Ever since the grave of a Viking warrior was found in Birka, Sweden, in 1878, archeologists have assumed it was the grave of a man. Because Viking warriors were all men, right?
In 2017 a research article with a genetic analysis of the person found in the Swedish grave was published. It turned out it was actually a woman they’d found.
Earlier this year the same researchers have published a new article about what it really means that it was a woman who was found in the grave and about how we shouldn’t make assumptions based on whatever was buried with the dead body. Women were buried with swords and men with pots and pans.
Swords belong to men – or do they?
The original 2017 article received quite a lot of attention after it was published. Experts had assumed the Birka grave was a male grave based on the findings in the grave. The grave contained swords, shields and 25 arrows, which led archelogists to assume they’d found the grave of a warrior. And a Viking warrior had to be a man.
Wrong. The grave was the grave of a woman, but she was still a warrior.
Researchers assume this woman was a very high ranking warrior based on the number of weapons found in her grave. Of the 1100 graves found in Birka, this was the grave containing the second largest number of weapons.
We need to be careful about using modern gender interpretations when we look at how Vikings lived. Maybe genders were interpreted more fluently than today? Maybe everyone had more roles than one? Maybe you could live your life based on the social roles of the other gender? Maybe you being a warrior was based on how good you were with your sword, not what you had between your legs?
The Oseberg ship
This is far from the only Viking grave where archeologists have made gender assumptions based on what was found in the grave. It’s also not the only grave where these assumptions have turned out to be wrong.
The most famous grave was probably the two people found with the Oseberg ship. Archeologists were baffled when they found out the two people buried in this huge and important way–they were buried on a ship that could still sail and the grave contained large animal sacrifices–were actually women. Immediately the women were said to have been the mother and wife of someone important, not someone important in their own right.
It wasn’t until recently researchers started asking themselves why this couldn’t be the grave of someone important in their own right. Why couldn’t one or both women be a great chief or a powerful religious figure?
We still don’t know exactly who these two women were, but the assumptions made about them, tell us more about how we look at genders today than what the Vikings did.
Read a Norwegian article about the Birka finding (it also contains pictures of the weapons found in the grave)