A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics

A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics
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  • Body was first uncovered in 1880s, and skeletal traits suggested it was a woman
  • But, based on historical records, experts expected that it belonged to a male Viking
  • Now, an examination analyzed the DNA and found no Y chromosome – meaning it’s female
  • Body was buried with horses, weapons, and game pieces, indicating high rank
This is how the grave on Birka might have looked like where the female warrior was buried. Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 from Hjalmar Stolpe’s excavations at Birka in the late 19th century. (Stolpe 1889).
This is how the grave on Birka might have looked like where the female warrior was buried. Illustration by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of grave Bj 581 from Hjalmar Stolpe’s excavations at Birka in the late 19th century. (Stolpe 1889).

Viking era tales of fearsome female warriors fighting side-by-side with men have long aroused suspicions that women may, too, have dominated the war zone.

But, with little evidence to prove their presence, the thought has remained controversial, and many have dismissed it as folklore.

Now, for the first time, researchers have confirmed the existence of a female Viking warrior, using DNA retrieved from a tenth century skeleton buried in the Swedish Viking town, Birka.

Not only was she a professional fighter, but as she was discovered buried alongside two horses and surrounded by weapons, the experts say the Viking woman was once a high ranking officer who led troops into battle.

‘This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior,’ said Professor Mattias Jakobsson at Uppsala University’s Department of Organismal Biology.

The bones were first uncovered in the 1880s.

Despite morphological traits suggesting the skeleton was female, the nature of the grave – which contained a slew of weapons, including a sword and armour piercing arrows – led few specialists to assume the deceased Viking was male.

Inside the grave, they also found two horses (one mare, one stallion) and a full set of gaming pieces.

The inclusion of the latter stood as proof that the warrior had a knowledge of tactics and strategy, according to the researchers.

And, it emphasized that person’s role in life as a high ranking officer.

In the new study, published to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, specialists set out to confirm the sex of the Viking remains.

By analyzing DNA collected from the skeleton’s left canine and left humerus, the team found that the individual had two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome – or, in other words, the warrior was female.

‘The gaming set demonstrates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in fight,’ said Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Stockholm University, who led the study.

‘What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military pioneer, that happens to have been a woman.’

The team also conducted an isotope examination of the remains, which provided evidence of a traveling lifestyle.

This lines up what’s known about the society that dominated Northern Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries.

In addition to the genomic proof, which now confirms the sex, there are several skeletal traits that support the identification of the body as being female, including a broad notch in the hip bone and a wide preauricular sulcus – a feature of the pelvis.

And, the specialists note that the long bones are ‘thin, slender, and gracile,’ further adding to the proof. 

In life, the Viking woman stood just over 170 centimeters tall (5 feet, 6 inches).

WHO WERE THE VIKINGS?

Ships were a Viking’s most prized possessions. If a high born Viking did not die at sea he would be buried in a ship on land. 
Vikings did not want to die in bed as this would mean thy would end up in a foggy underworld called Niflheim.
But if they died in battle they would go to glorious Valhalla.
Vikings believed that the world was flat, surrounded by sea and help up by a giant ash tree called Yggdrasil.
They would only bathe once a week.
Viking women were highly regarded in Norse culture. They were free to choose their life partner and free to divorce. 

»Despite her role as a military leader, the Viking skeleton had no indications of trauma leading up to the time of her death, aged more than 30 years old.

But, they say this isn’t uncommon for the burials at Birka.

The new study now puts to rest a long running debate on the existence of female Viking warriors, the researchers explain.

‘Written sources mention female warriors occasionally,’ said Neil Price, a Professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, ’’however this is the first time that we have really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence.’ 

 

Despite skeletal traits suggesting the body was female, experts assumed the deceased Viking was male. ‘What we have studied was not a Valkyrie (pictured left) from the sagas but a real life military leader,' Hedenstierna-Jonson said. A reconstruction of the grave is pictured on right

Despite skeletal traits suggesting the body was female, experts assumed the deceased Viking was male. ‘What we have studied was not a Valkyrie (pictured left) from the sagas but a real life military leader,’ Hedenstierna-Jonson said. A reconstruction of the grave is pictured on right

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Jessica Saraceni has been a part of Histecho Since 2018, drawn to the site for its quirky character and through Articles about the Mysteries of earth and human behavior. previously, she was an assistant editor and Research fellow at Archaeology magazine, where she gained an appreciation for the field work. A master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental science from the Center for Archaeological Research, the University of Texas at San Antonio. She enjoys all forms of exercise; reading works by her favorite author, Haruki Murakami; and playing with her sons.