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The popular “Vikings” television series on History Channel depicts female warriors fighting and dying alongside men, but did Viking women warriors actually exist? A recently discovered grave may have answers.
In Norse lore, female warriors known as Valkyries came from Valhalla to guide fallen warriors to the afterlife, so it makes sense that Vikings honored them by depicting them on objects such as brooches.
But did Viking women actually serve as warriors in real life?
That question is why Dr. Leszek Gardeła from the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literatures at the University of Bonn is studying Viking women in a project known as “Amazons of the North”.
“The idea of this project is not so much to find proof that there were female warriors in the Viking Age but to better understand why and in what circumstances women would have used weapons,” he wrote on Facebook.
“I want to find out what weapons in female hands meant both in the human world and in supernatural contexts.”
His research led him to the discovery of a grave of a woman uncovered in a Viking cemetery in Denmark. With her were buried an ax and a Slavic sword.
“During the search in archives and museums, I came across the grave of a woman buried with a weapon in a medieval cemetery on the Danish island of Langeland,” Gardeleła told Science in Poland.
“So far, no one has paid any attention to the fact that the ax in the grave comes from the area of the southern Baltic, possibly today`s Poland.”
“The presence of Slavic warriors in Denmark was more significant than previously thought; this image emerges from new research,” Gardeła continued.
“During the Middle Ages, this island was a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements.”
Indeed, a recent study of a Viking cemetery reveals that half of the population of the Sigtuna settlement in Sweden were immigrants. Some came from as far away as Ukraine. So, it’s possible this Slavic woman migrated to Denmark to join the ranks of the Viking warriors like women did according to folklore.
“There are many female warriors – they participate in expeditions in full gear, they even lead entire armies to attack,” Gardeła said of the legends.
But he’s not so sure Viking warrior women existed in the real world.
“Some of the rich female graves in Western Norway contain axes, both full-size and in miniature form,” he wrote.
“But were these objects actually used as weapons or were they simply domestic tools?”
The objects certainly leave much to interpretation, but that being said, there’s not exactly an avalanche of proof out there that Viking women were not warriors. The presence of full-size weapons could very well mean that women fought alongside the men, especially during times when their villages were being invaded.
It’s also difficult because most graves are not intact.
“Fortunately, in the case of the grave of the alleged Slavic woman, the bones have survived, but no injuries are visible that could point to the cause of death,” Gardeła said.
That even goes for the tools and weapons buried with them.
“Some of the axes are so badly preserved that such analyses are not possible,” he said. “Those that are in a better condition look as if they were placed in the grave just after being made – it may be due to the fact that their blades were sharpened, hence there are no nicks on them. But it is possible that some weapons were made specifically for the funeral.”
There’s also the case of a grave found in Birka, Sweden in the late-19th century that contained a skeleton buried that had been mistaken as a male all this time. DNA tests in 2017 revealed that the remains were those of a woman – and a particularly important woman at that.
According to the study published by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology:
Prominently placed on an elevated terrace between the town and a hillfort, the grave was in direct contact with Birka’s garrison. The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high‐ranking officer.
This grave alone demonstrates that Viking women did serve as warriors, also known as shield-maidens. That means the grave discovered in Denmark could be a female warrior of lesser status.
The finding certainly gives us a different picture of Viking society that is less sexist than we have been led to believe by past experts who automatically assumed that women could not possibly have been warriors.
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