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A Norwegian archaeologist, Marianne Moen, is making the big claim 'the past’ is incorrectly interpreted and that Viking Norway men’s and women’s cultural roles were similar. But not everyone agrees.
Marianne Moen’s Doctoral thesis at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo , is entitled “ Challenging Gender. A reconsideration of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape .” According to an article about her paper in Science Nordic she claims gender roles during Viking times weren’t as differentiated as thought, and she told reporters, “I think we need to move away from distinguishing between men’s and women’s roles during the Viking times”.
Having studied the contents of 218 Viking graves in Vestfold, a county on the southwest side of Oslo Fjord, and finding items from “cups, plates to horses and other livestock” in the graves of “Not just housewives”, Moen claims “upper-class men and women generally were buried with the same types of items - including cooking gear”. And from this type of ‘thinking’ the paper suggests Viking gender roles need readdressing.
A soapstone vessel from the Viking Age. Soapstone was used to make cookware among other items. (Elinor Rajka / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
However, controversially, if Moen is right then almost every scientist before her has been either: outright stupid, just plain wrong, or perhaps a ‘misguided’ member of an outdated archaeological patriarchy. It has to be one of these. Right? Now the boxing gloves are off and the veiled allusions are no longer in the shadows, let’s see what is being said about this gargantuan claim, which if proved to be correct, demands an instant rewriting of not only Viking, but Norwegian history at large.
A Chasm Of Philosophy In Science?
To reverse a century of evidence gathered by archaeologists which suggests Viking women were ‘more often than not’ responsible for maintaining the home, while men became farmers, merchants, and warriors, one’s evidence has to be not only big, but bullet proof. Put another way, is the discovery that tools and cooking utensils were equally distributed between men and women burials at ‘one’ test site, really tangible proof to ‘challenge gender roles’ in Viking society?
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Viking women as warriors – does this question general gender roles? ( delDrago / Adobe Stock)
Moen’s conviction is evident in her comment to Science Nordic where she stated; “I think” this means that men also made food. This “thought”, says Moen, is based on another “thought”; that “cooking equipment indicates hospitality”. Where to even begin?
Liberal Thoughts Questioned By Hard Science
To assume that men cooked as much as women because they were buried with cookware, is to assume that Vikings who were unearthed wearing dragon broaches actually fought real dragons. Get me? This is certainly a line of thinking that would find the support of Frans-Arne Stylegar who works with cultural preservation and urban planning at the consulting firm Multiconsult, who told reporters “It is difficult to translate the persona who is idealized in burial customs into actual historical reality. It’s almost a philosophical question”.
And don’t for a second think that Frans-Arne Stylegar wasn’t ‘having a go’ as his careful use of the word ‘philosophy’ suggests Moens discoveries are built on ‘philosophical speculation’ rather than hard scientific data sets. The very fact her paper sets out to ‘challenge gender roles’ suggests to her skeptics that she may have had a somewhat predetermined notion, to reach her conclusion, rather than that conclusion having risen from observations. Moan’s last paper was not entitled “ People in the Landscape ” but “ Women in the Norwegian Landscape ” which is revealing as to her slant or inherent biases.
On The Defense, Moen Reminds Us…
Moen believes that the tools and cooking equipment were not just for conceptual application in the afterlife, because the “items were also found in houses”. However, this castle is built on sand and so as long as she cannot determine ‘who’ used the items, it ‘might’ be the case that they were ‘all’ used by women.
One of Moen’s arguments regarding gender roles was that some of the grave goods items were also found in houses. ( serg_did / Adobe Stock)
But let’s slow down a little for Moen’s research which does show “More than 40 percent of the male graves contained jewelry such as brooches and beads”. Additionally, the men’s graves contained toiletries, “including tweezers and razors likely used for personal grooming ”.
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Jewelry such as brooches and beads have been found in grave goods of both men and women. What does that say about gender roles? (Maia C / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Okay. Deep breath. To assert that because men groomed and wore jewelry does not mean that they also must have cooked and looked after homes, is verging on sexist, not to mention gender stereotyping! Regardless, Moen backs all her assumptions to be correct and now ‘wonders’ where the idea of clear gender differentiation in the past might have come from?
Graves excavated in Norway in the early 1900s were of course interpreted by the cultural standards and perspectives of those times, in the same way that Moen now sees the artifacts from her modern perspective. And that perspective is maybe as unbalanced as the male patriarchy she silently alludes to, for she calls herself a ‘ gender archaeologist ’ and openly aims to “challenge other archaeologists interpretations of Viking culture ”.
“I encounter quite a bit of skepticism” said Moen, because the vast majority of even modern researchers “are very set in their opinion on gender when it comes to work-related roles”. Regardless, she thinks part of the reason 99.9% of Norwegian scientists, both men and women, are so wrong is that it’s easier to relate to a historical narrative “that is in keeping with our modern expectations”.
Moen believes that modern researchers are set in their opinion of Viking gender roles. ( Fxquadro / Adobe Stock)
However, skeptics line up to suggest that this is precisely what Moan is herself doing, by projecting her modern gender ideologies onto the past, thus, rewriting evidential history.
In conclusion, I think what we have here is an unashamedly controversial paper, bold and obvious in its alignment with the European University Liberal Agenda, and for this reason, conservative scientists will be spinning in their shoes. And so too might the brave warrior Vikings , who died by the sword, be turning in their graves screaming, spectrally, “that kettle is for my mushroom tea in the otherworld, not to make soup for the family. And the comb, well I use it before I visit my tent of vixens, not because I am a hipster! Sheesh! Really!”
