘inverted’ with the tip of the blade pointing towards the head-part of the grave. Swords in Viking Age burials are conventionally buried with their blades directed towards the feet, and the case from Nordre Kjølen is one of very few examples where the weapon is laid differently (parallels are known from the cemeteries at Gulli, Tønsberg and Kaupang, all in Vestfold, Norway).
Since extant textual sources say nothing about this peculiar burial custom, we have to look elsewhere in an attempt to unravel its possible meaning. One intriguing hint may be provided by medieval iconography and especially the Bayeux Tapestry where on several occasions the ruler is shown holding a sheathed or unsheathed sword in exactly this manner – by the handle and with the blade pointing ‘up’. This imagery could suggest that in composing the burial tableau and by placing an ‘inverted’ sword in the grave, the mourners wanted to convey special meanings, indicating that the deceased had once wielded considerable power and belonged to the highest echelons of society.
The case of Nordre Kjølen is not the only example of a female grave where the weapon is positioned in an unusual way – in fact, this is something that we see in several of them. A rich cremation grave from Klinta in Öland, for example, contains an axe which appears to have been thrust vertically into the burial pit, a custom often associated with apotropaic practices intended to ward off evil powers. In a female grave from Løve in Vestfold, Norway, an axe was positioned close to the person’s head, again something that is very rarely encountered in the burial record. Aside from these examples, there are other peculiarities as regards the placement of weapons in female graves, such as the fact that in several instances they are laid on the left-hand side while the norm in Scandinavian Viking Age graves is to bury weapons on the right.
In summarising archaeological evidence for female graves with militaristic equipment, a clear pattern begins to emerge – most women are buried with axes. As regards their size and overall form, however, the majority of these axes cannot be regarded as weapons in the strict sense. Rather, based on their typological and morphometric features, they should be seen as multifunctional items which could be used in the household as well as on the battlefield. In thinking about axes in female graves one very significant detail has to be acknowledged –the same graves often contain objects of religious significance, such as amulets, exotic and expensive imports, as well as whole or fragmented animal remains (e.g. horses, birds). Given the overall composition of these curious female graves, as well as textual sources that speak of employing axes in acts of magic (e.g. the Old Norse Ljósvetninga saga which mentions a cross-dressing sorceress using an axe in a prophetic ritual and folkloristic accounts from Northern and Central Europe which record the use of axes in healing rituals), there are good reasons to believe that some of the women buried with military equipment may have been actively involved in the performance of rituals.
If this interpretation is correct, it could add further nuance to the wider debate on the intricate associations between women and weapons in the Viking Age, and make us wonder about blurred borders between human and supernatural worlds as well as about the potential existence of real-life counterparts to women like valkyries whom the Old Norse texts portray as carrying weapons and whose names often refer to the disturbing sounds of battle.
Aside from female graves with full size military equipment there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that women were also active users of miniature weapons; among these items were, for example, shield-shaped amulets that could be suspended from a necklace, sewn onto a garment or kept in a pouch or bag. To date, over 150 miniature shields have been found across a wide geographical area spanning Denmark in the west to modern-day Russia in the east; many of them come from funerary contexts and from graves which all appear to have belonged to women. Although the same graves do not, as a rule, contain full size weapons, we could argue that, in a way, the women who used such amulets in life were ‘shield bearers’. Whether these individuals had something in common with the iconic ‘shield maidens’ from Old Norse texts is another question, however. Also other miniature weapons, such as small axes made of copper alloy or amber, tend to be found in female graves.
One small copper alloy axe with a long shaft was discovered in a grave at Svingesæter in Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. Curiously, the female occupant of this grave appears to have been buried in a seated position, a custom rarely observed in Western Scandinavia and more characteristic of eastern Sweden and Rus territories. These eastern links are another aspect which several female graves with full size and small weapons tend to share, suggesting that some of the women perhaps stemmed from non-Norse cultural milieus.
Overall, ongoing research continues to reveal that the associations between women and weapons in the Viking Age were far more intricate than some people would have expected; each case should thus be approached individually, and each grave holds a unique story. For me personally, it now appears more clear than ever that people in the Viking world were not unfamiliar with the idea of armed women. In a society whose many members strived for a heroic life worthy of remembrance, and among people who shared a worldview encouraging them to seek fame through active participation in armed conflict, it is not inconceivable that some women would wish to follow the path of a warrior. Comparative studies from across the world, including very ancient as well as very modern cases, demonstrate explicitly that there could have been numerous circumstances, ranging from economic to romantic, that could have encouraged women to reach for weapons or take up a temporary or permanent role typically ascribed to men. We should not dismiss this evidence, nor try to simplify its interpretations by labelling women with weapons only as ‘warriors’, ‘sorceresses’ or desperate ‘widows’ who had to ‘become men’ as a result of some dire circumstances. The armed women of the Viking Age were probably much more than that, and they were certainly more than just a footnote on the pages of history.
Leszek Gardeła is DAAD P.R.I.M.E Fellow at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Germany and at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen, Norway. You can learn more about his work from his Academia.edu page. See also the Amazons of the North – Armed Females in the Viking Age on Facebook, or follow Leszek on Twitter @leszekgardela
Recent work based on the results of the “Amazons of the North” project:
Gardeła, Leszek and Matthias Toplak 2020. ‘Kleider und Krieg – Militaria bei Wikinger-Frauen’, Archäologie in Deutschland 2/2020, in press.
Gardeła, Leszek and Matthias Toplak 2019. ‘Walküren und Schildmaiden. Weibliche Krieger?‘. in Die Wikinger. Entdecker und Eroberer. ed. Jörn Staecker and Matthias Toplak, Berlin: Propyläen / Ullstein Buchverlage, 137-151.
Gardeła, Leszek 2019. ‘Tomboys and Little Vikings‘ [a comment on Ben Raffield’s article Playing Vikings], Current Anthropology 60(6).
Gardeła, Leszek 2019. Magia, kobiety i śmierć w świecie wikingów, Wszechnica Triglava III, Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Triglav.
Gardeła, Leszek 2018. ‘Amazons of the North? Armed Females in Viking Archaeology and Medieval Literature‘. in Hvanndalir – Beiträge zur europäischen Altertumskunde und mediävistischen Literaturwissenschaft. ed. Alessia Bauer and Alexandra Pesch, Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 106, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 391-428.
Gardeła, Leszek and Kerstin Odebäck 2018. ‘Miniature Shields in the Viking Age: A Reassessment‘, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 14, 67-113.
Recent publications on the Bj 581 grave from Birka, Sweden
Price, Neil S., Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, Anna Kjellström, Jan Storå, Maja Krzewińska, Torsten Günther, Veronica Sobrado, Matthias Jakobsson and Anders Götherström 2019. ‘Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj. 581‘, Antiquity 93(367), 181-198
Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Matthias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström and Jan Storå 2017. ‘A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics‘, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164, 853-860
Previous research by Leszek Gardeła on women and weapons in the Viking Age:
Gardeła, Leszek 2013. ‘‘Warrior-women’ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A Preliminary Archaeological Study‘, Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 8, 273-339.
Gardeła, Leszek 2017. ‘Amazons of the Viking World: Between Myth and Reality‘, Medieval Warfare 7(1), 8-15.