Conflict Archaeology in the Midden Heaps of Clickbait
This 'Viking warrior woman' was probably a queen
In 2017, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University argued that the individual discovered in a grave near Birka, Sweden in the 1880s (see photo reconstruction) was in fact a Viking warrior woman. Misidentified as male until DNA evidence proved otherwise, the skeleton was found with rich grave goods, including weapons and a sword, and so was presumed at the time to be male.
The new assertion made waves, especially at the Guardian newspaper, which revisited the case this week. Coming on the recent tide of television shows about sword-swinging Viking women, the supposed discovery seemingly validates everything a fantasy gamer might want to believe about women of the past enjoying military equality with men.
My skepticism is not borne of some animus about “gender” or the “roles” they represent. Indeed, that very discussion is a reflection of who we think we are right now, not what people were in the past. Nor am I joining in the “pedantic” online discussion over those pesky facts about dimorphic human biology that woke Guardian journalists prefer to dismiss.
Just because the men who dominated archaeology a century ago thought that swords were an exclusively male grave good does not make it true that archaeologists think this today. Rather than dispel the old, androcentric interpretation, Hedenstierna-Jonson has reified it, projecting the same values onto the sword that chauvinist male archaeologists of the past did. As the Guardian recalled this week,
According to convention, weaponry, in particular, swords, belonged with men and jewellery belonged with women. If this skeleton was a woman, some argued, the weapons and the warrior status should be re-evaluated. Hedenstierna-Jonson found this baffling, because everyone was fine with the warrior interpretation when the skeleton was thought to be a man, she says. “That cannot change just because we find out it’s a woman.”
The Guardian has consistently referred to this skeleton as a “Viking warrior” based entirely on the supposed “convention” that swords were exclusively male items in Scandinavia. Everything that follows from this linguistic bait-and-switch is meaningless, however, because the scientific consensus on this point had already changed long before Hedenstierna-Jonson’s research began. The “debate” over this non-issue is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.
When swords first appeared in the hands of Chalcolithic figurines, only male hands held them. However, female figurines appeared with swords a few centuries later by the beginning of the European Bronze Age. At that point, the sword seems to have become a generalized symbol of authority rather than a specifically-martial grave good. The Birka skeleton has been dated to the late 1st Millennium BC, almost 3,000 years after swords had stopped being exclusively masculine objects in Europe. So here is a simple rule to follow:
Whenever you see a link about the “gender” of an ancient skeleton being disputed over a sword in the grave, remember that unless the skeleton is from the 3rd millennium BC, the article is clickbait. Please stop participating in bad science journalism by not sharing it.
Of course, it is entirely possible that this woman was in fact trained to fight in battle. No one disputes this. Yet the idea that a woman must physically take a place in the shield wall in order to win the respect of men is itself a sexist projection upon the past. Men can and do respect women as war leaders without requiring them to fight in person.
As the Spanish Armada approached, Queen Elizabeth wore armor to address her troops, acknowledged that her sex made her less suited for battle, yet still secured their loyalty. In an earlier age, she might have been buried with arms to mark her as a queen, but not as a warrior, for she wasn’t one and said so.
“There was space in the mental universe of the Vikings for women warriors,” says Danish archaeologist Leszek Gardeła, “[but] I don’t think it was the norm.”
Indeed, males have done practically all the fighting and most of the dying in all wars, everywhere, ever. Why should the Vikings be entirely unique among human societies by defying this global norm? The idea of a queen, a woman with power, claiming rightful authority over men of violence is still very intimidating to so many people. You have to wonder why.