Bronze Viking kettle. Does the ability to make tea really say anything about gender roles? (Arild Finne Nybø / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
VIKING SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND GENDER ROLES IN core.ac.uk/download/pdf/ VIKING SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND.
role meant in Viking society as well as what roles they were able to have.
I would like to thank my reader Dr. Susannah Lloyd, as well as my professor Dr. David
Anderson for all of the help that both of them have given me. I would also like to thank my
Mom, Susan and my family for their support.
In modern society when we consider the word class when referring to a persons position in
society people usually think about lower social classes, working classes, and upper classes. It is
common knowledge that although individuals may live in a specific class, individuals are able to
move up and down this hierarchy. As we know this was not always the case, there was a time
when slaves were present in societies and had absolutely no capability to move from their rank.
Social statuses have evolved and changed over time and with them the roles and rules of the
different societies. Often these social statuses were formed and followed by the different
characteristics that people had. An example would be the idea that women have defined roles
and they could not participate in activities that were part the male status and vice versa as well as
the different roles that were based off the hierarchy of the society, for example the extreme
differences between a slave and royalty. These lines between the statuses were varied throughout
the ancient world. And for past cultures that no longer exist, it is very difficult to fully
understand what the roles of groups and individuals were. Through archaeology the discoveries
of different burials aid in piecing together the social structures of the society. By looking at the
burial locations within the community as well the grave goods and other features we can gain
great insight into the statuses of those individuals whose graves have been uncovered. Such is the
case for Viking age societies in the Scandinavia area of Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Figure
1). By looking at the burials in these areas we can see how their social structure was constructed
as well as how different characteristics of individuals affected their roles, specifically those of
Figure 1. Map of Scandinavia showing various Viking voyages (Chartrand et co. 2006: figure 1)
The word Vikings usually invokes a picture of a large horde of people wearing horned helmets
while pillaging an English village. In truth the Viking way of life in Scandinavia is much more
than this prejudiced picture that has been painted for us. The basic origin of the Viking Culture
comes from the areas of Scandinavia, mainly the lower portions of Norway and Sweden, along
with Denmark. The Viking culture existed from around 700 AD through the eleventh century, or
around the early middle ages (Christiansen 2002). Much of their time was spent on sea voyages
to explore new lands, as well as obtain other necessities. It is because of this that many times
they receive the title of pirate or raider. They would go out on voyages for long periods of time,
and as such became extremely talented at maneuvering through water. The Vikings traveled
throughout the ancient European world as well as other continents, as can be seen in figure 1.
However, Vikings also lived on land and experienced what was considered normal lives during
this time period as well when not at sea.
Although much of their time was spent away from home, they usually would spend their winter
at home. While at their homes and away from the sea, they lived as farmers, fishermen,
merchants, shipbuilders, craftsmen, blacksmiths or carpenters, to name a few professions. Like
many other cultures the Vikings had specific social classes. From sources on Viking culture we
know that at the very top of the social hierarchy is the King. The king would collect taxes, own
land throughout the territory, and in return would work to protect and allow for the best
conditions for those living under their reign (Chartrand 2006). Below the King was a small
aristocratic group called the jarls, who owned land and leased it to tenant farmers. Below the
jarls is a group called the bndi who comprised the bulk of the Viking culture. All of these
groups were free people whose opinions could be heard, and was of importance. At the bottom
of the social hierarchy were the thrall, this groups was equivalent to what we would consider as
slaves, and were completely owned by their master and put to all and any task that was needed to
Viking Religion and Afterlife Beliefs
The Vikings were a pagan people, and believed in the presence of multiple gods, and we hear
about these gods in their myths and legends. Odin is thought of the Father of Thor, but in true
Viking mythology Thor is the God of Thunder and the real chief divinity. Other key gods
include Loki who was half god and half demon, and Freyja. She is the Goddess of love and
fertility as well as war and death. With the belief in these gods were the specific beliefs in
multiple realms that an individual would be received at after their death (Page 2004). Viking
belief was that depending on the individual they would be allowed to enter certain death realms,
which were presided over by one of the gods. When warriors would die on the battle field it was
said that half would be welcomed into Odins realm of Valhalla or Valhol, as well as the
Valkyrie or female warriors that were considered divine, would collect the mens souls from the
battle field. All gathered to fight in the final battle with Odin. The other half of the deceased in
battle was entered in the realm ruled by the Goddess Freyja. Helgafjell was a realm believed to
be much like life on earth, where the people continued their daily lives in a beautiful
environment. In contrast to the others, the realm of Hel is depicted as a place of punishment and
pain. Ruled over by the Goddess Hel, who was considered the daughter of Loki, and devilish in
appearance (Mortensen 1913). With these as well as a variety of lesser gods the Vikings took
great care to practice their religion through rituals and specific people who were shaman or
priests and priestesses, Women did have almost an exclusive role as a Vlva, or a priestess that
specialized in prophecy, and were known by their magic staff called a vlr (Shetelig 1937).
Magic could be used to solve problems in life as well as be used on the battle field to fight.
These beliefs and practices have an important impact on the method that the Vikings bury their
Archaeology on the Vikings in Scandinavia occurred though out the years, but there is still a
limited amount of Viking burials that are available to be studied. However Viking age burials
are one of the best ways to look at the social status aspects of Viking culture specifically the
gender roles and how they play a part in the society. While focusing on Denmark, Norway, and
Sweden, and examining the variety of graves in these areas and the differences and similarities in
the grave goods that they contain. Between these areas there is great diversity within the burials
that I will be looking at. The presence or absence of certain artifacts along with the unique burial
styles will give great insight into how the social structure and its rules that affected women in
Viking culture. Some of the items that I will be focusing on will include the presence of
weapons, artifacts that suggest economic power, as well as other individuals that may have been
sacrificed for the burial, and whether the person was buried with a ship, carriage or other unique
aspects that show importance of the individual buried.
The presence or absence of artifacts like these can indicate the amount of prestige the
deceased individual had, and how much status was shown even in death. By comparing these
artifacts between male and female graves a greater idea can be gained about the role of women in
Viking culture. From historic knowledge we know many of the roles that men played with in the
What Stereotypes About Viking Masculinity Get Wrong
P art of the Viking image today is a caricature of masculinity&mdashthe long-haired warrior still incorporated into the logos or advertising for products appealing to a supposed ideal of manly behavior. But Viking-age Scandinavian reality embraced so much more, including a true fluidity of gender. Patriarchy was a norm of Viking society, but one that was subverted at every turn, often in ways that&mdashfascinatingly&mdashwere built into its structures.
The Vikings were certainly familiar with what would today be called queer identities. Gender boundaries were rigidly policed, at times with moral overtones, and the social pressures laid upon men and women were very real. At the same time, however, these borders were permeable with a degree of social sanction. There is a clear tension here, a contradiction that can be productive for anyone trying to understand the Viking mind.
These themes and connections can be pursued in the study of graves. Archaeologists determine the sex of the buried dead through analysis of their bones (which is reliable, though not certain) or DNA (which uses a chromosomal definition that is generally uncontroversial). However, in many cases the deceased were cremated, or preservation conditions in the soil are unfavorable to the survival of bone in any state. In these cases, for centuries, archaeologists have resorted to determining the sex of the dead through association with supposedly gendered objects&mdashweapons in a grave are held to suggest a man, jewellery sets denote a woman, and so on.
Beyond the obvious problems of conflating sex and gender, and also effectively sexing metal, these readings risk simply piling one set of assumptions on another in what forensic decision-makers call a &ldquobias snowball&rdquo of cumulatively questionable interpretations.
So, while the majority of these sex/gender/artifact correlations probably do reflect Viking-age reality, not all burials conform to such patterns, and an openness to the exceptions&mdashwhich we know were there&mdashis vital. Without this, one can never hope to do archaeological justice to the gender spectrum discernible in the medieval texts or compare this with Viking-age empirical reality. More excitingly, the archaeology can turn up evidence for identities and genders that did not make it to the written sources.
The starting point comes in graves with viable bone survival. In such cases, archaeologists occasionally find people buried with objects and clothing that would usually be associated with the opposite sex. These include male skeletons wearing what appear to be dresses of the kind more conventionally buried with women, or with the oval brooches that hold the apron together at the breast, and similar combinations. For burials with female bodies, an equivalent is the presence of weapons in numbers sufficient to plausibly suggest a warrior identity for the dead. At Vivallen in Swedish Härjedalen, there was even a male-bodied person buried according to Sámi rituals, in a Sámi settlement, but wearing conventional Sámi man&rsquos equipment over a Nordic woman&rsquos linen dress, complete with jewellery to match&mdasha crossing of both gender and cultural norms.
The most prominent example to date combines almost all of Viking gender in a single burial, raising more questions than it answers. In a 10th-century chamber grave designated Bj.581 from an urban cemetery at Birka in Sweden, an expensively dressed corpse was buried seated and surrounded by a full weapon set (which is rare), with two riding horses. This truly spectacular burial was excavated in 1878 and has been held up ever since as a type example of a high-status warrior from the mid-900s, a kind of &ldquoultimate Viking&rdquo of the time. Bj.581 was published as such in generations of standard works. As part of this interpretative package, the deceased was always assumed to have been a man, because warriors were &ldquoobviously&rdquo male (conflating sex and gender in the familiar way). In 2011, however, an osteological study suggested the buried person was actually female, and this was confirmed by genomic analysis in 2017&mdashthe deceased carried XX chromosomes. The ensuing debate on the apparent &ldquofemale warrior&rdquo of Birka went viral and now convulses Viking studies, in an at-times vituperative discussion that has little to do with women and war but more concerns underlying fault lines of gendered assumption in the discipline and beyond.
In a sense it does not really matter whether the person in the Birka grave was a female-bodied warrior woman or not (though as one of the lead authors in the research team, I firmly believe she was all those things). This person may equally have been transgender, in our terms, or non-binary, or gender fluid. There are other possibilities, too, but the point is that they must all be recognized as possible Viking-Age identities while&mdashcrucially&mdashnot assuming this must be the case. Not least, in the interpretation of Bj.581, scholars should be careful not to deny the basic agency of women, and their potential to choose one way of life over others this person does not have to be necessarily different. Furthermore, all these intersections of activity and identity were in themselves deeply gendered&mdashfrom &ldquowarriorhood&rdquo to everything else.
Importantly, none of this needed to be fixed and permanent. In the later prose texts, difficult sources though they are, one encounters individuals who change names when they embark upon a new path in life&mdashwhen certain women become warriors, for example. But only sometimes&mdashthere are no universals here, and as ever the medieval sources are problematic, late, ambiguous and uncertain.
While some of their norms can appear rigid, the Scandinavians somehow applied them in ways that also allowed them to be questioned, undermined and contradicted. In many ways and for many years, Viking scholars have been naive and simplistic about their acknowledgement and recognition of gender variation in the later Iron Age. Perhaps Viking-Age people chose and renegotiated their identities every day, much as many of us do. Their ideas about gender went far beyond the binaries of biological sex, as scholars are now beginning to understand. Sadly, we are also only now becoming aware of the privilege that allowed us to overlook this for so long.
How the female Viking warrior was written out of history
In the 1880s Scandinavian archaeologists unearthed a grave containing all the implements required for battle, including shields, an axe, a spear, a sword, and a bow with a set of heavy arrows, along with two horses, a mare and a stallion. A set of game pieces has long lead researchers to believe that this person was interested in strategy, and may have used the pieces to plan battle tactics. It was the grave of a Viking warrior and naturally was assumed to be a male. It was designated, and continues to be referred to, as Bj 581.
Physical anthropologists have long been able to identify characteristics such as sex and age from osteological analysis, and such investigations in the 1970s raised the prospect that this individual was, in fact, female. But the grave goods! Forget the physical characteristics of the skeleton itself, the occupant had to be male.
This past month the American Journal of Physical Anthropology published a short study that laid the case to rest once and for all. Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team scienced the hell out of two DNA samples taken from the skeleton, sequencing the genome, testing the mtDNA, and conducting strontium isotope analysis to not only pin down the biological sex of the skeleton, but also to identify geographic origins or “biological affinities” (the populations she most resembles- including the British Isles, the North Atlantic Islands, Scandinavia, and a dash of the Eastern Balkans) and the potential mobility of the individual in life. Taken together, these variables add to the already complex picture of a cosmopolitan Birka, the 8th-10th-century Viking town in which Bj 581 was interred.
While the popular story has been about a female warrior, the real story that underlies this study are the assumptions the researchers just blew out of the water. Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. do not equivocate in their statements that, for over a century, this individual was mis-identified as male because archaeologists, acculturated in a western society with strictly defined gender roles, view men alone as warriors, or soldiers, or wielders of violence. A warrior, like warfare itself, is a cultural construct, practices and professions created by human societies to fulfill specific desires. To assume uncritically that men alone are warriors leads to a cascade of other assumptions about human behaviors that renders our attempt to understand those behaviors somewhat moot.
These types of assumptions hurt the scientific endeavour of archaeology. Assumptions regarding gender roles do not just render women invisible in the archaeological record, assumptions regarding gender roles dilute our understanding of past societies and the enormous complexity of human achievements and activities. Not only are women invisible, but men are deterministic, and all of human history is nasty, brutish, and short.
This is not a new problem in archaeology and anthropology. Our most basic categorization of “man the tool maker” was challenged by feminist researchers such as Joan Gero in the early 1990s. Gero’s argument then was that stone tools, the most ubiquitous artifact in the archaeological record, were assumed to be manufactured and used by males, even in contexts, such as house and village sites, where the activities were assumed to be dominated by women. Gero illustrated clearly and concisely that ethnographic and historic evidence does not in fact support the man-the-tool maker hypothesis, and that other aspects of our modern value system- our tendency to commodify labor, to quantify “energy” and “expenditure” and therefore give those things higher value- may in fact warp many of our research questions and a priori conclusions.
Skogstrand asserts that androcentrism in archaeology does all human sexes a disservice, arguing that “The fact that men are representing the entire prehistoric society is not simply because women are ignored it is mainly because men are not gendered.” By uncritically assuming modern gender roles applied in the past, we are failing to understand how past peoples lived and how they saw the world. Men are therefore rendered as invisible as women, and the past becomes boring.
Already the identifcation of Bj 581 is being bogged down in pedantic arguments questioning whether this individual could have been a warrior. The genomics is fairly certain- these are the remains of a woman who genetically was part of the Viking world, and who was interred in a Viking tomb with Viking material culture, specifically material culture associated with combat and warfare. It continues to be a challenge for some people to reconcile those variables. But those same people are missing the larger implications of the genomics study. The real questions, the interesting questions: what does it mean that Bj 581 was a female? What does this tell us about how Viking society was structured? Was Bj 581 unique, or did she represent a category of women that has been largely relegated to mythology? And what can this tell us about how violent conflict was viewed and experienced? Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. just opened up a whole line of research questions that remind us how complex, rich, and fascinating human societies actually are when we study them for who they were and not to reflect who we think we are.
Hedenstierna-Jonson C., Kjellstrom A., Zachhrisson T., et al (2017) A Female Viking Warrior confirmed by Genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Gero, Joan (1991) Genderlithics: Women’s Roles in Stone Tool Production. In Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory, edited by Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey. Blackwell Publishers.
Skogstrand, Lisbeth (2010) Is Androcentric Archaeology Really About Men? Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.
One thought on &ldquo Women in the Viking Age then and now &rdquo
I totally agree with your approach and love the angle you are taking on this. Yes you are right contemporary research past has compartmentalized women in the past into traditional categories. On the Osberg burials, there was also the article written by A.S Ingstadt that this was the burial of a priestess… nothing derogatory here.. in fact a Vanir priestesses could be considerably powerful in Viking Age Scandinavia with considerable hold on agricultural outcomes. I also think one cannot forget what it says in the medieval law codes such as Grágás (I work in the North Atlantic, also an archaeologist working on women and textile work) I have gone through them with a fine tooth comb and there is no doubt in these early medieval documents, that women were not considered equal to men and there are strict rules about who could attend local Þings, and who could inherit the Goðorð and how. Also marriage and general socially accepted behavior was regulated. These books are, of course, not from the Viking Age directly , and my guess is that women had more power in the Viking Age than in the early medieval period, but Grágás was copied almost directly from the Gulathing law of Norway that was in use prior to Iceland´s 12th century. I work on female power in textile production and not all power comes in the form of political leadership, there is also more subtle form of power and they can instill fear and respect that is equally as effective as the latter.
What Was Life Like for Women in the Viking Age?
Technically, women couldn’t even be Vikings. As Judith Jesch, author of “Women in the Viking Age” (1991), has pointed out, the Old Norse word “vikingar” only applied to men, usually to those men who embarked from Scandinavia in their famous long boats and sailed to such far-flung places as Britain, Europe, Russia, the North Atlantic islands and North America between roughly A.D. 800-1100.
But though these Vikings became infamous as fierce warriors and brutal raiders, they were also accomplished traders who established trade routes all over the world. They formed settlements, founded towns and cities (Dublin, for example) and left a lasting impact on the local languages and cultures of the places where they landed their ships.
While earlier historical research about the Vikings had theorized that the seafaring Norsemen traveled in male-only groups—perhaps due to a lack of desirable mates in Scandinavia𠅊 more recent study tells a very different story. In the newer study, published in late 2014, researchers used mitochondrial DNA evidence to show that Norse women joined their men for Viking Age migrations to England, the Shetland and Orkney Islands and Iceland, and were “important agents in the processes of migration and assimilation.” Especially in previously uninhabited areas such as Iceland, Norse women were vital to populating the new settlements and helping them thrive.
Like many traditional civilizations, Viking Age society at home and abroad was essentially male-dominated. Men did the hunting, fighting, trading and farming, while women’s lives centered around cooking, caring for the home and raising children. The majority of Viking burials found by archaeologists reflect these traditional gender roles: Men were generally buried with their weapons and tools, and women with household items, needlework and jewelry.
But women in Viking Age Scandinavia did enjoy an unusual degree of freedom for their day. They could own property, request a divorce and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended. Women tended to marry between the ages of 12 and 15, and families negotiated to arrange those marriages, but the woman usually had a say in the arrangement. If a woman wanted a divorce, she had to call witnesses to her home and marriage bed, and declare in front of them that she had divorced her husband. The marriage contract usually stated how family property would be divided up in case of a divorce.
Though the man was the “ruler” of the house, the woman played an active role in managing her husband, as well as the household. Norse women had full authority in the domestic sphere, especially when their husbands were absent. If the man of the household died, his wife would adopt his role on a permanent basis, singlehandedly running the family farm or trading business. Many women in Viking Age Scandinavia were buried with rings of keys, which symbolized their roles and power as household managers.
Some women rose to a particularly high status. One of the grandest burials ever found in Scandinavia from that period belonged to the Oseberg “queen,” a woman who was buried in a sumptuously decorated ship along with many valuable grave goods in A.D. 834. Later in the ninth century, Aud the Deep-Minded, the daughter of a Norwegian chieftain in the Hebrides (islands off northern Scotland) married a Viking king based in Dublin. When her husband and son died, Aud uprooted her household and organized a ship voyage for herself and her grandchildren to Iceland, where she became one of the colony’s most important settlers.
Were there female warriors in Viking Age society? Though relatively few historical records mention the role of women in Viking warfare, the Byzantine-era historian Johannes Skylitzes did record women fighting with the Varangian Vikings in a battle against the Bulgarians in A.D. 971. In addition, the 12th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote that communities of “shieldmaidens” dressed like men and devoted themselves to learning swordplay and other warlike skills, and that some 300 of these shieldmaidens held the field in the Battle of Brávellir in the mid-eighth century. In his famous work Gesta Danorum, Saxo wrote of a shieldmaiden named Lagertha, who fought alongside the famous Viking Ragnar Lothbrok in a battle against the Swedes, and so impressed Ragnar with her courage that he sought and won her hand in marriage.
Most of what we know about women warriors in the Viking Age comes from literary works, including the romantic sagas Saxo called upon as some of his sources. Female warriors known as “Valkyries,” who may have been based on shieldmaidens, are certainly an important part of Old Norse literature. Given the prevalence of these legends, along with the greater rights, status and power they enjoyed, it certainly seems likely that women in Viking society did occasionally take up arms and fight, especially when someone threatened them, their families or their property.
Viking women at home
The University of Tubingen study also suggests a link between rural equality in Viking times and a specialisation in raising animals. Professor Jörg Baten explained that men dealt with crops because of the need for greater physical strength, adding: “raising animals enabled women to contribute a great deal to the family income. That probably raised their position in society.”
The viking farm at Avaldsnes in western Norway
Women were also just as responsible for their homesteads, often working for months at a time while a community's men were away. The hub of everyday life was the longhouse, a long, single-roomed accommodation with benches for sleeping and seating set around a central fireplace.
Typically, the woman's responsibility would have been to care for the house and its residents. This could include elderly relatives, visiting political or business guests, and in many cases, foster-children. Viking women were practised storytellers. In fact, this oral tradition carried on for centuries until the stories were captured in writing in the Icelandic sagas of the Early Middle Ages.
“Such women in the Nordic countries may have led to popular myths about the Valkyries: They were strong, healthy and tall,” says Jörg Baten. But the picture in Scandinavian cities was different. “The Swedish towns of Lund and Sigtuna – on the site of today’s Stockholm – and in Trondheim in Norway, had developed a class system by the Early Middle Ages. Women there did not have the same equality as their sisters in the countryside.”
In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. Tor.com proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:
After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.
I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”
Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*
And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.
So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?
She’s right: doing thorough research is important looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.
It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.
They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.
Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel
NOT A REAL VIKING WOMAN!
The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.
Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.
The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.
Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?
Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.
Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).
So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.
So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:
Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.
They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.
Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.
In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.
Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:
Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.
Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:
[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.
Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.
Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:
Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.
Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,
The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.
He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.
*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –
*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.
McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.
Grave Goods Demand Gender Roles In Viking History To Be Rewritten. Or Do They? - History
The Roles of Women During the Viking Age
Vikings are often pictured as muscled blonde men in horned helmets sailing around in dragon shaped boats, raping and pillaging as they please. In the modern day, Vikings have become a staple in TV shows such as History Channels, “The Vikings,” and the Norwegian comedy series, “The Norsemen”. Many times the Viking women are completely left out of the equation.
This is unfair, as Viking women had several roles in their society. One of their most prominent roles was in textile production. They made clothing, sacks, and even produced the sails of the ships . Most of the evidence for women’s roles comes from grave goods. Grave goods are the possessions the person owned during their lifetime, or represent that persons place or role in society. Nicolaysen’s barrow 113 is a good representation of a female grave. Found on the Norde Kaupang farm in southern Vestfold it contains the body of a female Viking who was cremated, which was typical for the Middle Viking Age. Her grave contained a spindle whorl (used in creating textiles), a horse bit and stirrups, cooking utensils, and the two oval brooches that marked every female Viking’s grave . Using the evidence of grave goods it can be determined that women’s roles in textile production was an important one.
Women could own property and gain inheritance. One of the most famous burials discovered was the Oseburg Ship Burial. Found in Norway, it contains two women as well as a ship, 12 horses, 2 oxen, and 4 dogs . This burial was massive, and was a demonstration of these women’s wealth and social standing. This can help historians conclude that women could gain an independent social ranking, and gain wealth separate from their husbands or fathers .
Another form of evidence for determining women’s status were runestones. A runestone is sort of like how we picture gravestones today, a marker that tells the story of the person who is buried there. Unlike our gravestones, runestones also tell about the person who paid for them to be made. One famous runestone is from Bro, Sweden. It was purchased by a woman named Inga, who had several runestones made to honor the deaths of her sons and two husbands. She tells how they died, and that they were honorable men . Her runestones also credited her sons and husbands for her inheritance. She gained a large amount of money, and she wanted to honor them for this. While this story is sad, it opens the door for historians to look at how inheritance passed down through families, and proved women could be first in line.
The Viking culture had strong ideas based on family and each member of the family had specific roles. Women helped care for the family’s farm and businesses. This is evidenced through graves of women and men . The way in which someone was buried also helps historians know the persons roles in life. Men were typically buried in boat burials, to show they had been out to sea and explored. Women were sometimes buried alongside the men, but it was rare to find a woman in boat grave by herself. The burial Ka. 259 Grave V holds a female in a boat burial .
Another thing many historians look into is the Viking Sagas. A Saga is a story that tells about a hero and their struggles, or the achievement of the society as a whole. While these Sagas are not truth, they can be used to learn about how Vikings lived and viewed each other. One saga called, “A Warrior Woman,” tells the story of the Viking woman Lagerda who helps the hero Ragnar in helping defeat his enemies. Because of her courage and strength Ragnar wants to marry her . This shows that the Vikings had positive stories about women as warriors.
The female Viking lived a life that was mainly focused on working in the household as well as running the family farm. They had several rights among the men through inheritance and marriage laws. These women helped Viking society in its success, and although often overlooked or misrepresented, had an important place in their society.
 Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991.
 Marianne Moen. The Gendered Landscape: A Discussion on Gender, Status and Power in the Norwegian Viking Age Landscape. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011.
 Marianne Moen. The Gendered Landscape: A Discussion on Gender, Status and Power in the Norwegian Viking Age Landscape. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011.
 Jesch, Judith. Women in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1991.
 Graham-Campbell, James, and Dafydd Kidd. “House and Home.” In The Vikings, 75–85. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1980.  Marianne Moen. The Gendered Landscape: A Discussion on Gender, Status and Power in the Norwegian Viking Age Landscape. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011.
Women in the Viking Age
Although women in the Viking Age (c. 790-1100 CE) lived in a male-dominated society, far from being powerless, they ran farms and households, were responsible for textile production, moved away from Scandinavia to help settle Viking territories abroad stretching from Greenland, Iceland, and the British Isles to Russia, and were perhaps even involved in trade in the sparse urban centres. Some were part of a rich upper class, such as the lady – perhaps a queen – who was buried in the ostentatious Oseberg ship burial in 834 CE, while on the other end of the spectrum, slaves, among them many women, were taken from conquered territories during the Viking expansion and integrated into Viking Age society.
As we are largely dependent on piecing together their lives mostly through burials, the accompanying grave goods, and the occasional runestone that mentions women (or was commissioned by one), we know a fair amount about Viking Age women's clothing, jewellery, and personal items but much less about their effective 'power' or the status they held. In a landscape where small rural communities or even remote self-sustaining farmsteads were the norm, however, the domestic tasks that were mainly the domain of women were clearly far from unimportant. In some cases, while their men were away trading, or pillaging monasteries and scaring monks around the Northern European coasts, the wives who stayed behind likely took over control of the farm for a while. Moreover, over the past few years, the possible existence of female Viking warriors has been discussed a lot – adding high-pitched battle-screams to an otherwise very bearded scene – but the evidence is quite controversial and inconclusive.
Clothing & Jewellery
One of the less cloudy areas when it comes to the lives of women in the Viking Age is their clothing and jewellery. Courtesy of burials and their accompanying grave goods, we know that most women seem to have worn outfits comprised of two or three layers, the first of which being a linen or woollen sleeved shift or underdress fastened at the neck with a small disc brooch and sometimes pleated there, too. On top of this, a strapped gown or overdress was worn, made of a rectangular piece of usually wool which was wrapped around the body and held up by shoulder straps which at the front of the dress were pinned down by two oval brooches.
These oval brooches, also known as tortoise brooches, are typical for Viking Age material culture, and when one finds such brooches in graves, a Scandinavian link is usually present. They varied hugely in style more than 50 styles have been identified, and, as Neil Price explains, "the differences may reflect changes in fashion, but it is more likely this enormous diversity shows an arcane language of class and regional affiliation we can no longer understand." (Fitzhugh & Ward, 36). Alternatively, box brooches could also be used to fasten shawls and the likes. Both types of brooches were usually made of bronze and adorned with knotted patterns. The types of textiles held in place by them could vary greatly too, from simple domestic wool to fine oriental silk in trading hubs such as Birka in Sweden, where, interestingly, the varying qualities of cloth were often present in one and the same (rich) grave.
Besides these practical items, women in the Viking Age also wore necklaces, arm rings, and trefoil buckles (and trefoil brooches, made up of three 'arms' poking out, embellished with knotwork and/or filigree). Beads are also commonly found in their graves.
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Running the Household
Although a few trade centres did exist, Viking Age homes were mostly located in smaller rural hubs and at isolated farms where a large degree of self-sufficiency would have been needed to survive. A typical Viking Age house was made up of one long room with a central hearth and could be accompanied by a dairy, sheds, barns, and other outbuildings.
Mostly resigned to this domestic sphere, Judith Jesch remarks that "women living in rural areas in the Viking Age spent most of their time in the triangle of byre [cowshed], dairy and living quarters, providing their families with food and clothing" (41). Just as food had to be prepared from whatever raw state it came in – quite unlike running to the supermarket – textile production and the subsequent making of clothes were elaborate processes that almost all Viking Age women were involved in one way or another. In fact, the most common grave goods found in female graves from this period are spindle whorls, wool combs, and weaving battens, especially in the countryside. Other tasks that do not show up in the archaeological record in such a direct way but are traditionally associated with women are child-rearing and caring for the sick or the elderly, and we might also imagine women doing odd jobs around the farm or even some carpentry or leatherworking. How exactly children were brought up and whether girls were treated any differently from boys is unclear, although daughters could perhaps be given in marriage at an appropriate age.
Although subordinate to their husbands, like their contemporaries, women arguably had a good degree of responsibility and perhaps even control over the running of the household, as symbolised by the fact they were often buried with keys, and they were likely on occasion left in charge of matters while their husbands were away (or dead). Anne-Sophie Gräslund has even suggested farms were like firms, "run by husband and wife together, in which the work of both partners was of equal importance although different and complementary" (Sørensen, 260). It must be noted, though, that the people who owned such (larger) farms and their adjoining lands would have had considerable means and would likely have belonged to the upper classes within society they are not automatically reflective of all of Viking Age society. Throughout Viking Age society, though, marriage was a pivotal institution used to create new ties of kinship, also among Scandinavians and locals in conquered or settled areas, and, in line with the influence women could wield through their husbands, it seems unmarried women had very limited prospects. Before the advent of Christianity throughout Scandinavia and Viking territories around 1000 CE, concubinage (often connected to slavery), and plural marriages occurred at least among the royals.
In general, although it is hard to comment on the exact status of Viking Age housewives, we must remember their domestic role was a very central one and would not generally have gone unappreciated. The inscription found on a stone as Hassmyra (Vs 24) – the only verse found on a Swedish inscribed stone that commemorates a woman – certainly seems to confirm this:
The good farmer Holmgaut had this raised in memory of his wife Odindis.
A better housewife
will never come
to run the farm.
Red Balli carved
She was a good sister
There were a few trading centres in Viking Age Scandinavia where a lot more hustle and bustle must have gone on and where families would have lived slightly different lives than their more isolated and rural counterparts. The largest of these centres were Birka in Sweden, Ribe in Denmark, Kaupang in Norway, and Hedeby in present-day northern Germany (on the southern edge of Viking Age Denmark). Whereas in the countryside women were often buried with spindle whorls, female graves unearthed at Birka, for instance, hold needles, scissors, and tweezers, hinting at fine sewing, and even merchants' weights, scales, and coins.
These latter have been found not just around other urban centres in Scandinavia but also in Viking territories across what is now Russia, and have been taken to indicate that these women had been traders. Directly linking grave goods to actual activities in life is always a bit risky, though, as we do not know the intentions with which they were buried. Judith Jesch sensibly cautions that,
…we need to consider whether grave goods really represent the former lives of the dead, or whether some of them could not in fact have more of a symbolic function. The presence of weights in children's graves does not necessarily mean that they engaged in trading activities too. (Jesch, 21)
Instead, as has indeed been proposed by others, a woman buried with weights and scales may simply have belonged to a family of merchants rather than she herself having been an active merchant. As with many things regarding women in the Viking Age, we just do not have enough information to fill in such blanks or to paint a detailed picture of what exactly an urban Viking Age woman's life would have looked like. However, women in trade centres would certainly have been more directly connected with the wider world, not just through 'exotic' goods coming in but also through visitors. An account that relays how in the 9th century CE a Christian mission was sent to Birka and successfully converted the rich widow Frideburg and her daughter Catla, who then decided to travel to the Frisian market town of Dorestad, illustrates this.
If some women were indeed involved in trade, this might conceivably have placed them in the upper rungs of society or least given them means and status. The Viking Age's rich and powerful – a group which obviously was not exclusively male – peep through the gap of time and reach the modern world in a number of ways, such as the large runestones that were erected across Scandinavia, and burials ranging from just 'rich' to ones so over the top it leaves us no doubt as to the buried person's importance.
Runestones – unsurprisingly, big stones covered in runes and ornamentation usually erected to commemorate the dead – were normally commissioned by wealthy families, the runes speaking of their endeavours in life. Not only can one imagine women being important within these families, some stones were actually commissioned by women themselves (either jointly or alone), leaving an "impression of high social standing of a very few women" (Jesch, 49-50). Runestones also illustrate how important the inheritance of a woman was to facilitate the transfer of wealth from one family to another. Furthermore, some richly furnished female graves (and even boat graves) found in rural settings hint at women possibly climbing to high social positions there. In this same setting, we have already seen that women might have ended up running the farm in their husbands' absence.
Some 40 graves from Scandinavia and beyond have lent some credence to the idea, stemming from the texts and sagas related to the Viking Age, of the existence of female 'sorceresses'. Seiðr is a type of shamanistic magic mainly connected to women in the sources, who could be vǫlva (singular: vǫlur): powerful sorceresses with the power to see into the future and mainly associated with a staff of sorcery. Similar objects have been discovered in Viking Age burials and have clear symbolic overtones, perhaps even - according to one interpretation - functioning as metaphorical staffs used to 'spin out' the user's soul. These graves are often rich in terms of clothes and grave goods and include such things as amulets and charms, exotic jewellery, facial piercings, toe rings, and, in a handful of graves, even psychoactive drugs such as cannabis and henbane. How we might imagine these women's roles in society remains mysterious.
We also know of some royal female burials. Judith Jesch, mentioning the Oseberg boat burial (c. 834 CE) in which two women were buried in a lavishly decorated and furnished ship accompanied by lots of high-quality grave goods, explains how,
A few obviously royal burials that we have, such as Oseberg, cannot be mistaken for anything other than the monuments of persons with enormous status, wealth and power. Although they share characteristics with other Viking Age burials, they are really in a class of their own. (27)
Who exactly these women had been in life – queen and handmaiden, two aristocratic women related to each other, or otherwise – remains a puzzle but that at least one of them was of high status is beyond doubt.
Another woman of plentiful means was the late-9th-century CE Aud the 'deep-minded'. She is said to have been born to a Norwegian chieftain residing in the Hebrides and married a Viking who lived in Dublin. After the death of both her husband and son, she took over control of the family fortunes and arranged for a ship to take her and her granddaughters first to Orkney and the Faroes, to finally settle in Iceland. Here, she distributed land among her retinue, became an early Christian, as well as being remembered as one of Iceland's four most important settlers.
To top off the elite category, Viking Age queens existed, some on a smaller local scale (the big unified Scandinavian kingdoms did not fully crystallise until the end of the Viking Age), and some of them may have been very well-connected. All Viking Age women may, of course, have exercised influence through their husbands or sons – the more important they were, the more opportunities this might have entailed for the women at their sides.
Women As Settlers
In the wake of the Viking raids spilling across northern Europe and beyond, Viking territories sprung up as far apart as Greenland (and even Newfoundland in North America) and Russia. It is obvious that proper settlement is a hard thing to achieve without women, and female Viking Age burials – with their famous oval brooches – across these areas confirm their presence.
On the one hand, in the Vikings' initial raiding waves and military expeditions, it is both hard to picture women taking an active part and hard to find any evidence of this, although late-9th-century CE Anglo-Saxon and Frankish sources relate how Viking forces travelled together with their women and children, and archaeological finds at winter camps such as that at Torksey (England) reveal evidence of textile manufacture. Such families or camp-followers need not have been Scandinavian women, though the Viking armies raided both the continent and the British Isles and would likely have picked up at least some of the women from here. How common this scenario was is unclear, too.
On the other hand, more clarity arrives with the first proper settlement waves (times varied per Viking territory): Scandinavian immigrant families arrived in the British Isles in phases during the 9th and 10th centuries CE, while towards the end of the 9th century CE Iceland (and later, Greenland and beyond) were settled. These latter areas were fully Scandinavian (bar some influx of often female slaves, for example, taken from Ireland), while in the British Isles as well as through Russia there was more room for mixing with already-present people. On Orkney, for instance, the 9th- or early 10th-century CE burial of the so-called Westness Woman shows a Norse woman in her twenties along with her newborn child, buried with grave goods of a pair of bronze oval brooches as well as a Celtic pin among others. A rich Scandinavian female grave on the Isle of Man (the 'Pagan Lady of Peel') coupled with the c. 30 Christian runic monuments that are basically Celtic crosses with runic inscriptions (including both Norse and Celtic personal names) with Scandinavian-style ornamentation shows an even stronger image of a mixed community.
The famous Icelandic sagas of the 13th century CE, relaying stories set in the earlier Viking Age, add another possible layer of depth to the role of women they are shown as strong women taking action, stoking up revenge, standing up to their husbands or even engaging in fights. However, these sagas were composed way after the time they wrote about, from a different context, and it is too much of a stretch to directly extrapolate this image of women to the actual Viking Age.
Nevertheless, the 'strong Viking woman' runs wild in popular imagination. When Charlotte Hedenstierna‐Jonson published an article titled 'A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics' (2017), for instance, excitement seemed to overtake caution. The study discusses a Viking Age grave (Bj 581) found in Birka, Sweden in the 1800s CE, containing a skeleton alongside various weapons, horses and even a stallion seemingly the attributes of a warrior. The tested bones belonged to a woman, who was subsequently dubbed "the first confirmed female high‐ranking Viking warrior" (857) on the basis of there also being a set of gaming pieces present (which the authors equate to tactical and strategical knowledge).
Critics have noted that this assumption belongs more in the realm of speculation rather than actual fact. The skeleton had no traumatic injuries – not something one would expect from an active warrior – and showed no sign of strenuous physical activity. We must remind ourselves how difficult it is to link grave goods to a person's actual life – could this woman have been buried with this warrior's gear for another reason (perhaps symbolic)?
If more evidence along those lines comes to the fore regarding women, the story changes, but as of yet, it would appear the archaeological and historical evidence is not sufficient to confirm this Birka woman having been an active warrior. Here, too, the lives of women in the Viking Age remain more shrouded in mystery than that of their male counterparts.